Severance has inspired generations of artists, view seekers
By Chris Hunter
Hiking up Severance, one follows in the footsteps of pioneering families searching for opportunity, Hudson River School artists seeking inspiration and 19th century tourists looking for an escape from industrial life. Severance, just northwest of Schroon Lake, presents two picturesque views for a short but strenuous effort, a 2.4-mile round-trip with a 750-foot elevation gain.
Severance also faces an identity crisis. While the state uses “Mount Severance,” the U.S. Geological Service, on maps dating back to the 1890s, named it “Severance Hill.” There is no specific classification for a mountain in the United States. The designation is often just based on intuition and pride. One explanation from geographer Roderick Peattie suggests that “mountains should be impressive, possess individuality and should enter into the imagination of the people who live near them.” Nearby businesses sprung up named Mt. Severance Country Store and Mt. Severance Cabins.
In June 1837, artists Thomas Cole and Asher Durand journeyed to Schroon. They “climbed a steep hill, on which many sheep were at pasture, and gained a magnificent view,” wrote Louis Legrand Noble in 1853. Historians, such as John Sasso, believe Cole sketched Schroon Mountain (today’s Hoffman) from Severance before continuing to nearby Jones Hill for the unobstructed view of Hoffman featured in Cole’s “Schroon Mountain.” The Severance that Cole encountered had already been cleared with the lower slopes used as sheep pasture.
The loggers moved on to new tracts deeper in the wilderness, and the forest reclaimed Severance and surrounding mountains. After the Civil War, people flocked to the Adirondacks. Schroon Lake became the “Switzerland of America.” Four hotels rose in the village after the completion of the Adirondack Railroad to North Creek in 1871. According to the 1875 New York Daily Graphic “none surpass and few equal Schroon. Beautiful for situation, with thickly wooded hills surrounding it.” Mount Severance was mentioned as one of the chief excursions, along with Marcy, Pharaoh Mountain and Pharaoh Lake.
Various editions of E.R. Wallace’s “Descriptive guidebooks to the Adirondacks” from 1878-1894 described a carriage or equestrian trail ascending Severance. Despite Wallace’s implication of a wide trail, an 1890 Albany Argus article described hikers from the Leland Hotel reaching the summit after “breaking through two miles of underbrush, having lost the trail.” The accidental bushwhackers reported “a sublime and picturesque spread of scenery…which amply repaid us for our climb.”
Tourists from New York City in the 1870s paid $6.95 for a 24-hour one-way journey, leaving at 6 p.m. on a Hudson River Day Line steamboat, then taking the train from Albany to Riverside Station. Following a six-mile stagecoach ride from Riverside to Pottersville, travelers enjoyed a late lunch before arriving in Schroon Lake village after a one-hour steamboat voyage. The Severance trail was another two miles from the dock.
Today’s trailhead, off Route 9, one-half mile south of Northway Exit 28, is a 90-minute drive from Albany. It starts off a parking lot through culverts under the Northway. The route briefly parallels the Northway and turns right, following a small creek. In spring, the trail and creek can sometimes become one, a classic element of an Adirondack mountain path.
In a few minutes, you leave both the creek and the traffic noise behind and ascend a staircase and make a sharp right. Next, you take four short, steep rises to a level section, allowing for a chance to catch your breath and contemplate nature in a forest mixed with pine, birch, cedar and maple. Eight-tenths of a mile into the ascent, you pass a large boulder, swing right and begin the steepest climb northeast toward the summit.
At a ridge, a partial view of Schroon Lake emerges. From here, it is a short rock scramble to the summit for an unobstructed view of Schroon Lake and the Pharaoh wilderness. Late spring, summer and early fall vegetation screens the human infrastructure around the lake.
Continuing on an informal path for about 150 feet, a second view opens over Paradox Lake. The impact of civilization is present, as you can see the Northway and Route 74, which runs in a straight line toward Paradox Lake. There are no views to the west of the Hoffman wilderness; nature has obscured the western view that inspired Cole.
The summit is a great place to sit on a rock, enjoy a snack and watch for birds and butterflies. When you are ready to return, retrace your steps. If you take your time on the descent, you can watch for deer or ancient multi-trunk pines ignored by the loggers.
If after climbing Severance you are still unsure about whether you conquered a hill or mountain, a short trip to Severance Cemetery (just northeast of the intersection of routes 9 and 74), which hosts the graves of early community settlers, might help you decide. Mount Severance looms prominently. The view also offers a glimpse at some of the other peaks in the Hoffman Notch Wilderness, including Hoffman. And in the end, whether you call Severance a hill or a mountain, it provides a wilderness experience with stellar views that can be accessed by hikers of all ages.
Chris Hunter is a freelance writer and historian.