In the pantheon of Adirondack conservation greats, the name of John Apperson Jr. (1878-1963) is not as well-known as it deserves to be. His great-niece, independent scholar and historian Ellen Apperson Brown, has taken a major stride toward correcting that deficiency with publication of John Apperson’s Lake George, a new addition to the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing.
Apperson was an early and ardent proponent of muscle-powered winter recreation and a pioneer in the protection of Lake George’s islands and shoreline. He launched or became involved from the ground up in a number of conservation organizations, some that continue in operation to this day, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Lake George Association.
In the face of virulent opposition, he agitated for controls on logging in the lake’s watershed and for state ownership of its islands, shorelines, and mountains. Decades before it became common, he called for restrictions on shoreline development. But because he was a humble sort, a coalition-builder who preferred to work quietly but persistently behind the scenes (he knew how to make friends with influential folks and had a keen sense of the power of photography in consciousness raising), he has not received the acclaim he is due.
The book adheres tightly to Arcadia’s tried-and-true Images formula: 95 percent old photos with extended captions. Fortunately, someone in the Apperson family had the foresight to save—and identify—lots of snapshots. These and the Kelly Adirondack Research Center, an arm of the Adirondack Research Library in Schenectady, are the source for almost all of the two hundred images in the volume.
Apperson’s story is arranged more or less chronologically, except that the final chapter covers his family history. It might have been better to place this chapter first, to provide some context for his career and activities.
After a tough childhood in the Virginia Appalachians, Apperson moved to Schenectady in 1900 to take an engineering job with General Electric. In short order he discovered the Adirondacks; perhaps they reminded him of the topographic if not domestic environment of home, or perhaps they represented escape.
At any rate, soon he was heading to nearby Lake George whenever he could, taking with him as many friends as he could round up. This included women, in an age when it was generally not thought appropriate for “the fairer sex” to engage in such rugged activities as wood-chopping and snowshoeing. In this as in other areas, Apperson was ahead of his time; he later strategically and effectively enlisted women in his efforts to preserve Lake George.
One sport “Appie” introduced was skate-sailing; no mere fair-weather recreationist, he was as happy outside on a snappy cold day as he was in summer’s warmth. Sort of a combination of ice-boating and cold-weather wind-surfing, it caught on and, some years before skiing gained ascendancy, helped turn the southeastern Adirondacks into a four-season destination.
While camping on Lake George’s islands, Apperson perceived that they were being damaged by high water. He traced this to unregulated logging along the shoreline slopes of what has often been called America’s most beautiful lake and to the logging industry’s raising of the lake’s level via flashboards at its outlet near Ticonderoga. This led him to a lifelong campaign to stabilize the islands with riprap (for this purpose he built a barge which he christened Art.7-Sec.7, the original designation of the “forever wild” amendment to the state constitution). Meanwhile, he ratcheted up a parallel campaign, which business groups fiercely opposed to the point of alleged threats, to control logging, partially by bringing much of the lake into state ownership. The reasons why Lake George needed an advocate could have been explained a tad more clearly, but suffice it to say the lake would not look like it does today, or host the visitors that it does, without Apperson’s dedication to it.
As might be expected—and is generally forgivable—in a book like this, a few errors and missteps creep in. A picture of Lower Ausable Lake is mislabeled as Ausable Chasm, easy to do since they look a lot alike when you’re trying to figure out what’s in a fuzzy amateur snapshot. One map is too small to be legible, and an ambiguous caption causes confusion as to whether Apperson and his activist friend Irving Langmuir were the first to summit Mount Marcy in winter or just the first to do it on skis (records indicate others had done it earlier, although not on skis). A very common mistake creeps into the introduction with identification of the wrong year (1895) for the creation of both the Adirondack Park and the Forest Preserve, which came into being in 1892 and 1885 respectively.
But none of this takes away from the compelling and important story of Mr. Apperson and his accomplishments. The next time you go boating on Lake George or camping on one of its state-owned islands or hiking on Tongue Mountain or Sleeping Beauty, one of the first people you need to thank for the opportunity is John Apperson Jr.