Nineteenth-century railroad tycoon Thomas Durant. Modern-day wilderness- preservation star Howard Zahniser. Pioneering Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Cover girl /poet/confidante of the glitterati Jeanne Robert Foster. Tory sympathizer Sir John Johnson. They may not seem to have a lot in common. Each of these disparate characters does, however, have a tie to the town of Johnsburg, a huge chunk of real estate in the southeast Adirondacks.
One of the largest townships in New York state, it encompasses North Creek, North River and several other hamlets; Gore, Crane, Puffer and other mountains; a hefty portion of the huge Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area; and, forming its eastern boundary, a lengthy stretch of the Hudson River.
One might expect a township that’s bigger than some counties to have a decent array of human history, even in a setting where nature plays the lead role, and Johnsburg does not disappoint. Thankfully, town resident Glenn L. Pearsall has compiled that history in an outstanding new book, Echoes in These Mountains (Utica: Pyramid Press, 2008). Proceeds from its sale go to the Johnsburg Historical Society.
Pearsall, a financial manager and philanthropist (think the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation), has taken a unique and highly successful approach to his task. Most local histories are constructed chronologically, or around individuals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Pearsall has built his history of Johnsburg around places: 55 sites, ranging from tanneries to train depots, birthplaces to cemeteries, cheese factories to churches, and told a tale of each. Location descriptions and GPS coordinates will help you find these spots, and an appendix provides a precise driving tour to all of them (103 miles and 3.5 hours without stops, it says, though trust me, you’ll want to stop). Numerous period photos and maps support the text admirably. In fact, Pearsall’s book, brimming with hundreds of old-time and contemporary photographs, is as much a pictorial as written record of the town.
Let’s look for a moment at each of the actors we meet at the outset, as a teaser for the wealth of material you’ll find between these covers.
Thomas C. Durant, says Pearsall, was “responsible” for North Creek. A shameless shyster, he amassed a vast fortune in railroads and was a builder of the transcontinental line using some very shady financial dealings. He dabbled in Adirondack railroads, as well, controlling the line that ran up the Hudson River to North Creek (it was supposed to go through the mountains to Lake Ontario and was much later extended to titanium-rich Tahawus; today part of it is a tourist attraction). He also built a lavish home (“Gables”) in North Creek, though it was not as extravagant as the Great Camps he and his Gilded Age cohorts erected farther into the mountains. The location of Gables (it burned in 1959) is Site 6 in the book.
Howard Zahniser, as often happens in the Adirondacks, was not a permanent resident. He had a modest camp (Site 22) in the shadow of Crane Mountain. As executive secretary of the Wilderness Society for nearly 20 years, he is lauded by many as the architect of the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, which created America’s National Wilderness Preservation System. Some say the view of Crane Mountain inspired his work, and some say his work killed him. After writing and revising endless drafts of the historic legislation, Zahniser died shortly before President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.
If you want to see famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady’s work, just look at Lincoln on a $5 bill. Brady was born in Johnsburg—probably. Pearsall gives us a fascinating account of trying to determine if that’s true, and where it might have occurred. Getting to Site 45 will prove the worth of those GPS coordinates.
One cannot do justice to Jeanne Robert Foster, a truly astonishing individual, in a paragraph. Here’s how Pearsall introduces her: “Vanity Fair model. Student of philosophy at Harvard extension under William James and George Santayana. Reporter for the Boston-American (newspaper). Poet. Author of several books. Friend of William Butler Yeats. Acquaintance of Picasso, Joyce and Pound.” Not a bad résumé for someone who was “born dirt poor in these mountains.”
She also, as a child, guided parties up Crane Mountain. for precious pennies. The mountain stayed with her, influencing her later work; Pearsall includes her poem “State Land,” one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite pieces of writing about the Adirondacks. It tells of a stepfamily member giving prime timberland to the state, who says to his sons, “In future years you will come here/And touch the trees as I have done,/And think that I did right.” (The discussion of Site 26, the entrance to the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, provides a fine account of the history and pros and cons of state ownership of Adirondack land.)
And then there is Sir John Johnson, who merely passed through, as best anyone can tell, while transporting cannon that he had stolen from colonial forces on Lake Champlain. There is no proof of this, but Pearsall lays out a plausible and thoroughly documented possibility. The road intersection where one of those cannon was unearthed in 1970 is Site 27.
So there you have it: natives who left for better prospects, year-round residents, second-homers, travelers on their way somewhere else. An Adirondack community in a nutshell, “the quintessential Adirondack town,” says another part-time resident, writer Bill McKibben, on the back cover. If that’s not enough, you’ll be directed to the spot where Theodore Roosevelt learned he was President of the United States; discover how Wevertown got its name; learn that North Creek boasted one of the first (if not the first) “endless rope” ski tows in the United States; consider whether Johnsburg hosted the first calico mill in America; and learn what a patch beagle is. The book is hard to put down.
And how did it come to be? Pearsall explains that in living and working in real estate in the township over several years, “My interest in local history continued to grow and [in 2005] a friend suggested I write down some of what I’d learned. My first inclination was a driving tour map. I knew I was in trouble when my first draft was 137 pages long!” A book seemed the reasonable escape from that dilemma. And it was, Pearsall explains in the introduction, the best way to make a permanent record of “these historic sites and the stories about them [that are] quickly disappearing in the ‘noise’of contemporary life.”
The author cites some of the more startling discoveries he came across in his research: “The story of an Indian woman whose knees were broken by her father so that she could not again leave her husband and return home (Phebe Cary, Site 23), and documentation of the tolerance of outsiders by local people as opposed to the exclusionary ‘racially pure’ enclaves of the Adirondack Great Camps” (Baroudi Block, Site 7).
“Just as most visitors and seasonal residents (and most locals) are awestruck by the natural beauty of the area, the real story of the Adirondacks and Johnsburg is the story of the people who tried to make a go of it in this wilderness of harsh climate, thin soils, short growing seasons, black flies, and deep snows,” Pearsall writes. “I hope my book is an appropriate testimonial to those who have struggled to support their families here.”
The book’s cover, an evocative photograph by Sara Pearsall, captures the essence of the story in a single image. Behind a deteriorating, weatherbeaten barn, a hardwood forest blazes in its autumnal glory; behind them both, gray cliffs tower menacingly. Hardship, beauty, always the terrain—so it has been in the Adirondacks, and ever will be.