Short hike up Cheney offers a view to extraction history
By Tim Rowland
If you hike Cheney Mountain just north of Port Henry on Lake Champlain, you will inevitably find yourself talking about solid waste. But don’t let that deter you. Cheney is a charming, lightly used little peak with three different overlooks along the mile-long trail. It does, however, begin with the traverse of an old landfill, and the standout view looks down over a jaw-dropping heap of mine tailings from the old Switchback iron mine that provided raw material for the guns, tanks and Jeeps that won World War II.
But even if you’re not into rubbish, Cheney has enough natural phenomena to keep even the most discerning hiker entertained.
Champlain Area Trails steward Bill Amadon, Explorer photographer Mike Lynch and I hiked Cheney in the late winter of 2021 as it appeared the pandemic was on the wane (silly us) and it was once again safe to return to topics such as climate change, waste disposal and America’s military-industrial complex.
We chose to hike Cheney for two reasons. One, its modest elevation gain and short length makes it a reasonable snowshoe for those who want some nice winter views without slogging up a more storied massif.
Two, the summertime windows on top of Cheney have become increasingly obstructed by encroaching curtains of leaves, and the views are better from late fall through early spring.
The name Cheney comes from the family that used to own it, but its profile so brilliantly resembles an owl’s head you wonder how—in a park where it seems every other mountain is either an Owls Head, Haystack or Bald— Cheney’s dome escaped a similar fate.
The trailhead is on Pelfershire Road, a secluded byway that you would never find in a thousand years if you weren’t looking for it. This may in part explain why the mountain has yet to be discovered. It’s seen a little more traffic now, following its inclusion in the Moriah Challenge, but even so, you can often have the mountain to yourself.
The trail starts over the old Moriah landfill, evidenced by occasional pipes venting gas created below. The landfill was a poor consolation prize for Cheney, which at one time had been considered as a downhill ski center, according to Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava. But running utilities to the site proved to be problematic, and Cheney became a destination for garbage instead.
By order of the state, which no longer allows trash to be buried in the Adirondacks, the landfill was capped more than 20 years ago. The site was considered as a solar farm, Scozzafava said, but again, it was too expensive to get the juice down to the big transmission lines along the lake. So the trail was cut in 2012, and what was a waste repository prowled by diesel machinery is now a vast meadow with a stellar view of Lake Champlain, which on this day sparkled blue and white set against the soaring, snow-covered peaks of the Green Mountains.
We took a moment as some helpful Canada geese posed for pictures before entering the woods on the other side of the meadow.
The new snow was not deep, maybe six to eight inches, or right at the demarcation line where snowshoes become essential. Being a gentleman, I let Bill and Mike go first, so when it became my turn to ascend, they had the trail pretty well broken.
Shortly after entering the forest, the trail jogs right to join an old woods road, which it follows for about a third of the climb. It’s a moderate grade that steepens as the trail leaves the road through a cleft in the rock and reaches for Cheney’s northern shoulder.
Halfway up is a perfectly flat altar of stone known as Resting Rock, an elongated cube in the middle of the trail where you can feel free to catch your breath, eat a snack, sacrifice a chicken, or whatever floats your boat. Frankly it is less of a comfort than it is a moral dilemma, because a one-mile hike with a polite, 500-foot gain in elevation really shouldn’t require a rest—but if nothing else, it’s a good photo op for the kids, so I’ll leave it at that.
Once atop the shoulder, the trail will arrive at a T of sorts; the main trail bears to the right, while to the left is the Northern Overlook. The spur to the overlook is short and easy, and affords a different perspective on Lake Champlain. Most of the popular lakeside trails have views to the south, likely because prevailing weather systems make it harder for vegetation on southern exposures to take hold.
Here, you can see Westport’s Northwest Bay, along with Split Rock mountain on the New York side, across to the Vermont community of Charlotte (pronounced shar-LOT for you southerners).
Cheney is part of what botanist Jerry Jenkins classifies as the West Champlain Hills featuring the dry-rich environment that is generally accepted as being one of the most diverse in all the park. Storm systems rolling in from the west get hung up in the High Peaks, creating something of a rain shadow along communities on the Adirondack Coast. The hills are not parched, by any means, but they are dry by Adirondack standards. But these lands, with calcium-bearing limestone, are more fertile than the higher mountains and comparatively warmer, allowing a greater variety of trees and plants to thrive. Shagbark hickories, hophornbeam and white oak populate the summit and exposed southern slopes, along with those grizzled members of the pine world, the jack and the pitch, that grow out of scree or rock or other largely soilless spots that are inhospitable to most, more sensible, species.
The protected northern slopes, meanwhile, are a different story. They tend more toward the hemlocks and copious wildflowers of damper environs. Adding to the mix, great aquifers lurk beneath the surface in this region, and in places water drips steadily from the cliffs in the summer, and in winter create massive falls resembling frozen pipe organs.
Hikers on Cheney will notice both the damp and the dry environments. The mosses and ferns clinging to the boulders and the hemlocks on the northern approach give way to the hardwoods higher up. Those who wait for spring will be rewarded on the summit with flowers and numerous vernal pools teeming with life.
In truth, “summit” may be too mighty a word for this modest hill, but at the top the trail levels off and offers a pleasant, easy walk along its crest. The trail divides again toward the end of the route. Heading straight will lead to the Southern Overlook, a view of Bulwagga Bay and Lake Champlain, punctuated by the scenic Champlain Bridge linking Crown Point to Vermont. Here again, the trees are closing in, making this view less memorable in the summer. The property is town-owned, so tree-trimming to restore the full view is an option at some future point.
As it stands, it is the western view that is most open and most interesting. In the distance, a few of the High Peaks pop out here and there, framed by the lower ridges that flank the Northway. Most evident is the monstrous ashen pimple right before your eyes that represents years’ worth of mine waste, 14 million tons of it, from the old Switchback works. No matter where you turn in the Port Henry-Witherbee-Mineville valley, this tailings pile seems to always be right over your shoulder, a volcanic landmark that for better or worse is always part of the scenery.
The name Switchback, incidentally, comes from the contortions of the railroad as it snaked its way up the mountain to the mine. Hideous as the tailings and the rusting metal superstructure might seem at first, there comes a point where blights upon the landscape become grandfathered into the environment and, somehow, become attractions in their own right. I would argue that this is the case with Switchback, and the interest begins by considering that what is present above ground is missing below. Add this tailings pile, which is just the leftover waste, to all the usable material that was removed from the earth and you start to conceive of the massive amounts of subterranean caves and shafts that must exist. And Switchback was just one mine in a town that had many, and it by comparison was not in operation all that long.
Small wonder that by the time the mines closed a half-century ago it would take miners an hour or more to be lowered to the job site, and an equal amount of time to return. When they shut down for good in 1971, there were genuine fears that as the shafts filled with water there would be massive earthquakes and the entire region would just up and sink into the bowels of the earth.
But the area remains stable, and as time has passed thoughts have turned to how this great pile of gray grit may one day find a purpose.
It has proved to be useful in the past, and in fact, many of the houses in nearby Witherbee and Mineville are built from it. For a few years, at the turn of the 20th century, tailings were fashioned into masonry blocks and used for company housing. According to a 1990 paper by Ann-Isabel Friedman (which is searchable online) miner barracks, duplexes and standalone homes were made of the block; today it is possible to tell the importance of the person who lived there long ago by the number of people the building held; newly arrived laborers from Europe were herded into barracks, while more Americanized families that had put down roots might get a duplex and company officials have gotten their own home.
Company brass also had homes that incorporated more architectural frills. Some of this detail is quite impressive, although the color—the block resembles chiseled soot—remains a serious drawback, to my taste. Painting only makes it worse, like putting makeup on a clown with a three-day growth. But it is fascinating nonetheless, and if you hike Cheney it is well worth cruising the streets of Mineville and Witherbee to see these historic homes.
Mine waste that is present throughout the region may also one day have a more futuristic purpose, as it is rich in rare-earth elements, a term for 17 metals with chemical, electronic and magnetic properties that are used in a variety of modern technologies, from cell phones and hard drives to fluorescent lights and self-cleaning ovens.
Adirondack iron is different from the standard variety found in sedimentary bands, and it has different properties. Rare-earth elements are not in fact rare, but they are not concentrated in any one spot. The U.S. has only one rare-earth-element mine, and depends on China for the rest—a problem due to its military applications, said USGS geologist Ryan Taylor.
Taylor has studied these Moriah mine wastes, as the federal government has become more interested in finding a homegrown source for the rare-earth elements. “There’s a new push to investigate waste as a resource,” Taylor said. “The Adirondacks is pretty interesting for what’s in these iron deposits.” If and when it becomes profitable to extract these elements is largely up to private enterprise.
Because the Cheney hike is short—even with all our lollygagging and poking around we were back to the trailhead in an hour and a half—there is plenty of time to picnic, take in the surroundings and theorize about the natural and man-made conundrums that this hike provokes.