(Former Explorer Publisher Dick Beamish interviewed longtime Newcomb supervisor George Canon for the November/December 2007 issue. Canon died Sunday, June 18, at the age of 77.)
Tucked away in the woods on the south side of the High Peaks, many miles from a supermarket or even a gas station, the town of Newcomb has been struggling for years to reverse its slide toward oblivion. The economy has largely dried up, and the town’s year-round population has declined from a high of 1,500 in 1970 to one-third of that today. George Canon has experienced it all, from the closing of the titanium mines and the two sawmills to the shrinking of school enrollment from 350 a few decades ago to 64 (including six foreign students) this fall. As the town supervisor for Newcomb, Canon, one of the most outspoken and influential local-government leaders in the Adirondack Park, has been fighting for his town’s survival since taking office in 1989. Here he discusses the prospects for this isolated community, including its potential as the jumping off place for some of the finest wilderness recreation in the Northeast.
Are you an Adirondack native? I am. I was born in Indian Lake and have been in Newcomb since I was 8, in 1946. My father was a lumberjack with W. E. Ward. When the second world war started he got a job in Massena doing defense work at the aluminum company. My mother was born in Piercefield, up near Tupper Lake. After the war, my father said, “I’m going back to the woods,” and he came back to Newcomb—to Tahawus—to work at the sawmill. When the mill shut down, he went to work at the mines there in the late ’50s, not long after I got out of high school. He took on other jobs, too, such as washing dishes at the commissary where the single men lived.
Were times ever tough for your family? We were pretty poor. Teresa [state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward] and I had this argument about which of us was poorer. I think I won.
As a kid were you aware you were poor? I was aware of it. At the time I graduated from high school in 1957, there was no electricity in my house, no running water. It was basically a tar-paper shack. I remember getting on the school bus in the morning and the kids looking out the windows at my house—my shack—and feeling ashamed. To this day it drives me somewhat.
You felt they were looking down on you? Yes, and I don’t think I was imagining it. Of course, there were other kids in the same boat. Nobody ever said anything really—kids can be cruel if they want to be. I never had that. But it was kind of humiliating, like when we had a junior prom and the coach asked if I was coming, and I said, “no.” He asked why, and I told him I only had sneakers, no regular shoes. So he got me a pair of size 9 shoes. Trouble was, I take about size 5, so the shoes didn’t begin to fit. I guess there’s still some anger in me, but I also have a compassion for people who maybe had a little tougher time than others, and I do what I can to try to lift them up.
How else does your background “drive” you? One of the ways you pull yourself out of poverty is through hard work. Certainly I wanted a better life than I had. It made me really ambitious. For example, the first 15 years I was town supervisor I worked six days a week. I was here every Saturday.
Is there much poverty still around here? Very little. When we have our post office food drives once a year, the town distributes the collections. It’s somewhat difficult to find someone who really needs the food. We’re in good shape in that way.
What did you do after you graduated? I went up to the National Lead mines to work in 1960. I started as a laborer in the cinder plant, did some cleanup work, then went into the mine offices as a clerk for about five years. Then they needed a computer programmer and put me into that position to learn the job. In 1969 they promoted me to chief programmer in charge of the department. I did that until the mines shut down in 1989. I was one of the last employees, and the last resident of Adirondac, the little settlement that’s now a ghost town near the old blast furnace. That’s up at Lake Henderson at what’s called the Upper Works. The houses were owned by the mine, and most of them have long since collapsed. The one I lived in has fallen to the ground and is pretty hard to find now, it’s so grown over.
That must have been a sad day for Newcomb when the mine closed. It was. I was 49 years old. I had intended to work there until I retired, like a lot of others. So I had to find another job. That year Charlie Madison, who was then town supervisor, was retiring, so I threw my hat in the ring. There was another candidate for the job, the retired high-school principal. We squared off, and I was fortunate enough to win the election. I’ve been here ever since.
Do you recall the vote in your first election? I truly do. There were about 300 votes cast, and I got about 200 of them. It was a 2-to-1 ratio.
Any chance the mine might reopen someday? I had that hope for a long time. There’s tremendous magnetite ore reserves there—some 50 million tons of it still in the ground. But the electrical power that goes into the place, the power line from Ticonderoga, you’d need at least $10 million to rehabilitate it. I don’t think that extracting the ore we know is there would justify all the cost. Plus the state has the area squeezed in with their new acquisitions. To get a permit with all the state land around the mines would be nearly impossible.
What about the railroad line that used to run between the mine at Tahawus and North Creek? Is it worth restoring as a tourist attraction? Probably not. It’s too long a ride, and when you get to the end of the line, what’s there? Nothing. But the part that goes from North Creek to Minerva, a relatively short haul, might be feasible with a dinner train and all.
What’s the biggest challenge facing Newcomb? One of my greatest concerns is absentee ownership. We’re seeing an influx of second-home owners, just like all over the Adirondacks, and a loss of permanent residents since the mining and logging ended. For the most part, the people moving into second homes don’t have the sense of history and belonging. We have difficulty finding volunteers for our fire department and ambulance squad. This worries me.
What’s the best future for Newcomb? We’ve got to go back a hundred years to when Newcomb was a tourist destination. People used to come for hunting and fishing. Now we’ve got a lot more to offer. We need to capitalize on that.
What else does Newcomb have going for it? You name it. We’ve got a wonderful state campground and town beach on Lake Harris. We’ve restored the fire tower and there’s a two-mile nature trail up Goodnow Mountain, which has one of the best views and easiest climbs in the Adirondacks. We’ve got the Hudson River running through here for fishing and paddling. We’ve restored Great Camp Santanoni on Newcomb Lake, with a five-mile trail running in there that’s accessible by foot or horse-drawn cart. It’s also a great ski trip. We’ve got the state’s Visitor Interpretive Center just down the road with its nature trails on Rich Lake. There’s the Adirondack Ecology Center, operated by the state university’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which is becoming a major research center for the Adirondacks. And now we have a nine-hole golf course that has some the most scenic fairways in the world.
How did you manage to land a golf course? Well, we knew that the state was going to require us to cap our landfill at some point. Charlie Madison, my predecessor, had the foresight to see this was coming, so we started setting aside money for this purpose. Over the years we accumulated nearly $1 million. Then the state legislature decided that if a town has less than 3,500 people, the state will pay 95% of the costs of closing the dump. Suddenly we’re sitting on all that money. We had already acquired the property for the golf course, a hundred acres, from National Lead in the early ’90s. So now we could afford to build our golf course. It opened last year with nine holes. Business this year has really picked up, and we’re able to cover overhead and maintenance from our revenues. I’d like to see it expanded someday, since an 18-hole municipal course draws a lot more people and is much more profitable to a community.
How come more tourists haven’t discovered Newcomb? It’s a kind of chicken-and-egg thing: Which comes first, the tourists or the facilities? To get people to come here, you need the services and accommodations, but to get those, you need the people. When Stewart’s looked at Newcomb as a possible site for a convenience store and gas station, they did a road count and decided we didn’t have the traffic to justify it. We have some excellent smallscale businesses like Aunt Polly’s Inn and a canoe-outfitting operation with some rental cabins. We have a small diner and grocery store. What we need now are some entrepreneurs who see the potential here and say, “We will build it, and they will come.” We need somebody with money and vision who can afford to invest and then wait a little while until it pays off. Tourism also creates a need for carpenters and electricians and other jobs. Right now, though, all we can do is keep doing what we’re doing and hope we’re successful before the end comes.
What’s the town’s population? In 1970 it was around 1,500, when the mine and the mills were still going. Now it’s around 500.
What does that mean for the Newcomb Central School, which has one of the lowest enrollments of any K-12 school in New York State? Yeah, we were down to 58 kids this fall.
Have you considered consolidating with the school in Long Lake, about 15 miles west of here, or Minerva, which is 20 miles to the south? Well, I’ve always said I have no trouble with consolidation, just so long as Minerva comes to Newcomb or Long Lake comes to Newcomb. Look, your school is your identity. You lose that and you’ve lost the community.
But how can the Newcomb school survive if enrollment continues to decline? Maybe it can’t, but I’ll tell you what’s hopeful. Our principal, Skip Hults, has figured out a way to build enrollment and also add diversity. He lined up six foreign students who are attending high school here this year—two kids from Germany and others from France, China, Sweden and Brazil. That increased the student body to 64. That’s a 10% increase over last year, and we hope it’s just be the beginning.
Why would foreign students come to Newcomb? Lots of reasons. They can perfect their English and maybe go on to college in this country. The classes are really small so they get individual attention. The school and the community are safe, which also appeals to the parents. In a big school the kids from other countries might feel lost, but here they get to know everyone and can participate in everything—sports, student government, social clubs, whatever. They are living with families in town, which also adds to their educational experience. Skip thinks there’s potential for 20 or 30 foreign students. So that’s the thrust right now—if we don’t have enough students locally, we’ll import them.
Is your school the biggest employer in Newcomb? It is. The school employs about 30 people. That’s another reason we can’t afford to lose it.
But how can the town afford to keep the school open when the cost per student is now over $60,000 a year? We have a favorable tax situation here. Our town consists of about 144,000 acres, and nearly half of that is state land on which the state pays taxes of about $4 million.
So this state money is a boon to Newcomb? No doubt about it. The problem is, you can’t depend on that continuing. About 15 years ago the state made an effort to change that tax structure and drastically reduce state payments. The state was not successful that time, thanks to Senator Ron Stafford and others. But when the state gets all the land it wants in the Adirondacks they could say, “To hell with it!”, and not pay any taxes any more.
How much state land do you think is enough? Some say 50% is enough, and in the Adirondack Park we’ve about reached that point.
If you include the conservation easements on private land, it comes out to a little more than half the Park that can’t be developed. Not in Newcomb. With the recent purchase of Finch, Pruyn land by the Nature Conservancy, about 80% of our town will be either Forest Preserve or under conservation easements. Where does it stop? What will be left for new housing or businesses or anything else? Not much.
So you think that more state land or conservation easements will hurt the town’s economy? I really do. Don’t you think there might be a connection between more and more state ownership and the fact that our school now has only a small fraction of the 350 students it once had? I wouldn’t say it’s all coincidental. What I do say is that there has to be a limit on the amount of state land in our towns. State ownership lays a dead hand on the land.
How so? In the Adirondacks, all the state land is Forest Preserve, where no logging is allowed. I believe this must be corrected someday. Article 14 [the “forever wild” provision of the state constitution] will be revisited when there’s no wood fiber left anywhere. People will recognize that it’s not unhealthy to cut down a tree. Article 14 was a total overreaction to the bad logging practices of an earlier time. Now we’ve got a law that’s unreasonable.
You see the Forest Preserve as a waste? I do. Trees are a renewable resource that should be utilized. I’m also concerned that the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of Finch, Pruyn land will result in more Forest Preserve that’s put into the Wilderness classification, where no snowmobiling is allowed. That’s happened previously. In the town of Newcomb, there’s already plenty of Wilderness in the High Peaks. If you want to go hiking there and look at birds, that’s fine. If you want to go snowmobiling you should be able to do that, too, in the Wild Forest areas of the Preserve. I’m also concerned that putting more land into Wilderness will preclude having snowmobile connector trails between here and Minerva and Indian Lake.
How do you feel about the Adirondack Park Agency, the state agency that controls development on the private lands? I want the APA to administer its law fairly. What I have a problem with is when they decide that something will have an “undue adverse impact” whenever they want to stop development. Let them administer the law but not impose a philosophy on us.
Can you give me an example? There’s nothing in their regulations that says you can’t have an expansion of a hamlet area on the APA map to allow more room for growth, just because you don’t have municipal sewer or water. But the APA’s position, at least unofficially, is that if you don’t have that infrastructure, you can’t expand your hamlet. That’s crazy. It means that the hamlet of Newcomb can never be expanded—we will always be hemmed in on all sides—because I can’t imagine building a system to bring water five miles to our hamlet from the Hudson River.
Have you applied to the APA for a hamlet expansion? It wouldn’t do any good. I’ve been watching this for 18 years now, and there have been no hamlet expansions. You know, at one point the agency came out with a “model sanitary code.” If the towns in the Park had adopted it, as the APA wanted, it would have taken 90% of the private land out of development. It would have banned the raised-fill septic systems in the Adirondacks, the so-called mound system. Our soils in Newcomb are such that for any new development you have to have that raised-fill option. It would have blown Newcomb out of the water.
How would you judge the APA overall? Is it a good thing they’re here? Maybe. We’ve learned to live with the 42-acre zoning [on about half the Park’s private land] and other regulations. Of course, in the early ’90s, Governor Cuomo’s people wanted to increase that to 100-acre zoning. But we didn’t swallow that one down.
How is your relationship these days with the Adirondack environmental groups? It’s no secret that I don’t care for Peter Bauer [until recently executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks]. Do I disagree philosophically with the Adirondack Mountain Club and the others? Sure. I probably wouldn’t agree with you on a lot of things, either. But Bauer has this arrogance about him that rubs me the wrong way. He has a way of aggravating you.
For example? We were wrapping up the state’s Comprehensive Snowmobile Plan in the last six months of the Pataki administration. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was getting ready to implement at least parts of it. Bauer was a participant in all those meetings, and at the end he said, “Go ahead and do what you want to do, DEC. My administration is taking over in January, and they’ll undo everything you do anyhow.” With that he walked out the door.
What about Dave Gibson, who heads the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks? I can sit down and have a civil discussion with him. But I think David really stretches Article 14 to the extreme, the constitutional provision that makes the state land “forever wild.” For example, snowmobiling has been going on here since the 1960s, but he just doesn’t think there should be any snowmobiles or trail groomers anywhere in the Forest Preserve. He’s fought it every step of the way. I think he would be happy to have everyone out of the Park and have the whole thing be a 6 million-acre wilderness without anybody in it.
What about hikers and paddlers and cross-country skiers? I’m not sure he’s too fond of them, either.
What do you think of the Adirondack Explorer? I had reservations about it at first. But then I saw that you were presenting the varying points of view fairly, and I appreciate that, even though you do lean left a little.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments in office? I’m proud of heading the Association of Towns and Villages (AATV) for 12 years. We created that organization in response to Governor Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century. They wanted to lock up the Adirondack Park, including most of the private land. They even tried to put a moratorium on building—can you imagine the impact that would have on the Adirondack economy?—and they wanted to bring back wolves! The AATV and other groups that sprang up at that time managed to stop the Cuomo Commission in its tracks.
What else are you proud of? I helped to get a reimbursement to Adirondack towns to compensate for losses from the forest-tax exemption for timber companies—a tax-break that encourages good forestry and benefits the state overall, but was then shortchanging local governments. I worked on that one for 10 years. Betty Little [the state senator who represents most of the Adirondacks] played a key role in getting that law passed. I’m also proud of helping to save Great Camp Santanoni, the historic landmark that the state and the environmentalists wanted to remove, and which is now a major tourist attraction. I’m proud of the new golf course and lots of other things, though we have enormous challenges ahead to establish a strong tourist base and get our town population back to 1,500, which I think is the optimum size for Newcomb.
Will you ever retire? I plan to serve one more two-year term, if I’m reelected, and retire after that.
Won’t you get bored, no longer being in the thick of things? I don’t think so. There’s a lot of other things I’m interested in For example, I want to go to places like Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. My wife is a great fan of country music, so we’ll certainly visit Nashville. If the Gooley Club is still in business after this latest land acquisition— it’s a hunting and fishing club I belong to that we leased from Finch-Pruyn before the Nature Conservancy bought the land—I’d like to spend more time there. I was an avid trapper before I became town supervisor, and I’d like to get back to that. I believe in the principle of thinning the herd to keep it healthy.
What did you trap? Fisher and coyote and fox, some mink. I did it for the enjoyment of being in the woods and matching wits with the animals. A lot of times they outsmarted me. ■