Retracing a trek to a historic marker on St. Lawrence, Herkimer county lines
By William Hill
The Great Corner is one of those “if you know, you know” kind of places. Locally it is well known to folks a generation or two older than me. For historians and surveyors, it holds great significance as it was originally an Archibald Campbell survey corner in 1772 and was re-established by Verplanck Colvin on July 17, 1878. Close to 5 million acres of northern New York land surveys are based on this point. But to most casual outdoors adventurers, it’s not even on their radar.
The current Great Corner monument was set in 1904 to give a more fitting marker to the point of the Totten & Crossfield and Macomb lines, and St Lawrence & Herkimer County lines. It is this monument and its unmarked trail that is the destination for a handful of hikers.
It is accessed through the old Andrew Schuler estate in Aldrich, now state-owned (DEC’s Aldrich Pond Wild Forest and Five Ponds Wilderness). Schuler was a man from Cato, NY, who made his fortune with Schuler potato chips and had a wilderness home here for many years before the state’s acquisition. For a time, folks could drive trucks and snowmobiles, or ride bicycles within a few hundred yards of the monument. In a conversation about the state’s acquisition of the Schuler property with DEC Ranger Capt. Paul T. Hartmann (Retired), he mentioned to me that it was visited so often that he was afraid someone would set up a hotdog stand back there.
A change in the DEC’s land use and classification ended the use of motor vehicles through the holdings (with the exception of a section of trail designated MAPPWD – Motorized Access Permit for People with Disabilities). Today the trail receives little maintenance and sparse use past Streeter and Crystal lakes and the Schuler Family Mausoleum.
Making plans to find the Corner
There is not a lot of information on the Great Corner or how to get to it. Over the winter of 2020, I started piecing together what I could gather concerning the Corner. One piece of information I came across mentioned a cast iron stove door, leaning on a tree. This would become the lynchpin of the hike.
I found that tidbit in a recovery report from the Colvin Crew. This group of surveyors’ goal is to “perpetuate the doings and dreams of that pioneer surveyor — Verplanck Colvin.” On Oct. 25, 2009, the crew successfully located the corner.
I used that piece of information and started working up a digital map from old topographic maps of the area. I have had good luck (and sometimes not so much) with current routes following sometimes century-old roads marked on maps of the day. These turned out to be accurate enough for this adventure. So, my plan in a nutshell was to hike six miles until I find a stove door on a tree and look over there. Sounds easy enough.
Our time to put that plan on the ground was May 17, 2020, with my wife, Susan. We had plenty of warm and dry weather leading up to that day, and the DEC’s mud gate on the access road from Aldrich was open.
The day’s journey
We headed south across the old Schuler Estate. Our trek took us through the “potato patch” and past the lakes and lean-to. We found several old campsites, an old sugaring operation, as well as several old logging trucks in various states of dilapidation. We crossed Bassett’s Creek on a sturdy old wooden bridge. A second un-named flow further on had some beaver flooding, but we navigated that well enough.
We later reached the remains of the Bassoute Camp. Of note, there were the remains of the fireplace and a bathtub in the middle of the trail. Of course, I didn’t pass up that photo-op. We drove 5 miles from the nearest paved road, and hiked another 5 miles through the forest and found a bathtub? Well, “take my picture,” then back on the trail.
I knew from my map that we had to be coming close to the vicinity of the stove door. Within a few minutes, there was the famed door leaning against a yellow birch tree. A quick look around showed several arrows chainsawed into the tree. I took a compass bearing and compared that to the map I had prepared, and they were pretty much spot-on. I picked a landmark (another yellow birch tree) and headed SW of the trail, and from that, another landmark. Just past the second, there was the Colvin Great Corner Monument. And not only that but just as described by Colvin himself, was the arrow chiseled into a nearby boulder pointing to the corner. After many happy pictures, we started the 6-mile hike back.
I was well chuffed that my research and planning had gotten us there (and back) and figured that was the one and only time I would visit the Corner.
The next trip
Enter Autumn 2023.
I received a messenger text from one Colin Clark. He was looking to visit the Great Corner and was wondering if I would take him there. I was hesitant as I usually hike solo, or with my wife or close friends. An earlier not-so-pleasant random meeting with a fellow out in the boonies a few weeks prior made me leery.
I reached out to Clark after snooping around Facebook and started a conversation with him about the trek. He was a fellow hiker and had a fascination with all things Colvin-related. He mentioned that this had been on his bucket list for 30 years.
While doing his own research on the Corner, my name kept popping up. I had blogged and Facebooked about my adventure to the Corner, therefore putting my name and the monument together in the digital world.
Another who had come across my name in association with the Corner was freelance writer/local outdoors guy, Tom French. He had an article about two unsuccessful treks to find the monument that referenced me and my trek to the site. French and I have swapped notes on several occasions since then. Clark also found this article, which again brought up my name.
In planning for our trek, I kept a close eye on the weather forecasts. This hike is pretty deep in the forest. You are at the boundary between St Lawrence and Herkimer counties. There is no cell service and the chances of seeing anyone that far back are about nil.
We had arranged to meet at a convenience store in Star Lake at 8 a.m. on Nov. 3. When I pulled in at 7:30 Clark was already there prepping his pack for the day’s adventures. After introductions and pleasantries, we headed to Coffin Mills Road and Aldrich. The morning was dark and gloomy, with rain drizzling. The conversation came easily as we talked about the area’s history and our past hiking experiences.
At about four miles in, we came to a fully beaver-flooded Bassett Creek. On my previous trip through here, the wooden bridge over the creek was about 2 feet over the creek bed. On this trip, about 8 inches of water was over the bridge. And it got worse from there. Any doubts about Clark’s trail hardiness were soon dispelled. Like a champ, he took the lead across the swale without complaint. The next 1/10th mile was clambering over a new beaver dam. Not the nice wide kind that you could walk on, but a loose, muddy mess that guaranteed wet feet.
Shortly down the trail, we reached the Bassoute campsite, and the bathtub was still in the middle of the trail (I don’t suppose it’s going anyplace). Another 1/10th of a mile brought us to the stove door, still leaning against the tree as it was three years ago. From here, it was only a couple hundred yards bushwhack to the Great Corner monument.
I could tell that Clark was as happy to finally be there as I was three years prior. We took plenty of pictures and drank a toast to the day, to Verplanck Colvin, and to newfound friendships.
At this point, the journey was only half over. We backtracked through the swamps to the intersection where the trail splits, and we took the west route instead of reclimbing Francis Hill to the east.
This proved to be a wise choice. The forest was much more scenic, and we traveled along the seldom-travelled upper middle branch of the Oswegatchie River. The route is about the same mileage and rejoins with the other trail in 2 miles. This property is home to one of the largest bogs in the Adirondacks, and you get some glimpses of that along the way. A special treat was viewing several Gray Jays.
As we neared Schuler’s, we side-ventured to Crystal Lake with its beach sand imported from Niagara Falls. We reached our vehicles showing a little over 12 miles of wet, soggy, and wonderful hiking.
I have been in Clark’s position of needing help getting to a destination more than once. I have had people take the time to help me out and it was nice to return the favor down the line.
This hike isn’t for everyone. It’s got some sketchy water crossings. During the summer months, it holds a veritable buffet of flying bugs waiting to take a bite of you. There are no High Peaks to climb or see. The only mountain is 1,767-foot Streeter Mountain. I’d dare say that more hikers visit Mt. Marcy in a day than visit the Corner in a year. Despite all of that, this is an amazing hike to an off-the-radar historic destination. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back there again someday.
To learn more about Colvin’s search for the Great Corner, Paul Schaefer’s book, “Adirondack Explorations- Nature Writings of Verplanck Colvin” contains the story in Colvin’s own words.