BORN IN MALONE in 1819, William Almon Wheeler spent his early years in relative comfort. That ended precipitously when his father died at the age of thirty-seven, leaving scant resources to his wife and children; William was six months short of his tenth birthday.
His determined and indefatigable mother, Eliza, kept her family together, provided William a loving and supporting environment, and made sure that he was educated. He was a regular at the Malone Congregational Church, and he picked up a little cash by doing odd jobs for neighbors.
With perseverance, native intelligence, and his mother’s work ethic, William rose quickly; by the time he was thirty-five he had been a lawyer, state legislator, banker, and president of a railroad company. Amid the midcentury turmoil surrounding the crisis of slavery, the disintegration of the Whigs, and the emergence of the Republican Party, Wheeler ran for and was elected to the New York Assembly as a Whig in 1849. As a Republican, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for five terms (they were not consecutive), beginning with the pivotal election of 1860. And in 1877, he became the nation’s nineteenth vice president, under Rutherford B. Hayes.
Herbert C. Hallas’s biography of Wheeler is a robust, scholarly, thorough account, rescuing from obscurity a figure in North Country history of whom I’ll bet most of us have been utterly unaware. It weaves in and out of New York and American history during a tumultuous age. It unravels some obscure and complex tales concerning New York machine politics. And it touches on the Adirondacks.
In addition to his busy professional life, Wheeler was an enthusiastic fisherman. When he was a young man, he and a handful of friends from Malone began fishing in the Saranacs every May. They called themselves the “Saranac Navigation Company.” He loved the outdoors and as a politician worked to protect it. While in Congress, he endorsed the creation of Yellowstone National Park, signed into existence by President Ulysses Grant in 1872.
Partly because of his fishing expeditions, Wheeler became concerned about the health and future of the Adirondack forests that stretched off to the south from his home in Malone. In the years after the Civil War, the Adirondacks became the focus of ruthless and intense logging operations. Like many observers of the day Wheeler worried about the capacity of the Adirondack forests to both provide a reliable and continuing supply of the raw materials for this important industry and at the same time offer the recreational opportunities that he so loved.
Thus, as Hallas explains, Wheeler’s concern was always ambivalent. He treasured the forests and lakes as a wilderness retreat, but he was also a devoted disciple of laissez-faire capitalism and the entrepreneurial energy that saw our forests as a source of fiber and wood. Like his contemporary Verplanck Colvin, Wheeler both loved the wilderness and acknowledged the utilitarian value of the Adirondacks. Along with Colvin, Wheeler was appointed to a special state commission to study the future of the Adirondacks in 1872.
This commission was charged by the legislature to investigate the possibility of establishing an Adirondack Park. In July of 1873, the commission issued its report. Hallas does an excellent job of explaining how the commissioners came to their task with a variety of goals in mind. It was basically the same dilemma that New York has faced ever since: can the Adirondacks be both protected and exploited? Can our special corner of New York be both a spiritual retreat and a place to make money? The primary goal was to stop the irresponsible cut-and-run logging that characterized that era, to protect the forests for both recreation and reasonable timber harvest.
In 1872, when the United States government had established Yellowstone National Park, it made no provision for logging or other natural-resource extraction. This was definitely not the model that Wheeler and his colleagues had in mind for the Adirondacks; they wanted both logging and recreation. In only a few paragraphs, Hallas carefully explains the conflicting goals and the complex maneuvering of this commission; in fact, he does this better than any other historian I know of (including myself). In any event, the recommendations of the Park Commission that an Adirondack Park should be established and that regulated logging should be permitted in it were ignored by the legislature. No legislation was adopted, and another decade passed before the legislature returned to this important business, establishing the Forest Preserve in 1885 and the Adirondack Park in 1892.
Elected vice president on the ticket with Hayes in 1876, the same year his wife died, Wheeler settled in Washington and socialized enthusiastically with just about everyone in the administration. Among other things, he became close friends with Lucy Hayes, the president’s wife, and invited her to visit the Adirondacks (in case you’re wondering, it was no more than a friendship; one of their favorite shared activities was attending services at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church). In May of 1878, with her daughter and a friend, she accepted this invitation and arrived in Malone by train. They headed for the Prospect House on Upper Saranac Lake, where they hired a guide and spent eleven days fishing, while Wheeler sent nearly daily telegraphs to the president reporting on Lucy’s successes.
For the most part, Wheeler’s is a non-Adirondack story, though always interesting. Then, as now, New York politics was a welter of intrigue, corruption, and patronage. Wheeler himself appears to have been above corruption, but his life in politics brought him face to face with a rogues’ gallery of shady but picturesque characters; one of the most colorful of these was Roscoe Conkling, U.S. Senator from New York and longtime absolute boss of the state’s Republican patronage machine. Political life was no less challenging on the federal level, and telling the story of Wheeler’s career requires accounts of the bizarre, often illegal chicanery of the Gilded Age. Hallas runs through the details of this complicated time with enthusiasm and lucid prose.
When Wheeler died, in 1887, he was praised as a fearless, intelligent, and effective leader, a son of New York of whom New Yorkers could be justly proud. Hallas shows how his reputation declined, mostly because a couple of political enemies managed to tarnish it post mortem. Twentieth-century historians depended on a handful of biased records planted by these enemies and failed to look closely at primary sources. With this book, Hallas has done much to restore Wheeler to his proper standing. He has performed prodigious labors of original research and tells the story of a distinguished New Yorker with whom we should all be better acquainted.