By BRANDON LOOMIS
An 1884 map of the Adirondacks showered personal attributes like “Sobriety” and “Industry” and “Perseverance” on Herkimer County.
At Camp No. 7 near the Boreas River, decades later in 1942-43, loggers either cut or counted 5,737 cords 87 miles from … something. A mill, perhaps? (The “cost” was “17.11.”) In 1948-49, their count was 5,320 cords.
We know these things—clues for enterprising Adirondack historians and trivia seekers—because the Adirondack Experience has preserved them among thousands of maps stored flat in cabinets or rolled on basement shelves. But to follow the clues, first you would have to know that the museum exists, and you would have to know to call Ivy Gocker, library director, and tell her what you seek.
Then you would have to drive to Blue Mountain Lake, a woodsy world away from any city or university, and you would have to hunker down at the library’s table for however long it might take.
“I’m looking forward to when someone calls looking for something and I can say, ‘We already scanned it,’” Gocker said.
The Adirondack Experience is digitizing 1,308 of the maps in its collection, dating back to 1703. Thanks to a $60,500 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, Gocker will be able to point people to online images of maps of Finch, Pruyn & Co. or Emporium Lumber Co. holdings, the McIntyre Iron Works, reservoirs that either got built or were envisioned and then left on the drawing board—the broad range of human incursions into the mountains we now protect as “forever wild” but once coveted more for their riches.
Such a prospect could make work easier for Adirondack Research Director Ezra Schwartzberg, who has traveled from Saranac Lake to Blue Mountain Lake for details in his company’s Green Goat line of recreational maps. When drafting a Lake George map, for instance, he found that some of the museum’s collection helped flesh out the locations of shoals—useful information for sport fishers.
Other maps have helped him determine original spellings for place names, or to note places with multiple names. Their utility wasn’t immediately clear from just an online listing or a thumbnail image. “You never know what you might be looking for,” Schwartzberg said. “It’s better for the researcher to look through it digitally and search as much information as possible.”
It’s not as if Gocker doesn’t like personally helping or hanging out with scholars. It’s just that many can’t make it to the remote campus, or even realize that they should.
And then there’s the risk of tearing or otherwise damaging the relics anytime they’re opened. Some have been rolled up for decades. “It’s a risky proposition, unrolling them for someone,” Gocker said.
“Some of these maps are so large that it’s really cumbersome to get them out and show them to people.”
Hudson Archival, in Port Ewen, will unroll the maps and flatten them for scanning. The company already is processing 520 of the Emporium and Finch, Pruyn maps, and will finish the 1,308 over two years. The first batch will go online next January. Ultimately, online users will be able to search them from anywhere, including through the Empire State Library Exchange’s New York Heritage site and through the Digital Public Library of America.
More than a thousand other maps will remain on paper only, because they’re not public domain and the museum lacks copyright permission to publish them.
Those that go online should provide fodder for doctoral dissertations, or hours of dreamy diversion.
“I love looking at maps,” said Adirondack historian Phil Terrie, who worked as a research assistant and then assistant curator at the museum in the early 1970s. “I think everybody likes looking at maps.”
Most recently, the Ithaca-based scholar visited the collection to prepare his testimony about land use and ownership in former Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown’s trial testing public access to a waterway crossing private land.
“Just being able to sit at my computer and look at maps over and over again would have saved me a hell of a lot of time,” he said.
He has compared iterations of Adirondack maps through the years to note when roads and rail lines showed up, when towns and lakes were named, when people learned that the Hudson River’s headwaters started on the slopes of Mount Marcy or that the Raquette River flowed northward.
The Finch, Pruyn maps alone offer some future historian a book topic, Terrie said, because they show the workings of a uniquely Adirondack company that had such a hand in shaping the forest and its communities around the time of the park’s formation. “That’s a truly North Country, Adirondack story.”
Much of the magic that Gocker sees in the maps also emanates from industry and development, etching the park’s evolution one town, mine or subdivision at a time. In 2019 we may think of the Adirondack Forest Preserve as wild and untouched, but the maps show a people intent of taming the wilds since colonial days.
“Even for the past 200 years people have been endlessly changing the park,” Gocker said. “It’s a very different way of looking at the park than we do today.”
Soon we’ll have a different way of accessing that history.