Honest John Plumbley [sic], the prince of guides, patient as a hound, and as faithful, – a man who knows the wilderness as a farmer knows his fields, whose instinct is never at fault, whose temper is never ruffled, whose paddle is silent as falling snow, whose eye is true along the sights, whose pancakes are the wonder of the woods…
Reverend William H. H. Murray in Adventures in the Wilderness 1869.
Murray is widely credited with bringing the masses to the Adirondacks. The historian Warder Cadbury said, “Murray quite literally popularized both wilderness and the Adirondacks.” “Murray’s Rush”, the onslaught of tourists who rushed to the mountains in response to his book, gave rise to the claim that the Adirondacks are the birthplace of the American vacation.
John Plumley* is the man who brought the Adirondacks to Murray, serving as his guide through his adventures.
Following the similar Adirondack migration of fellow Vermonters Matthew Beach and William Wood, Plumley’s father moved his family from Shrewsbury, Vermont, to Long Lake in the 1830s. John was younger than ten when he arrived and quickly befriended an older boy, Mitchell Sabattis. Like Sabattis, John became an active guide at the age of twenty-one.
Plumley was the first guide to introduce Beach’s Lake to Dr. Benjamin Brandreth. In 1851, Brandreth purchased 24,000 acres surrounding Beach’s Lake (now called Brandreth Lake) to form the first private preserve in the region. Plumley served several years as caretaker for Brandreth Park and constructed many of the cabins within the park. The last photo taken of Plumley in 1899 shows him seated at the feet of what was believed to be the last wolf killed in the Adirondacks.
There are two strings that tie Plumley to the fifty acres of Beach and Wood. As a young man, Plumley married Zobeda Hough, the daughter of Amos Hough. In 1856, Matthew Beach deeded his 25 acres on Indian Point to Amos Hough on condition that Hough would care for Beach until his death. Although Hough sold the land the same year to a land speculator named Marshall Shedd, from 1856 to1859, Hough and Beach still lived in his cabin on Indian Point. However in the 1860 census, Beach is found living in the Long Lake home of John Plumley, who had assumed his father-in-law’s obligation. Plumley also purchased William Wood’s 25 acres on Indian Point, owning the land from 1859 to 1864.
Hough and Plumley’s intimate familiarity with Indian Point led to a most remarkable rendezvous that occurred on these shores in the summer of 1873. Using Adirondack Murray’s book as a guide, a group of 25 women traversed the Adirondacks from four directions to meet at Indian Point. They were a group of teachers and students from a women’s academy in New York City founded by Amanda Benedict, the wife of Farrand Benedict’s younger brother Joel.
While not the first group of women to explore the Adirondacks, this expedition was clearly the most ambitious. The 16 Adirondack guides employed by the expedition included several of the most prominent guides of Adirondack history: Mitchell Sabattis and his son Charlie, John Cheney, William Higby, James Sturgess, Alvah Dunning, and Plumley.
One group travelled from Lake Champlain along the Saranac River and Raquette River to Raquette Lake in the company of Amos Hough. Another entered the region from the west, following the Moose River into the Fulton Chain of Lakes where Plumley guided them through to Raquette. A third group followed a path similar to Sir John Johnson’s escape north from Lake Pleasant, approaching Raquette Lake from the south. The forth group departed Ticonderoga and followed the Schroon River, and then hiked west to meet the rest.
The expedition’s final destination was Blue Mountain Lake, or as the women called it the “Lake of the Skies” (also the title of Barbara McMartin’s wonderful book detailing the expedition). All four groups rendezvoused at Raquette Lake’s South Inlet Falls on June 11th, then spent four days camped near the site of Beach’s cabin on Indian Point prior to continuing to Blue Mountain Lake on June 15th.
A number of places could have served for their base camp, perhaps Big Island or Woods Point, which both lie between South Inlet and the mouth of the Marion River that leads to Blue Mountain Lake. Indian Point was out of their way and double the distance from South Inlet. Hough and Plumley must have proposed the use of their former property for the base camp.
When John Plumley died in 1900, the Rev. William H. H. Murray wrote in the journal Woods and Waters:
He taught me a faultless knowledge of the woods, the name and nature of plant and herb and tree, the languages of the night, and the occultism of silent places and soundless shores…He had a most gentle and mannerly reticence and that sweetest of all habits in man or woman – the habit of silence. He could look and see, listen and hear, and say nothing… His knowledge of woodcraft was intuitive. He knew the points of the compass sensationally. He was an atom whose nature mysteriously held it in reciprocal connection with the magnetic currents of the world. In the densest woods, on the darkest nights, he was never bewildered, never at fault… He was the only guide I ever knew…that could not in any circumstance lose himself or his way.
They tell me he is dead. It is a foolish fashion of speech and not true. Not until the woods are destroyed to the last tree, the mountains crumbled to their bases, the lakes and streams dried up to their beds, and the woods and wood life are forgotten, will the saying become fact. For John Plumbley [sic] was so much of the woods, the mountains and the streams that he personified them. He was a type that is deathless. Memory, affection, imagination, literature – until these die, the great guide of the woods will live with ever enlarging life as the years are added to the years, and the lovers of nature and sport multiply.
And so here I do my part to breathe life into the memory of Honest John Plumley.
* John’s last name appears with and without the “b” in various written histories. However, the legal deeds to his property on Indian Point spell his name without the “b” and thus I have adopted that standard.