History in the wilderness

NEWCOMB – The story of one of the most important historic sites in the Adirondack Park is being told anew.

This fall, the ribbon was cut on the first phase on a series of trails, platforms and interpretive panels designed to highlight the former mining village of Adirondac, located at the end of a long, dead-end dirt road on the southern side of the High Peaks Wilderness. It’s a joint effort involving the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Open Space Institute, the town of Newcomb and other stakeholders.

There’s still more that has to be done to preserve and interpret the site, but those behind the effort are hopeful that their work will give people a better understanding of its importance and draw more visitors to the area.

“It’s a resource that was significant in at least regional history and, it could easily be argued, in state history in the sense of early industrial development in the state in the early 19th century,” said Charles Vandrei, DEC’s historic preservation officer.

‘A lucky accident’

In 2003, the Open Space Institute bought the 10,000-acre Tahawus Tract in the heart of the High Peaks region from N.L. Industries, a Texas-based mining conglomerate, for $8.5 million. The parcel included what OSI’s Katie Petronis described as valuable recreational assets like Henderson Lake, the Mount Adams fire tower and several trailheads that access the High Peaks Wilderness.

It also included Adirondac, sometimes called Tahawus, a former mining village that’s now a ghost town of dilapidated buildings and other structures. They may not look valuable, but historically, some are very important. There’s the McNaughton Cottage, where then-Vice President Teddy Roosevelt was staying in 1901 when he learned that President William McKinley was dying, leading to his famous “Midnight Ride” to the presidency. The property is also home to structures associated with the 19th century McIntyre Iron Works, none bigger than a hulking stone blast furnace that was left standing after the operation ceased in the 1850s and was slowly enveloped by the surrounding forest.

Vandrei said the fact that some of this old mining infrastructure can still be seen is what makes the property unique.

“There are a couple collapsed iron furnaces that you need to almost know what to look for or have them pointed out to you,” he said. “The one that’s obvious, with the signage around it, that’s the latest one. They began to build it in 1848, and they only ran it for a couple years.”

“Down in the wheel pit, where the water wheel was, all the hardware is still there. If you go around to other iron furnaces where the stone stack still exists, and there are a few of them in New York, that’s all that’s left. All the machinery and stuff that made it work was all salvaged and turned into bullets and battleships during World War I and II. This stuff wasn’t because it was just too far away. It’s just like a lucky accident that it survived.”

Saving the site

OSI planned to sell most of the 10,000 acres to the state for addition to the Forest Preserve, “but at the same time we realized there were these incredibly important historic structures,” Petronis said, “and we knew that if we transferred those structures to the state they would be nonconforming within the Forest Preserve. It would mean they would have to come down unless they were to get some sort of variance.”

OSI ultimately developed a subdivision plan that carved out several hundred acres from the 10,000-acre tract to preserve and interpret as a historic area.

“We retained just the areas around the structures and the structures themselves,” Petronis said. “The biggest piece is around what we call the historic core area, the old town of Adirondac and the blast furnace. That’s almost 200 acres. We wanted to keep both sides of the Hudson River around the town of Adirondac because some of the structures are on the other side of the river.”

Shoring up

Creating this historic area was just the beginning. Preserving and interpreting it would require time, labor and money. OSI started applying for grants and eventually secured funding from various state agencies and private foundations to perform what Petronis said was about $1 million in initial restoration work on McNaughton Cottage and the blast furnace.

“McNaughton Cottage was really just leaning,” Petronis said. “It looked like it was a couple years away from complete collapse.”

“The building had a huge hole in the foundation, a big hole in the roof and a hole that went from the roof to the foundation,” Vandrei said. “We managed to stabilize it. That was something DEC did. We went in there with timbers and propped it up.”

At the blast furnace, the trees that had grown up around the structure were cleared.

“It was collapsing from the inside out and we had to restabilize it,” Petronis said. “We put a cover on the top to keep the water out. That was the first phase of restoration of the blast furnace. We do still have additional work we need to do with the blast furnace and the wheel house, closer to the river.”

OSI secured a state grant to do that work, but it requires a 50 percent local match. Petronis said the organization has so exhausted its fundraising efforts in the area that it’s been tough to meet the match.

Interpreting the site

More recently, a master plan for the property has been developed with involvement from local stakeholders, state agencies and other nonprofits. An interpretive plan was crafted by artist and interpretive exhibit designer Robert McNamara to help tell the history of the site.

“We ended up coming up with a plan that called for improvements that would offer sort of a trail interpretive experience throughout the site, maintaining restoration of McNaughton Cottage, and using the cottage as a visitor center and ranger station, continued restoration of the blast furnace and interpretation of the whole area,” Petronis said.

Phase one of the interpretive plan, which cost about $250,000, wrapped up this fall. It includes a trail around the blast furnace and former wheel house building along the Hudson River, complete with observation decks and interpretive panels that explain how the furnace operated. The town of Newcomb built a parking area next to the road big enough to accomodate school buses. The next phase of work will take place a short distance up the road and focus on interpreting McNaughton Cottage and the site’s connection to the Hudson River.

There are other buildings on the property that were used by sportsmen’s clubs and, later, as housing when N.L. Industries had an active titantium mine nearby. Those structures aren’t considered historic, except for some of their foundations, so Petronis said they aren’t going to see any preservation work, at least for now.

“Some people think they should be taken down because they’re an attractive nuisance and a safety hazard,” Petronis said. “Other people feel very strongly that it enhances the visitor experience when you drive through there, you see this ghost town and it piques your curiosity. We’ve never been able to get a consensus for stakeholders, and so as a result we’ve just been letting them gradually collapse on their own.”

Significant history

Vandrei said he’s been involved with historic preservation efforts at Adirondac for 20 years.

“I look at it a number of different ways,” he said. “For one thing, a site like this can be a tourism attraction. A lot of people are interested in early industries, mills and ironworks and things like that. If you want people to come see it, you need to take care of it and make it accessible to people.

“On another level, this kind of place, it has the potential to teach us a lot of things about the human spirit. You think of these guys who tried to make it work in what many people would see as an impossible situation.

“It’s also a lesson in how people can reach too far,” Vandrei added. “They really tried to push the envelope on a lot of things and, in the end, weren’t successful.”

Petronis said many people drive by the old mining town on their way to hike in the High Peaks. Annually, DEC says more than 8,000 people sign in at the three trailheads off of the Tahawus road.

“Getting people, as they’re passing through, to understand that there’s this other really important uniquely Adirondack feature to the area is great,” Petronis said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.