Over 130 years ago, the writer Nessmuk (George Washington Sears) visited my great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher on Indian Point in 1883. Two weeks ago, I received an email from Will Madison, the great-great-great-grandson of Nessmuk. Will is retracing the canoe journey of his ancestor and arranged to meet me at Indian Point this past weekend. Please enjoy this video of our rendezvous and click at the end to support and share the campaign. Or contribute directly at http://igg.me/at/50acres
One mystery remains which my research has never fully solved. Why did the last two generations of our family have no knowledge of the original Thacher cabin? And why are there no photos or drawings of the cabin? Most importantly, why did the cabin disappear? Here is one surprising theory that could shed light on these questions.
The Thacher and FitzPatrick families are proud of our Irish heritage thanks to the courage of our grandfather Kenelm R. Thacher (KRT) choosing to marry Catherine Callahan. Family lore is that this act labeled KRT as the black sheep of the family given the unfortunate bigotry toward Irish Catholics by blue blood Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My Aunt Ellen spoke of certain Thacher family members crossing the street in downtown Albany, rather than conversing with her parents. It turns out that my grandfather was not the first Thacher to marry an Irish Catholic, nor was the resentment toward him the result of societal bigotry alone but rather a reflection of personal experiences.
After the death of our great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher 2nd (GHT2), his properties (including Thacher Island at Blue Mountain Lake, his summer residence in Manchester, VT, the mansion in Albany, NY, and the family business) were divided among his five sons. Our grandfather was given the least valuable undeveloped lands at Raquette Lake with its one room cabin and lean-to. We have often believed that our present day enjoyment of the beauty of Indian Point is the result of this bigotry.
Given this family lore, it was most surprising when my research discovered three facts completely contrary to a perceived bias against Irish Catholics.
- Reverend Henry Gabriels, President of St. Josephs’ Catholic Seminary in Troy, NY served Catholic mass at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point on July 11-14 in 1878.
- Mayor George Hornell Thacher Sr. (GHT1) secretly donated $100 dollars (about $3,000 today) each year for the construction of a new St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Albany from 1866 to 1869.
- In July 1887, after GHT’s death in February, Mrs. George Hornell Thacher hosted Reverend Henry Gabriels at Thacher Island in Blue Mountain.
Why would GHT1 have a strong personal connection to Reverend Henry Gabriels and so generously support the construction of St. Mary’s? GHT1 had attended the Princeton Seminary and served as a Presbyterian Minister from 1843 to 1847. Hardly a non-religious man, he was even less likely to find friendship with a Catholic.
The mystery began to unravel as I was researching another line of investigation regarding John Boyd Thacher 1st . Look at the last paragraph of this newspaper article regarding his funeral in 1909:
Our family never knew about and none of the official biographies of the Thacher family in Albany ever mentioned half-siblings. However, this gave me another epiphany. Ursula Jane Boyd Thacher, mother of JHT1 and GHT2, died in 1874. Clearly, the Mrs. George Hornell Thacher who hosted Rev. Gabriels in 1887 was GHT1’s second wife (incidentally also omitted from all official biographies).
Using the names of William A. Thacher and Mrs. J. W. Morris, I began searching for more information and came upon this startling information.
So GHT1 had remarried after his first wife’s death and started a second family with an Irish Catholic woman. Who was this Elizabeth Thacher from Ireland? What was her maiden name? The first clue came from an in memoriam to Mrs. J. W. Morris’ late husband which identified his wife as Mary Agnes Thacher.
GHT1’s daughter’s name led to a reference in the St. Peter’s Catholic Church of Troy’s online listing of church donations and gifts. Dr. J.W. Morris and Mrs. J. W. Morris had donated a church bell chime in memory of their daughter Gabrielle Mary Thacher Morris. In the same online listing, an “Eliza Thacher” had donated a stained glass window in memory of her father Matthew Toomey.
Based on the hunch that Elizabeth Thacher was originally Eliza Toomey, I pursued that name. As the 1860 US Census shows, Eliza Toomey, age 24, was a servant in George Hornell Thacher Sr.’s home in 1860.
So did GHT1 fall in love and marry Eliza Toomey after his first wife’s death? No, not as simple as that. Mary Agnes was born in 1866, a full eight years before Ursula Jane Boyd’s death in 1874. William was born in 1868.
It appears that Eliza moved away to birth the children out of the prying eyes of Albany society. Mary Agnes supposedly was born in Pittsfield, MA and William in nearby Canaan, NY. I have not yet found birth certificates nor baptismal papers for the children, nor a marriage certificate for GHT1 and Eliza. My suspicion is that the Rev. Henry Gabriels played a role in both aspects. While I have no proof, the strong, decades long personal friendship between Gabriels and Eliza Thacher leads me to believe that he secretly married the two sometime after GHT1’s first wife died. I find the timing of GHT1’s secret donations to the construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral an interesting coincidence. Might that have been compensation for private, off-the-record baptisms for the children in 1866 and 1868?
Even after GHT1’s death, Eliza continued to be a generous patron of the Catholic Church, such that her funeral was attended by several bishops and officials from different dioceses from across the State. Conjecture to be sure, but is it surprising that the Rev. Gabriels, possessing knowledge of a damning personal secret of one of the wealthiest political families in New York State, became the Bishop of Ogdensburg in 1892?
It appears that GHT1 continued his affair for over a decade. While we do not know exactly when they married, it must have been after his first wife’s death in 1874. We do know that the 1875 NYS Census shows GHT1 maintaining two households, one on Washington Avenue in Albany accompanied by his late wife’s sister, and one at 65 Grand Division Street in Troy where he resided with Eliza and the children.
Although they appear in the census, I believe GHT1 was attempting to keep this second family a secret from the Albany society. Nothing was published in the press actually naming Elizabeth Thacher nor identifying the children as being the son and daughter of GHT1 until after his death in 1887.
GHT1’s last will and testament makes no mention of nor bequeaths anything to Eliza or the children. In addition, his sons John Boyd and George Hornell, Jr., prepared a legal document by which Eliza signed away any rights she had to her late husband’s estate. A cruel act, I thought, until I learned that prior to his death GHT1 had provided for Eliza and the children’s future by giving her a sizable fortune in railroad company stock. It is unknown how much of the family wealth went to Eliza, but it could easily explain the apparent resentment that George Hornell Jr. displayed toward the second family and his future disdain for his son’s (my grandfather’s) wife Catherine Callahan.
Which brings us back to the Adirondacks. According to the History of Hamilton County, John Boyd Thacher “built a cabin for the use of his father,” in 1867 on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. An interesting choice of words by the authors Aber and King? Could it be that the island was purchased specifically for GHT1 to have a place to spend time with his secret second family, one year after Mary Agnes’ birth?
Although the deed to Thacher Island is in John Boyd Thacher’s name, there is little evidence of his using the lodge there until after 1876, when he also purchased Indian Point on Raquette Lake. John Boyd appears to be the owner of Indian Point in name only. I have not found any evidence that he ever spent time there.
Conversely, the evidence shows that his father, Eliza, Mary Agnes and William regularly stayed at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point. According to the historian Larry Miller, it was common for the camp owners on Raquette to end their long day of travel by train, stage coach and steamer at Ike Kenwell’s Raquette Lake House on Tioga Point for the night and then move to their private camps the next morning.
Entries for GHT1 and his second family appear at least two times in Ike Kenwell’s guest registry, July 8, 1882 is shown below.
We also have letters written by GHT1 to his son George Jr. from the Thacher Camp on Indian Point referencing the children’s nicknames Willie and Mamie.
I believe that GHT1’s move from Blue Mt. Lake to Raquette Lake in 1876 may indicate that was the year that he revealed his second family to his sons. Perhaps the sons’ less than charitable response required GHT1 to build a new cabin at Raquette while John Boyd and George Jr. continued to use Thacher Island on Blue Mt. Lake.
While he may have come out to his sons, I believe GHT1 still wanted Albany society to be in the dark about his new family. This could explain why the land on Indian Point was put in John Boyd’s name. While most of the other private camps on Raquette Lake at the time appeared on maps and in the photos of Seneca Ray Stoddard, the Thacher Camp was notably absent.
The property on Indian Point appears to have been abandoned between 1886 and 1910, and the original Thacher Camp cabin disappeared without a trace. At the time of their father’s death in 1887, John Boyd established a summer residence in Altamont, NY and George Jr. began to summer in Manchester, Vt. I suspect that they associated the Adirondack camps with Eliza and her family.
We may never know the truth but fortunately, all trace of the second family was not lost. Last summer I hosted Nancy Morris Tuthill, the great-great-granddaughter of George and Eliza, at our cabin on Indian Point. It is fitting that this descendent of Eliza, who brought the Thachers to the Adirondacks, is a resident of Lake Placid.
While I feel that our story has come full circle and our history on Indian Point is now understood, I will forever be searching for just one photo of the original Thacher Camp on Indian Point.
Alvah Dunning was perhaps the most famous of Raquette Lake guides, alleged to have helped lead the first excursion of sportsmen to Raquette Lake at age eleven. Born in Lake Piseco in 1816, he lived there until 1860 when his neighbors’ rightful condemnation of his abuse of his wife forced him to flee. 1 From that moment, he chose to remove himself from society in favor of the freedom of the wilderness. Yet civilization’s constant barrage upon him eventually brought him to a tragic end.
Reverend Thomas Wall described the man from his 1856 excursion to the region:
Dunning…is a very close imitation of some of [Fenimore] Cooper’s models [of the Leatherstocking Tales]– silent, stealthy in movement, full of resources; he could almost speak the language of the animals. I have seen him, by a peculiar chipper, call a mink from its hiding place in the rocks and shoot it, and have known him to bring a deer back into the water by bleating and making the noise of wading. Dunning was a true sportsman, never allowing more fish or game to be taken than was needed…Indeed, his excellence, when in his prime, was so generally known that it excited much of the enmity with which he was regarded by some, for if he could be had he was always first choice. 2
Dunning’s woodsman skills were learned from his father, “Scout” Dunning, who had served under General William Johnston and perfected his woodcraft during the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. These skills served Alvah well as he fled civilization for Lake Lewey and later settled in Blue Mountain Lake. 3
According to Dr. Arpad Gerster, the growing attraction of wealthy sports to Blue Mountain Lake soured the tranquility that Dunning sought. 4 My great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher began visiting Blue in 1862 seeking his own solitude and yet he represents the first wave that drove Alvah further west. Ironically, GHT followed Alvah’s footsteps to the same spot 15 years later driven by the growth of tourist hotels on Blue.
Several sources state that Dunning lived at Indian Point on Raquette Lake between 1865 and 1868. My research indicates that he likely squatted in the first of two cabins built by William Wood, the one nearest the very tip of the southern fork of the peninsula. During this time, ownership of the cabin and a small parcel of land surrounding it changed between Albert Eldred and John Plumley, both of whom lived elsewhere. Plumley lived in Long Lake and being well acquainted with Alvah, it is conceivable that he allowed this use of his land by Dunning. 5
Of his many clients, we know that one visitor of note in the summer of 1865 was Fred Mather, who later became the fisheries editor of Forest and Stream magazine. For two weeks, he stayed with Dunning on Indian Point and fished for trout in Raquette and Brown’s Tract Inlet. 6
Mather later described him in his book My Angling Friends;
Only men who possess strongly marked personalities are capable of making strong friends and as equally strong enemies…it seems that Alvah is well liked by sportsmen whom he has served…Others dislike him, and among Adirondack guides he is, for some reason, the most unpopular man in the woods.
The enmity of other guides was also stoked by Dunning’s fierce belief in his right to unfettered use of the land and to kill game any time of year. Mather writes of visiting Dunning again in 1882 when Alvah complained;
Times is different now, an’ wus. In them days nobody said a word if a poor man wanted a little meat an’ killed it, but now they’re a-savin’ it until the dudes get time to come up here an’ kill it, an’ some of ’em leave a deer to rot in the woods, an’ on’y take the horns ef it’s a buck, or the tail ef it’s a doe, just so’s they can brag about it when they go home, an’ they’d put me in jail ef I killed a deer when I needed meat. I dunno what we’re a-comin’ to in this free country. 7
Although praised and sought after by the wealthy for his guiding skills, Dunning did not return the appreciation, complaining to Mather,
These woods is a-gittin’ too full o’ people fer comfort—that is, in summer time ; fer they don’t bother the trappin’ in the winter; but they’re a-runnin’ all over here in summer a-shootin’ an’a-fishin’, but they don’t kill much, nor catch many fish ; but they git in the way, an’ they ain’t got no business here disturbin’ the woods. 8
There is no small irony in the fact that the writings of Mather, in Forest and Stream, brought an even greater number of adventurers into the Adirondacks. Forest and Stream became a prominent voice championing the forest conservation and game regulations that infringed upon Dunning’s freedom.
Dunning continuously moved around the area. He allegedly purchased Osprey Island on Raquette Lake from John Plumley in 1868, sharing the island with Reverend Adirondack Murray to the early 1870s. 9
He then built a cabin at Brown’s Tract Inlet and later the one shown below on an island on Eighth Lake.
Mather attempted to remain in contact with Alvah as late as 1896 according to this classified placed in Forest and Stream.
While Mather and other writers in the popular press always expounded on Dunning’s expertise, they also often portrayed the man as a simpleton, condescendingly alluding to his lack of understanding that the earth is round, the reasons for tides, and giving Alvah’s voice a foolish dialect.
A popular fable about Dunning claims that he sold his vote for President Grover Cleveland in the fall of 1892 in exchange for two boxes of Cleveland Baking Powder. The true story is more complex but equally amusing. Dunning had guided for Cleveland in the summer of 1892. Prior to Cleveland’s second inauguration in March of 1893, the Fort Orange Club of Albany, NY, hosted a celebratory dinner for the president-elect. James Ten Eyck, President of the Club and owner of a rustic lodge at North Point on Raquette Lake, contacted Ike Kenwell to procure the freshest trout for the dinner. Kenwell, who had previously owned the Raquette Lake House at Tioga Point on Raquette Lake, contracted Alvah Dunning for the task. Dunning caught 35 pounds of brook trout through the frozen ice of Shallow Lake. Rather than be paid for the trout, Alvah decided to make a trade. Erroneously believing the newly inaugurated President was associated with the Cleveland Baking Powder company, he wrote:
Dear Sir: Some time ago Ike Kenwell asked me to get you twenty-five pounds of brook trout. I done so. He offered to pay me, but I did not take any pay. Just now I am out of baking powder and would be very much obliged if you would send me some.
President Cleveland graciously sent two cases of one pound boxes to Alvah. 10
News of his exploits often made the press. In the winter of 1894 came a report of his unfortunate death. Forest and Stream magazine reported that Alvah had fallen on the ice of Raquette Lake and cracked his skull. He was brought to William S. Durant’s Camp Pine Knot where a doctor attending him said he would not recover. The magazine lamented “That such a man should, after long years of peril by field and flood, come to his death by a fall on the ice such as one might get on Broadway, is one of the ironical phases of fate.” 11 Fortunately for Alvah, the news of his demise was premature and he recovered to live another eight years.
His actual death was equally ironic. On the night of June 13, 1902, the 86 year old Alvah Dunning spent the night in a hotel in Utica, NY. Continuing their condescending tone, the press reported that Dunning died because he “blew out the light” on the gas lamp in his room and was asphyxiated by the gas. A more accurate account is given in Forest and Stream magazine, which noted that the cock on the gas lamp was left one quarter open. It appears that Alvah had closed it enough so that the flame of the lamp died but that he did not seal the valve shut. 12
Modern civilization, which he had sought to escape all his life, tragically ended that life.
Few fully understand what the Adirondack wilderness really is. It is a mystery even to those who have crossed and recrossed it by boats along it avenues, the lakes; and on foot through its vast and silent recesses…In this remote section, filed with the most rugged mountains, where unnamed waterfalls pour in snowy tresses from the dark overhanging cliffs…the adventurous trapper or explorer must carry upon his back his blankets and heavy stock of food. Yet, though the woodsman may pass his lifetime in some of the wilderness, it is still a mystery to him. 1
Verplanck Colvin, Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey
Between 1872 and 1900, perhaps no man traversed the Adirondacks more than Verplanck Colvin. Russell Carson said, “With limitless enthusiasm and boundless devotion, he was exploring, surveying, mapping, and sketching the mountains, valleys, lakes and streams of the region, and writing voluminous reports and papers about them.” 2 Through his sheer personal will, he succeeded in lobbying the state legislature to appropriate funds for the Adirondack Survey and appoint him to the task. His explorations led to the discovery of Lake Tear of the Clouds as the source of the Hudson River and the first accurate elevations for Mt. Marcy and dozens of other regional peaks.
To map and describe this wonderful region, correcting the errors of early surveyors, and thus furnish a most important contribution to the physical geography of the State, is of course the primary purpose of undertaking the survey. But Mr. Colvin’s elaborate and interesting reports have been largely instrumental in calling the attention of the public to the attractions of the Adirondack wilderness both for the sportsman and the general tourist, and to the importance of taking any measures that may be necessary to preserve it forever as a mammoth pleasure ground. 3
1880 Editorial in The Cultivator and Country Gentleman
Indeed, Verplanck Colvin’s speech at Lake Pleasant in 1868 is credited as the first public advocacy for the preservation of the region as a state park. His later correspondences and reports illustrated his argument:
The Adirondack wilderness contains springs which are the sources of our principal rivers, and the feeders of the canals. Each summer the water supply for these rivers and canals is lessened…The immediate cause has been the chopping and burning off of vast tracts of forest in the wilderness, which have hitherto sheltered from the sun’s heat and evaporation the deep and lingering snows, the brooks and rivulets, and the thick, soaking sphagnous moss which, in times knee-deep, half water and half plant, forms hanging lakes upon the mountain sides…It is impossible for those who have not visited this region to realize the abundance, luxuriance and depth which these peaty mosses – the true source of our rivers – attain under the shade of those dark northern evergreen forests…The remedy for this is an Adirondack park or timber preserve. 4
While Colvin’s impact on the creation of the Adirondack Park is his most lasting achievement, his development of new survey techniques and technology should not be overlooked. It his efforts to unravel the mystery of the forest through detailed mapping that I find fascinating.
Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly. Colvin used this method to map the Adirondacks using a series of mountain top signal stations.
Colvin was not one to avoid harsh and arduous effort in his attempts to map the Adirondacks. Notably, he did not retire to his Albany office in the dead of winter but rather used the frozen lakes to his advantage.
In February 1877, he came to Raquette Lake, as described by The Colvin Crew based on his field notes,
to establish a horizontally measured sub-baseline that could be used to strengthen his primary triangulation network of the Adirondack Mountains. This necessitated finding two points on the shore of Raquette Lake that would allow for the longest possible distance measured. Additionally, both points had to be visible from West Mountain and Blue Mountain. Following standard procedure, Bolt 69 was set on the south shore of Raquette Lake at a location known as Otter Point. With the ice cleared of snow, vertical wood stakes were set into the ice to act as guides in keeping the tape straight. The 1,000 feet long steel “ribbon” was then stretched northerly with metal “ice blocks” being used at the intermediate chaining points for a total distance of 14,571.95 feet. The northerly terminus of this line was marked with a copper plug set in a small rock located at the northeast end of Needle Island. 5 [approximated in the author drawn map shown below]
Observations from the end point of such baselines to the mountain top signal stations required Colvin to devise two tools that advanced the accuracy of his methods. The Stan Helio is a spinning pyramid of shiny tin plates that reflect sunlight, providing a bright flash that could be seen in the daytime from twenty-five to thirty miles away with the naked eye and even farther through a telescope.
Being able to see the mountain top signal stations from wherever his surveying teams were working was one piece of the puzzle. The other is for the surveying teams to accurately know exactly where they were when they observed the nearest signal station.
Determining a location’s longitude and latitude whether by the arc of the sun in day or by stars at night requires that one know the precise time of observation. The accuracy of Colvin’s surveying depended on all of his field teams synchronizing their timepieces to Albany’s Dudley Observatory time.
Here my research took an interesting turn when I discovered that Colvin’s solution to time synchronization involved my family. In August 1876, Colvin established an observation station on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. It was from here that he first observed the use of a nighttime powder charge flash signal that would communicate the accurate time to surveyors far afield. As he described
A supply of powder for the signal station time-flash had been sent to the mountain, and at a little before 9 P.M. we took up our station on a point commanding in the day-time view of the distant peak, and prepared to compare our watches with the chronometer signal. As we counted the seconds a bright flash illuminated the darkness, showing the mountain-top fairly, as lit by distant lightning. We found our time accurate, and were now satisfied that this method of distributing the Observatory time to the parties would be an entire success if the atmospheric conditions were favorable. 6
I was intrigued to know why Colvin would have used Thacher Island, when a point along the shoreline would have served just as well and eliminated the effort of rowing boxes of equipment out to the island. I knew that Colvin was from Albany, but did he know the Thacher family? My early hopes of a connection seemed dashed by viewing Colvin’s Reconnaissance Map of Tallow or Blue Mountain Lake, which incorrectly spelled our name as Thatcher. A family friend would never commit such an error.
I delved deeper into the accuracy of the map and found that the spelling was an inaccurate correction made by the printer. In Colvin’s own handwritten field notebooks, he repeatedly spells the name correctly.
Triangulation uses math to discover what cannot be readily seen and measured by comparing different points in relation to a baseline. I wondered whether an analogous method of drawing connections between points in time in the lives of Verplanck Colvin and the Thachers might answer my question.
The history of Albany provided the first clues. Verplanck Colvin and John Boyd Thacher were both born in 1847. Colvin’s father Andrew J. Colvin was the State Senator from Albany in 1860-1861 (the same seat occupied by JBT twenty-three years later) at the same time that George Hornell Thacher was the Mayor of Albany; both were prominent Democrats. 7 So their fathers were clearly acquainted, but did the boys know each other? Hilary Johnson King, archivist of Albany Academy, discovered that both boys were classmates in a group of forty students for three years (1858-1861). 8
The Thachers began to explore the Adirondacks in 1862 and established their summer home on Blue Mountain Lake in 1867. Verplanck Colvin began his explorations of the region in 1865. We have no correspondence or other evidence that John Boyd Thacher and Colvin were more than acquaintances in their youth. Colvin does not make reference to the Thachers in describing his earliest camping trips to the region, and yet it is hard to believe he did not consult with the first family from Albany to establish a base in the region.
I found that JBT’s and Colvin’s lives repeatedly intersected throughout the years.
All of these intersecting points prove that the two men knew each other, but were they friends? Only after JBT’s death do I find evidence that it would appear so.
In 1869, Colvin was the first to bring national attention to an area of scenic beauty and scientific value with his writing and hand-drawn illustrations in Harper’s Magazine 14
To those who desire to escape for a day from the oven-like city in summer; who wish to enjoy a scramble among the romantic cliffs, in shady woods, beside cool mountain brooks and waterfalls; to view spots sacred to legends of wild Revolutionary days, of Tory and Indian depredation, naming place, precipice, and mountain…
One might think that Colvin was once again writing about the Adirondacks here, but the quote continues…
to gather the fossil corals and shells… to visit and explore known caves… among the cliff ledges, the “Indian Ladder” region of the Helderbergs offers superior inducements.
The Helderberg Escarpment lies about twenty miles to the west of Albany and a two hour drive in 1869 when Colvin used the site as his training ground. The cliffs and fields served as a laboratory where Colvin perfected the self-taught surveying techniques that he applied to the Adirondacks. 15
Beginning in 1903, John Boyd Thacher purchased 300 acres along this escarpment to preserve its invaluable fossil record and intrinsic scenic beauty. After his death, JBT’s wife, Emma Treadwell Thacher, donated the lands to create what today is known as John Boyd Thacher State Park. 16
We might easily assume that Colvin influenced JBT to preserve these lands. However, unlike my previous “triangulations”, no assumption is required here. Within the 1915 annual report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, a description of the 1914 Dedication Ceremony for the park lists Verplanck Colvin as one of eight dignitaries who enjoyed lunch with Mrs. Thacher at her Altamont estate prior to the ceremony. 17
This is notable for two reasons. None of the numerous daily newspaper articles describing the ceremony mention Colvin’s presence, and he did not speak at the ceremony itself. Having been unceremoniously and a bit scandalously fired from his state position in 1900 by Governor Teddy Roosevelt, Colvin faded into a life of obscurity, became depressed and lived in hermit-like seclusion in his home in Albany. 18
His respected place of inclusion in Mrs. Thacher’s plans for the dedication is, I believe, proof of a lifelong friendship with John Boyd Thacher and furthermore, evidence that Verplanck Colvin deserves credit as the father of two glorious state parks.
This article in the June 21, 1915, Syracuse Post-Standard was the first anyone in our family had heard of the role our property on Indian Point played in the evolution of early forestry education in the United States. 1
The August Forest Camp was a miniature village of 9×9 tents where approximately twelve boys and men lived while participating in morning instruction and afternoon fieldwork. The month long program included elementary forestry, zoology, botany and fungi courses taught by prominent U. S. pioneers of forestry science. An old Adirondack guide also taught a week of Woodcraft “such as a man should know who wishes to spend any length of time in the woods”. 2
The Camp brochure noted,
any young man over fifteen years of age and in good physical condition may attend the Camp… [which] is equipped with a motor boat and a number of guide boats and canoes and it is expected that every man will learn to swim if he does not know how… The entire cost of the Camp will be $50.00 [that] covers instruction, rental of tents, cots and boats and board… It will be understood that plain wood’s fare and plenty of it will be given as board. It cannot be expected that table will be supplied with fresh vegetables and other things easily obtainable in the cities but often difficult to get in the woods. No refund will be made for absence from mess. 3
Unfortunately, Flora Nyland, College Archivist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, has found no documents or photos relating to the August Forest Camp on Raquette Lake. There appears to be a conspicuous absence of sources describing the camp during or after August 1915. The archives only have material describing the summer camp for students of the College, which has been held at the 1,800-acre forest station in Wanakena on Cranberry Lake since 1912. Nyland suggested that perhaps the August Forest Camp had been planned for Raquette Lake but eventually held at Wanakena instead. 4
My search for other evidence of the August Forest Camp at Raquette Lake led to this article from the Herald Dispatch of Utica dated August 1st. 5
The northern shore of Indian Point is on North Bay, but this article is from 1900. Had George Hornell Thacher offered our land for a State Forestry Camp as early as 1900?
It turns out that Raquette Lake was ground zero for the political debate over the survival of the 1895 “Forever Wild” Amendment to the New York State Constitution. In 1896, Colonel William F. Fox, Superintendent of New York’s state-owned forests, began a campaign to repeal the amendment. He believed that the electorate had erred in passing the amendment due to their lack of knowledge of conservative, science-based modern forestry. Fox believed that a successful demonstration forest could educate the voters as to his vision of sustainable forest management and exploitation of the timber in the state forest preserves as an alternative to preservation. 6
Fox persuaded the state legislature and Governor Black to establish the New York State College of Forestry within Cornell University in 1898, the first four-year forestry degree program in the United States. The College of Forestry was also given a tract of 30,000 acres near Saranac Lake. Dr. Bernard Fernow, the dean of the college, attempted to create a nursery and managed forest out of the tract. 7
Fox was also instrumental in the 1900 application by the NY Forest, Fish and Game Commission to the federal Division of Forestry for the creation of a forest working-plan that could show the potential for modern forestry practices within the Adirondack Forest Preserve. “A Forest Working Plan for Township 40, Totten and Crossfield Purchase, Hamilton County, New York State Forest Preserve” by Ralph S. Hosmer and Eugene Bruce is the result of this effort. 8
While forest working plans had been created for the private Adirondack forest preserves of Seward Webb’s Nehasanee Park and the Whitney Preserve, this effort was the first in the nation concerning public lands. It was the first to combine a lumberman’s perspective with that of a forester’s survey of the forest. 9 As Hosmer stated, “The foresters made actual surveys, gridironing the tract, carefully measuring the trees in diameter, and estimating the heights; so that with so-called volume tables showing the board contents of the logs…very accurate estimates could be made as to what was standing on the land.” 10
The base of operations for Hosmer and his team was the State forestry camp noted as “on the North Bay of Raquette Lake”, but I could not find a description of the campsite’s exact location. However, I did see a name I recognized: H. S. Meekham, one of the State foresters on the project. 11
The 1900 Lumbering Map of Township 40 created by the same H. S. Meekham hangs on our living room wall. The location of the campsite is clearly marked as “Forester’s Point”, east of what today is called Quaker Beach.
The forest working plan for Township 40 was never implemented because the effort to repeal the “Forever Wild” amendment failed, as did the original College of Forestry itself. Wealthy New Yorkers owned private summer camps in Saranac Lake adjoining the forestlands that Prof. Fernow clear-cut to prepare his demonstration forest. The camp owners sparked a newspaper outcry over mismanagement of the forestlands (their hunting grounds) and ultimately persuaded the new Governor Odell to defund the entire College of Forestry in 1903. 12
It was not until 1911 that a new State College of Forestry was established at Syracuse University with a mandate for forest conservation. Louis Marshall, father of the renowned wilderness conservationist Bob Marshall, was the university trustee who lobbied Governor Hughes for a professional college of forestry in the state saying,
one of the greatest duties of State and National Governments is that of conserving our natural resources. The State of New York…[has] millions of acres of forest lands which are in constant jeopardy, and which is beginning to suffer the consequences of the evils of deforestation…[The State] is under an imperative duty to call a halt to the wild rage for destruction which seems to grow by what it feeds upon. 13
The new College created the State Ranger School and the Summer Camp for the College’s four-year degree students at Wanakena on Cranberry Lake. However, the August Forest Camp was indeed a separate program, as this 1916 advertisement in American Forestry magazine shows. 14
The four-week Forest Camp is one of the earliest examples of a career exploration program for high school youth as well as an adult learning vacation designed to build a political constituency that would advocate for forest conservation.
The College’s bulletin described it thus:
The August Forest Camp has been very successful in its purpose which has been the development of the Forestry attitude among men who are interested in the forest and yet who do not expect to be connected in any way with forestry work. It is not the idea of the Camp to train foresters and the College prefers that the men who go into the Camp come from offices, from other walks of life, to which they will return with renewed interest in and a right attitude toward the forest. In some instances young men who are thinking of going into Forestry but have not decided will find the Camp a very desirable place to let them decide definitively. 15
The first August Forest Camps were held in 1913 and 1914 at Hoel Pond just north of Upper Saranac Lake. Although a beautiful landscape, the pond was not ideal for gaining access to virgin forest. Raquette Lake was chosen for “being in the midst of a very large tract of State land and the lake is so connected with the chain of other lakes that very attractive canoe trips may be taken [for] carrying out the field work.” 16
This innovative camp was held on our family’s property in 1915 and 1916, a successful endeavor that was ended by the onset of World War I. Alas, just like the original Thacher cabin of the 1880s, neither detailed descriptions nor photos of these two August Forest Camps appear to have survived.
When I walk the land around Matthew Beach’s original hut and William Wood’s shanty, I imagine the Abenaki Indian guide Mitchell Sabattis pulling into their landings in a canoe or guideboat made by his own hand. Indian Point was a waypoint for many a traveler boating through the Central Adirondacks.
While it is impossible to know how often Sabattis visited these acres, we have written record of at least 3 occasions: his trips with Joel Tyler Headley in 1844-46, accompanying C. W. Webber in 1849, and an expedition of women who explored the region in 1873 (beautifully told in Barbara McMartin’s book To the Lake of the Skies)
Sabattis guided for my great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher in 1862 as they explored the region from a base camp Sabattis had on Crane Point on Blue Mountain Lake. However, even if Thacher travelled to Raquette Lake as early as 1862, it is unlikely that he spent a night on Indian Point. Sabattis maintained a campsite from 1852 to 1877 on Watch Point according to Ken Hawks, who now owns the property.
A member of the St. Francis tribe of Abenaki Indians, Mitchell Sabattis was born in Parishville, St. Lawrence County in 1823. He began to accompany his father Captain Peter Sabattis on hunting expeditions at the age of seven. At eleven, he was one of the earliest settlers in Long Lake, moving there with his father in the early 1830’s. Over a life of 83 years, he and his wife Elizabeth raised five sons and a daughter. He was a founding member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Long Lake. In 1865, he raised funds to build the church where he frequently played the violin, sang and preached. When not working as a guide he tended to a 20-acre farm on his 160-acre homestead.
Much has been written about Sabattis as the legendary Adirondack Guide, but I am intrigued by his abilities as a boat builder. The historian Alfred Donaldson claimed that Sabattis created the first guide boat around 1849. Subsequent historians have debated different people as the originator of the idea for the guideboat’s design. Nonetheless, Hallie Bond says in Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks, “The guideboat did not spring full-blown from the forehead of Mitchell Sabattis, or anyone else for that matter, but Sabattis, living in the center of early guideboat development, may well have had a hand in its evolution.”
The earliest tale of Sabattis describes his skill in building another type of boat – a spruce bark canoe like the one shown here.
In 1843, John MacMullen and his friend Jim R. were rescued along the Raquette River by Mitchell Sabattis, who was travelling with two men (one is presumed to have been his father Peter), two women and a baby. For one day all eight crammed into Sabattis’ birch bark canoe, which barely stayed afloat with the water only three inches below the gunwales. Upon reaching a cabin on the shores of Tupper Lake, Sabattis decided to construct a spruce bark canoe to carry four of the men. MacMullen described the process in The Evening Post of New York in 1880:
This kind of craft is made of a single piece of bark while a birch canoe is made of many pieces fastened together. The process of making our canoe was very interesting. A fine large spruce tree about a foot and a half in diameter was chosen that grew in an open space near the river and had fifteen feet of good thick bark without break or knot-hole. The tree was cut down, [they] relieved one another in the work, a ring was cut through the bark along the trunk. ‘Spuds’ were made, and the whole clear sheet of bark, fifteen feet long and four feet wide, was laid upon the ground with the inner side down.
[Captain Peter Sabattis] then cut away a slender triangular piece of the thick outer bark, about six inches at the base and about three feet from each end, leaving the flexible inner bark to fold over so that when the corners were brought together and the ends closed up the bow and stern might both be somewhat higher out of the water, and the sides need not sag out so much in the middle.
The ends of our boat were sewed up with the roots of the spruce tree. These slender roots or rootlets can be had of six feet in length and running from a quarter of an inch down to a point. The smaller part is taken to use as thread. A hole is made in the bark with a sharp stick and the rootlet thus inserted… The spruce gum is used to make the inside of the seam water-tight. Thus this tree supplied for our boat bark, thread and gum…
Long, narrow pieces of cedar… fifteen feet long by two inches wide, and only three quarters of an inch thick, [were] split almost as smoothly as if they had been sawed. These pieces were used as gunwales and tied on with strips of tough and flexible bark passed through punched holes. Strips of wood thin enough to bend were cut just of the proper length and then forced in so that they followed the curve of the boat, their strong crosspieces also ran athwart between the gunwales to stiffen the craft…This ‘naval construction’ took the best part of two days.”
Discussing the origins of the Adirondack guideboat, John Duquette wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: “To avoid the solid weight of a skiff or dory, it was necessary to experiment with a skeletal frame sheathed with light but strong material. The frame consisted of a bottom board with ribs that were bent or steamed to fit an outer shell. Ribs that were bent had a tendency to warp which resulted in a distortion of the hull. An alert Adirondacker noticed that an uprooted spruce tree disclosed a natural crook where the root grew out from the base of the tree. Here was a strong resilient piece of wood in a shape that required no bending.”
While a spruce bark canoe does not use solid pieces of spruce root wood for ribbing, Sabattis would have been keenly aware of this unique attribute of the spruce tree’s roots. He is as likely a candidate as any other to be the one who contributed this innovation to the design of the Adirondack guideboat.
(watch a video of the recent construction of a spruce bark canoe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6V-v7mVymo )
In my last piece regarding when the mysterious Thacher Cabin was built, I cited numerous newspaper articles and books that referenced the cabin’s existence. However, none of them clarified where the cabin was built. Previously reviewed maps of Raquette Lake gave no indication and no photos or drawings of the cabin have been found.
I chose to begin my search by focusing on the one visitor to the cabin for whom historical records might exist. In Aber and King’s History of Hamilton County, it is written that the priest Rev. Henry Gabriels performed Catholic Mass at the Thacher Camp from July 11th to the 14th in 1878. Gabriels later became the Bishop of Ogdensburg. In the hope that this early mass in the Adirondacks might be of historical significance, I contacted the archivist of the Diocese of Ogdensburg looking for any original documents or photos of Gabriels’ visit.
Imagine my surprise when the archivist sent me the following photocopy from notes that he found:
“North Point Inn”? Could I be wrong in my assumption that the 1878 cabin was built on our family’s land on Indian Point? The North Point Inn was located across North Bay from Indian Point. My mind raced as I retraced my steps looking at all of the newspaper articles and books.
One New York Times article had said “There’s ex-Mayor Thatcher of Albany’s place,’ said the Captain of the little steamer, pointing to a fine lodge on the north shore.” Did he mean the north shore of Raquette Lake and not the north side of Indian Point?
I then realized that when Nessmuk wrote of visiting the cabin, he simply wrote “a gentleman by the name of Thatcher (sic) who has a fine residence on Raquette Lake.” No mention of Indian Point whatsoever, just my assumption.
Fortunately, my heart rate eventually was calmed, after a day of frantic research turned up this from Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1880 edition of The Adirondacks Illustrated:
Once again confident of the cabin’s existence on Indian Point, I now tried to discover where on the land it was situated. I began by reviewing the property deeds. In 1876, John Boyd Thacher purchased two parcels on the tips of Indian Point. He paid nine dollars an acre to Marshal Shedd for roughly 25 acres. This first parcel is all the land to the east of the yellow line shown below, except for the area to the east of the blue lines. JBT paid twenty-two dollars per acre to a William W. Hill for this second parcel of only 4.5 acres.
Eureka! Why would JBT pay more than twice per acre for the second parcel? Could it be that it contained an existing cabin? Was this the location of what became known as the Thacher Camp?
Alas, let me just say that there exists another explanation as to why JBT paid a high price for the second parcel. As the deed indicated that William W. Hill was from Albany, I thought it best to see if there was any connection between Hill and the Thacher family. Perhaps a higher price was paid as a favor to a friend.
Indeed, I found that William W. Hill and John Boyd Thacher were 33 degree Freemasons and both members of the Albany Chapter of the Rose Croix. William W. Hill was an amateur entomologist whose collection of over 10,000 specimens of butterflies and moths was donated to the New York State Museum. Hill was also an officer of the Albany Institute. JBT had much in common with Hill’s scientific and preservationist inclinations and I have no doubt in claiming them to be more than mere acquaintances.
This explanation does not completely eliminate the possibility that there was an existing cabin within Hill’s parcel. However, an epiphany came to me that argues against George Hornell Thacher establishing his camp on the southern shore of Indian Point.
No fewer than five newspaper articles and Nessmuk’s book speak of George Hornell Thacher’s love of lake trout fishing. Anyone who knows Raquette Lake understands that in summer, one fishes for lake trout exclusively in North Bay, where the depth provides the cold water desired by the trout. It is logical that GHT would have built his cabin along the north shore of Indian Point.
Indeed, a fish tale would prove to be the conclusive clue. On July 10, 1879, the Weekly Saratogian published:
So clearly the Thacher Cabin was somewhere along the north side of Indian Point, but where?
Early in my research, the Adirondack Museum Librarian Jerry Pepper had shown me a hand-drawn map of Raquette Lake. The museum did not know who created the map or when it was created.
The map has an X marked next to the word “Camp”, written in cursive, on the end of Birch Point.
As this is the location of our family’s little, red one room cabin built in 1910, I assumed at first that this map was from the early nineteen teens. However, further analysis revealed a different conclusion.
In addition to the geographic locations marked in ink, the map has the names of various camps written in pencil along the shore. There are two distinct sets of handwritten notations, one in cursive and one in block letters. Based on the time period in which each of the named landmarks existed, the cursive notations predate those in block letters. The comparison of the dates reveals that the notation for the “Camp” on Birch Point reflects the year 1881 or 1882.
It would appear that the first Thacher Cabin was built in 1878 very near if not actually on the same ground where our little red cabin still stands today. What I would give for any photos that show the tip of Birch Point, even in the background, taken between 1878 and 1885.
Discovery brings with it a joy and a moment of satisfaction which spurs fresh pursuit of the truth. My cousin Stephen FitzPatrick was afflicted with curiosity by these initial blog postings, a compulsion to learn truths that our ancestors lived but failed to share with us. A piece of the puzzle had always been in his hands but he did not know it. Prompted by my last chapter, Stephen searched through boxes of his mother’s memorabilia and found this:
The photo is dated 1910, the year of construction according to our family’s oral history. Could this be the first photo of the little red cabin? Our previous research had narrowed the window in time to between 1905 and 1918. This would appear to squeeze the date of construction to a mere five year period between 1905 and 1910.
The power of the internet still amazes me with its ability to bring over 100 years of history into focus in the comfort of my “fortress of solitude”, the name given by my wife to the corner of our dining room where the iMac sits with stacks of books, photos and articles cluttered around it. Through hours of endless searching, a strong trail of evidence emerges which charts the family’s footprint on Indian Point and describes the cabin.
The earliest hint of the family’s use of Indian Point comes in this account from an adventurer camping on Tioga Point. He speaks of a camping party across the water enjoying the summer of 1877. I believe it must refer to George Hornell Thacher Jr., who at the time would have been 26 and single, and his friends.
As both points at the tip of Indian Point were once owned by Matthew Beach, the reference to Beach’s Point does not clarify where this encampment was. However, “charmingly located among the birches” is an apt description of its namesake and the “boulder out in the water” clearly describes what we call “The Big Rock” on the north side of Birch Point.
An encampment of twenty-six must have covered what little ground exists on Birch Point with tents and primitive lean-tos, leaving no room for a one room cabin that sleeps only two. The little red cabin came thirty-three years later, but the breadcrumbs are there in the pages.
My great grandfather George H. Thacher, father to the five brothers, hosted two prominent clergymen at the cabin.
I found an article which appears to refer to the first John Boyd Thacher and a “fine lodge” on Indian Point.
The famous wilderness writer George Washington Sears, who used the pen name Nessmuk, spoke of visiting the cabin in his book Woodcraft.
What incredible luck to find actual contemporary newspaper and literary evidence that corresponds to the time period of the cabin’s photographic evidence. On first impression, that is exactly what I thought I had found. Alas, nothing is ever simple.
Exhibit A was published in 1880 and George H Thacher is not my great grandfather but my father’s great grandfather, the patriarch of the Thacher family. Exhibit B was published in 1881. “Ex-Mayor Thacher of Albany” refers also to the patriarch of the family and not his son John Boyd Thacher, who likewise was mayor. Exhibit C was published in 1884.
Further research turned up…
Despite our love of the little red cabin, it strikes me as odd that a one room structure would be described as “a fine lodge”, a “fine residence”, a “cottage” and a “beautiful camp”. The lodging described in these excerpts appears to have accommodated a family and hosted prominent guests. And what of the photographic evidence that shows no cabin existed in 1905? Our family knows of no stories, nor paintings, nor photos of this previous Thacher cabin on Indian Point.
I began with a search for the origins of the little red cabin and have satisfied my curiosity with the photo from 1910. Now a new mystery emerges. When and where was this newly discovered original cabin built and what happened to it?
While this book hopes to expand beyond simple stories of my family, it is through our history that I became aware of the heritage of Indian Point both before and during our tenancy.
To be clear, “our” tenancy speaks not solely of those named Thacher. My father’s sister Ellen married Michael FitzPatrick. Both families enjoyed summers together sharing the cabin and two lean-tos until 1981 when our family built a new place on the north shore of the peninsula. Each summer, a growing brood of FitzPatrick cousins continues to inhabit the little, red one-room cabin at the point’s tip.
My journey began with a desire to learn when this cabin was built. As a child I would fall asleep in the lean-to that sits just to the right of this cabin, being driven to sleep by the flames dancing in the stone fireplace and the hypnotic pulsing of the green and red lights which adorned the channel buoys in the Needles. My father is shown here as a boy in the same lean-to.
By the fire, my father and aunt would tell stories of their times here and on Blue Mountain Lake. Originally, the main family summer home was on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. The island lodge was the first and only privately owned summer home on the lake for a decade beginning in 1867. The island was purchased by John Boyd Thacher, who built a lodge for the use of his father, George Hornell Thacher.
The island lodge remained in the family until the 1940s while the lands on Indian Point, purchased in 1876, were always referred to as the “hunting and fishing” grounds. We have always considered ourselves extremely lucky to still possess these wonderful acres on Indian Point. Yet we wonder what transpired here between 1876 and now.
The oral history speaks of John Boyd Thacher and his brother George Hornell Thacher Jr. using Indian Point for guided camping adventures, with their father remaining at the island in Blue Mountain Lake. Family lore holds that the red cabin was the first thing to be built on the point. We have vague memories of our parents claiming that the cabin dates to 1910. My challenge is to prove them right.
A review of several historic maps of Raquette Lake show no indication of a cabin at the point between 1886 and 1903.
A 1905 photo from the family of Donna Phinney Geisdorf (owners of Sunny Cliff Camp deep in Sucker Brook Bay) shows Birch Point. It shows no cabin and no dock.
It is unclear if the photo shows any structure, but when blown up larger, there is an image that might be a primitive, makeshift lean-to. It has oddly straight edges and corners that would seem unlikely to be natural trees. I have highlighted the lines in red.
The only map that I have found to date which does indicate a structure in the location of the little red cabin is the 1954 USGS Raquette Lake Quadrangle. Unfortunately, there appear to be no USGS surveys done between 1903 and 1954.
So the cabin was built sometime after 1905 and before 1954. Couldn’t we narrow it down a little better than that? Perhaps it was time to talk with the locals of Raquette Lake to see what they knew of the cabin’s history.
Fortunately, there is one person with direct personal knowledge of the cabin. Warren Reynolds was born and raised at Raquette Lake. His family rented the little red cabin for the summer of 1938 and then lived there for a whole year beginning in the summer of 1939. He shared stories with me of his family living through the winter of ’39-’40 in the small one room cabin. Warren travelled to school by boat when the water was open and by dogsled over the ice in winter.
His father worked as a guide in season and hunted, fished and trapped for his family’s sustenance. The family could not have survived if his father had obeyed the Game Warden’s regulations. To hide his illicit bounty of fish and venison taken out of season, Warren’s father dug a 6′ by 4′ hole six feet deep and set 350 feet back in the woods to the west of the cabin with a wooden cover camouflaged with pine pitch, sticks and leaves. The remains of this “ice box” are still there today.
I next approached the local Raquette Lake historian, Jim Kammer, to see what he might know of the cabin. He produced a photo that is part of a collection from the Carlin Boat Livery, one of the first marinas on the lake, located near the present day dock of the Raquette Lake Navigation Co.’s W. W. Durant.
The Carlin Boat Livery was in operation from 1900 to 1935 and dates the photo of the cabin to within those years.
We know from the previous photos that this has to be after 1905. When I showed Warren Reynolds this photo, he remarked that the boat appears to be a row boat without motor moored off shore with no dock visible. In 1938 there was a dock and the Thacher’s gave Warren’s family use of a boat with a small outboard engine. The photo is also missing a tool shed that Warren remembered being between the little red cabin and the lean-to. Lastly, Warren commented that the cabin was far from brand new when his family lived there. He thought it was about twenty years old at the time, which would date it to 1918.
Given all that we know – the local lore, photographic and map evidence – we can say that the little red cabin was built sometime between 1905 and 1918. While this does not contradict the family oral history, I strive to narrow the window in time. Perhaps through reviewing historical newspapers and contemporary literature, I might glimpse proof of this alleged 1910 date….