Mostly Spruce and Hemlock

‘Mostly Spruce and Hemlock’ By Louis J. Simmons Hungry Bear Publishing, 2009 reprint Softcover, $24.95
Mostly Spruce
and Hemlock’
By Louis J. Simmons
Hungry Bear Publishing,
2009 reprint
Softcover, $24.95

ACADEMIC HISTORIANS (like me) who devote their careers to regional studies would be lost without the work of diligent amateurs. Here in the Adirondacks, for example, nearly all historical work begins with a grateful nod to Alfred Lee Donaldson’s two-volume A History of the Adirondacks, first published in 1921, reprinted in 1977 with an introduction by Saranac Lake Village Historian John Duquette, and still available in a paperback edition issued last year.

Sent as a frail, possibly dying young man to the Trudeau tuberculosis sanitorium in 1895, Donaldson found in Saranac Lake improved health, a wife, and a village he grew to appreciate affectionately. He settled down and became an active member of both the business and arts communities. After a relapse in 1910, he cut back on his professional life and began collecting materials for a comprehensive (though occasionally rambling) history of the Adirondacks, which took him a decade to research and write. It’s been indispensable ever since.

Largely built on the Donaldson model (referenced in the first chapter) is Louis J. Simmons’s “Mostly Spruce and Hemlock”: Historical Highlights of Tupper Lake and the Town of Altamont. First published in 1976, it’s a compilation and restructuring of nearly a half century’s worth of historical columns and vignettes written for the Tupper Lake Free Press, where Simmons worked as reporter and editor. He was also the town historian. (The town of Tupper Lake was originally named Altamont; it includes the village of Tupper Lake. In 2004, to avoid confusion with the village of Altamont in Albany County, the name of the town was changed to Tupper Lake.)

Born in Faust (now part of the village of Tupper Lake) in 1908, Simmons graduated from Tupper Lake High School and, except for a few years at Syracuse University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930, lived in Tupper Lake his entire life, dying there in 1995. By all accounts, he loved his town and served it well. The culmination of his dedication to all things Tupper Lake was the publication of this book, now reprinted by Saranac Lake’s Hungry Bear Publishing (an enterprise of local writer Andy Flynn, who graduated from Tupper Lake High School roughly six decades after Simmons did) as a cooperative project with the Goff-Nelson Memorial Library of Tupper Lake.

Simmons starts out with a clever title. Joe Gokey, prominent in local business and politics, was once quizzed about the population of the nascent village of Tupper Lake in the 1890s. “Mostly spruce and hemlock,” he replied. A shrewd response—as it emphasized both the rough nature of what was basically a frontier settlement and the importance of the local forests to a locale on the verge of becoming a critical hub in the vibrant Adirondack logging industry.

Rivermen take a break during the spring log drive on the Bog River, 1900.
Rivermen take a break during the spring log drive on the Bog River, 1900.

Unlike its sister communities in the Tri-Lakes region—Lake Placid and Saranac Lake—Tupper Lake remained only sparsely settled through the nineteenth century. It had its colorful hermits and some Indian legends, and classic Adirondack authors such as Joel T. Headley, Alfred B. Street, and Samuel H. Hammond described rapturously the region’s wilderness, including the remote Bog River. The first known white settler was Michael Cole, who built a cabin on the Raquette River around 1840. Over the next few decades a handful of hearty families tried to make a go of agriculture, struggling bravely despite poor soils and short growing seasons. But serious settlement awaited the dramatic and rapid penetration of the vast northwestern Adirondack forests by commercial logging.

The roots of local logging can be traced to the years before the Civil War, with the first small dam constructed at Setting Pole Rapids around 1855. After 1889, when the first Tupper Lake sawmill was built, on Raquette Pond, logging really took off, pushed along by the arrival of the railroad in 1890. After that, a boom mentality set in, as suggested by the author of this remarkable letter written about the burgeoning village: “The people there have all gone crazy. They seem to think they are going to have a city there immediately. There is a large clearing there, and this clearing, and all surrounding woodland, is all run out (surveyed) and laid out into streets and lots. Corner lots are at a premium.” Within a few years, Tupper Lake had residences, hotels, stores, churches, and schools.

As with most towns built quickly, using mostly wood for construction, fire was a serious threat, and in 1899, a fire—origin never determined—wiped out nearly all of the already substantial business district, destroying over seventy distinct buildings and many more businesses. The spirit and grit of the new town were instantly apparent: within just a few years, according to historic photographs (many reproduced in this book), the place was rebuilt.

By 1900, Tupper Lake was a bustling mill town, processing millions of board feet of spruce and pine. Two of the major early twentieth-century woods-products operations were the Santa Clara Lumber Company and the Oval Wood Dish Corporation. Along with the railroads, they dominated local commerce for many years, hiring local loggers, milling local logs, shipping lumber or finished products out by rail, and, along with other companies, running many more millions of unmilled logs down the Raquette. The vestiges of Santa Clara logging can still be found today, from the deteriorating dam at Duck Hole to Barrienger brakes (used to control the descent of sleighs loaded with logs) left high in the Seward Range. The brick chimney of Oval Wood Dish still towers over an empty factory on Route 3.

President William Howard Taft, left, fishing on Big Tupper Lake, 1910.
President William Howard Taft, left, fishing on Big Tupper Lake, 1910.

In the Adirondacks a century ago, commercial logging meant piles of bark and slash left on the ground, and that meant, almost inevitably, forest fire. In 1903 alone, fires burned more than six hundred thousand acres, and as early as April that year, the village of Tupper Lake was surrounded by out-of-control fires. Buildings on the outskirts of town burned, along with logging camps deep in the woods and piles of lumber in mill yards. Throughout an unnaturally dry May, mill workers and logging crews were diverted from their normal labors and sent out to battle fires. Finally, on June 10, forty-nine days of drought ended, and Tupper Lake was spared.

By World War I, the peak of the logging era was passing, though substantial operations continue to this day (employing far fewer loggers than was the case a century ago). The last train left Tupper Lake in 1937. In 1964, Oval Wood Dish, which purchased its first Adirondack lands in 1914, sold the plant it had constructed in 1916 to process hardwoods into a variety of products. The new owner, Adirondack Plywood, began with ambitious plans, but a warehouse fire in 1967 soon led to closing the mill and the loss of 150 jobs. Other companies tried to revive the site, but what remains today of OWD testifies to the long-past days of Tupper Lake’s industrial stability.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the Tupper Lake economy struggled as it evolved, haltingly, from nearly complete reliance on resource extraction and processing to tourism and service. Hunters and anglers had identified the area as a sporting paradise a century earlier, and many others followed. Some of them bought huge tracts—Follensby and Litchfield parks, for example—where they and their descendents could rusticate away from the masses, surrounded by the magnificence of the Adirondack backcountry. Meanwhile, hotels, for which Simmons provides detailed portraits, appeared in Tupper Lake and nearby for middle-class tourists.

In 1922, the federal government began looking around for a suitable location for a veterans’ hospital; two years later, after the usual sweeteners offered by local politicians, U.S. Government Hospital No. 96, ever since known as Sunmount, opened just east of the village. But in a move distressingly reminiscent of the departure of OWD, in the 1960s the Veterans Administration announced that Sunmount would be closed. The town strove mightily to keep it open, but close it did in 1965. Eventually, the state took it over, and it is now a facility run by the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities; the Sunmount story reveals much about the centrality of state-financed service jobs in the North Country economy.

Meanwhile, the town worked to enhance its tourist attractions, with hotels and, eventually, a ski slope on Mount Morris (open again this winter, after ten years of dormancy). The glory days of logging were gone forever, and the reliance on government jobs and tourism defined the Tupper Lake economy, as was the case throughout the Adirondacks.

Simmons’s book has the personalities, the businesses, the politics—the whole story. It’s a delightful treasure of data and tales about one the Adirondacks’ most interesting towns, all made more accessible by a new index compiled by Carol Payment Poole.