Marshall’s pamphlet of the peaks nears centennial
By Philip Terrie
In the heyday of 19th century sport in the Adirondacks the classic image of recreation in our region involved boats. This was the era of Murray’s Fools, the tourist boom precipitated by W. H. H. Murray’s best-selling “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks” (1869). Campers camped, hunters hunted, and anglers fished on and around water. Guides rowed their guideboats, while clients cast their flies. Or they shot white-tailed deer chased to water by hounds or hypnotized by jacklights along lake or river shores. In mass-produced lithography, sold coast to coast by Currier and Ives, the popular image of Adirondack recreation overwhelmingly focused on water.
A few people made their way up Marcy and others of the peaks accessible (at that time, barely) from Newcomb, Keene Valley, and Lake Placid. Some of the classic travel narratives from the mid-19th century include envy-inducing accounts of scrambling up Marcy, usually along the Lake Colden and Opalescent River route, and a summit shared with no one: Joel T. Headley’s “The Adirondack” (1849) and Benson Lossing’s “The Hudson” (1866), for example. A well-worn Adirondack anecdote is the tale of how Theodore Roosevelt learned that he was about to become president of the United States while climbing Marcy from the Tahawus Club in 1901. Where they existed at all, trails were rough and uncompromisingly steep, laid out, with no regard for erosion and without such modern design features as switchbacks or water bars, by local guides hired by the rare client willing to get around by foot rather than lounging in the stern of a guideboat.
But there was one especially talented writer who described, in marvelous, often hyper-ventilated prose, the excitement of climbing and working among the High Peaks. This was State Surveyor Verplanck Colvin, whose annual reports to the legislature constitute some of the most stirring Adirondack writing of his or any era. Most of his work was outside the High Peaks, as he searched for ancient boundaries and mapped previously unknown ponds throughout the vast area now surrounded by our blue line. But his accounts of a midnight descent from Gothics or of the arduous labor of running meticulously accurate leveling stations all the way from Lake Champlain to the summit of Marcy—a feat completed in an October blizzard— inspired a few readers to follow in his footsteps and perhaps plant their feet in places where even Colvin and other hikers had not preceded them.
Among these were teenage brothers Robert and George Marshall, whose family spent summers at Knollwood, a compound on Lower Saranac Lake. In the 1910s Bob and George discovered in their father’s library copies of the book-length reports Colvin submitted to the state legislature. Colvin’s adventures grabbed them, and they began planning adventures of their own. They pored over Colvin’s prose and pulled out the current maps. Eventually they concocted a scheme to occupy their summer days and challenge their stamina and route-finding. The execution of this plan was written up by Bob Marshall as a pamphlet, “The High Peaks of the Adirondacks,” published by the fledgling Adirondack Mountain Club in 1922. It was ADK’s and Marshall’s first publication—the first of many for both author and club. The centennial of this brief and now-rare item is right around the corner.
Eventually they, along with the family’s guide and friend of many years, Herbert Clark of Saranac Lake, landed on a plan to ascend every one of the high peaks over 4,000 feet high. First, they had to define what they meant by a “high peak.” Is Mount Seward one peak or several? Ditto for Santanoni and for several other massifs. This pamphlet does not explain how they answered these questions, but it shares their conclusions: Mount Seward offers three peaks—now known as Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons—and there are three Santanonis—now named Santanoni, Panther, and Couchsachraga. The Marshalls concluded that there were forty-two 4000-footers.
They bagged their first peak, Whiteface, in 1918, and the 42nd in 1922. Then Bob wrote the text for his pamphlet, including a description of each route. Most summits, even such now-well-trailed peaks as Colden, were climbed without the benefit of a marked trail. He also reported his and his companions’ assessment of the view from each peak. True to his inclination for numbering everything, Bob compiled their judgment on the views in a rating system, from number one, Haystack, to forty-two, Nye.
ADK quickly printed Marshall’s booklet, and a century of Adirondack peak bagging was about to begin. One of the first readers was Russell M. L. Carson, an active member of ADK and an insurance salesman in Glens Falls. Intrigued by what he read, he wanted to know more. He corresponded assiduously with both Marshalls and dived deep into local libraries and archives. The result was another publication, this time a book, “Peaks and People of the Adirondacks” (1927). Along the way, Carson proposed four peaks the Marshalls had missed (which they climbed as soon as they got the word). He also researched the history of trails, names, and first ascents.
Carson’s book, now listing 46 High Peaks, inspired a group of friends in Troy, NY, to follow the Marshalls’ footsteps, and a few years after that the Adirondack Forty-Sixers were a reality. The story of the routes, the complex saga of how a few Adirondack peaks have undergone several name changes, and much invaluable historical context have been elaborated and expanded in a series of books published by the Forty-Sixers, most recently “Heaven Up-h’isted-ness!: The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks” (2011). If you want details—lots of details!—about the High Peaks, this is the book for you.
But it all started with the Marshalls and, especially, Bob Marshall’s contagious enthusiasm for climbing Adirondack peaks. His pamphlet came along at just the right moment. By the 1920s, a few decades after the establishment of the Forest Preserve (1885) and the Adirondack Park (1892), the threat of catastrophic fires was receding as the state of New York began regulating logging and the demand for eastern logs declined in the face of competition from the Southeast and the West. The state conservation bureaucracy, established to protect the watershed vital to New York commerce, began looking around for new reasons to justify its existence. One answer was obvious: recreation. As previously logged lands were acquired by the state, the Forest Preserve was growing. Middle-class American families were taking vacations in affordable, mass-produced automobiles on newly hardened state highways, and many of them wanted to get back to nature and test their woodcraft skills.
State foresters reluctantly acknowledged that the constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve (1894-5) meant that they would probably never be supervising the harvest of trees, so they directed their energies to (and earned their salaries from) promoting recreation. The state built lean-tos, laid out trails, and published maps and guidebooks. The 1920s saw the roots of Adirondack recreation as we now know it: families on vacation, finding their own way without a hired guide. Some canoed from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, while others bought rucksacks, perused Carson’s “Peaks and People,” and set off for Lake Placid or Keene Valley. Before the 1920s, the state’s primary argument for protecting the Forest Preserve was the critical importance of Adirondack and Catskill water to the state economy, with recreation always a close second. After the first World War, the watershed argument more or less disappeared from public parlance, and decisions—often controversial and contested—revolved strictly around what best suited the state’s recreational needs. Robert Marshall’s pamphlet and ADK’s eagerness to publish it were prescient.
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This was a very fascinating and level-headed account of how New York came to love recreation, often at all costs, bar none, full-speed ahead. I have often wondered why we diverged from our neighbors to the North, from mostly trailless canoe wilderness to summit trails and terrestrial lean-to circuits, for better or worse (obviously topography is a factor as well). As the famous quote from the ever-prescient Leopold goes: “But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Histories like these allow us to wonder “what if (we did things differently)”.
(And a man who chooses to casually include an archive.org link should be endlessly praised and cherished by all of mankind. Thank you, Mr. Terrie!)
Phil Terrie says
Thank you, JB! (By the way, there are two typos in my article, caught by the sharp eye of my friend Ted Comstock of Saranac Lake. Colvin’s first name is properly spelled Verplanck, and the publication of Lossing book on the Hudson is 1866.)
Melissa Hart says
All fixed, thanks!
the title does the story mention nye did i miss it