A trip down Tahawus road provides peak into Adirondack history, as well as serving as southern High Peaks gateway
By Tim Rowland
Perhaps the first niggling thing picking at the back of your head on the drive up to the southern entrance to the High Peaks in Newcomb is that the road is too good.
Oh, it has its share of potholes and frost heaves, to be sure, but the thick slab of faded macadam and self-important yellow lines advising motorists when they are allowed to pass and when they are not, are out of keeping with the swamps, forests and wilderness that give the territory the feel of an Alaska outpost. For 20 minutes of drive time, Tahawus Road keeps up appearances, long after other byways of its ilk would have gone to gravel or dirt, its yellow paint hanging on.
Then, as the miles go by, industrial specters begin to appear—through the spruce and tamarack there are glimpses of rusted equipment, forgotten heaps of crushed aggregate and still-standing iron artifacts that were no doubt important in their time, but whose use today is anyone’s guess.
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Up this road, once upon a time, were towns and industries; sportsmen and women from the cities, and adventurers that included a U.S. president; the Adirondacks’ first bank; investors and inventors who were the Warren Buffetts and Elon Musks of their time; laborers who filled rail cars with the metals that helped win the Second World War. Incredibly, down this road came an entire village on the back of big trucks—houses, apartment buildings, a store and two churches that had to be moved when valuable ore was discovered beneath its foundations.
The stories go on as long as the road itself.
The road had to be good, because it got a lot of use, said Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria. It was maintained by an industrial tax base that no longer exists. Such a road could not be afforded today, he said.
But there was a time that this road used to be somebody, when it handled a steady volume of traffic and was the economic spine of the town. And its partisans believe that day will come again.
Upper Works: More than a parking lot
Take a tour of the highlights of the new Upper Works parking lot in a photo gallery by Mike Lynch
Tahawus Road finally runs out of steam at a community known as Adirondac, which has had three separate incarnations during the past two centuries, and is about to enter its fourth. Over the Sept. 10 weekend, the Open Space Institute will officially unveil its $1 million makeover of what is commonly known as the Upper Works trailhead, a place, frankly, that most people have visited through the years not out of choice, but out of duty as they scratch the southern peaks of Allen, Cliff, Redfield and the Santanonis off their 46er to-do list.
OSI and the Town of Newcomb—and ultimately the state itself—want to change that perception. “We love this place, and we’re very proud of the public benefit it’s going to provide,” said Eileen Larrabee, senior vice president for communications at OSI.
The institute preserved 10,000 acres of this countryside in 2003, transferring all but about 212 to the state. Those 212 acres hold an extraordinary amount of Adirondack history, remnants of the hand of man that would have had to be destroyed if they had been incorporated into the state’s Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Instead, OSI, with the help of the town, has relocated and expanded the parking lot to a 60-car capacity, created an attractive promenade with historical interpretations leading to the trailhead, built a scenic and historic trail along the Hudson and stabilized the ruins of a massive iron furnace and the MacNaughton Cottage, which once served as a base camp for the explorations of Teddy Roosevelt.
In 2003, Adirondac was generally referred to as a ghost town (it still attracts interest from paranormal aficionados), a handful of rotting buildings whose pedigree was unclear and often misunderstood.
Adirondac as a community dated back to the 1820s, when a fiddle-playing dynamo named David Henderson coaxed investors into helping him extract iron ore deep in the mountains—ore that would have been of exceptional quality if not for a troublesome impurity that affected its hardness.
Henderson was killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm in 1845, but before he died he changed the shape of the Adirondacks, rerouting rivers, creating lakes, sculpting an industrial community and more or less treating the erstwhile howling wilderness as his own personal sandbox.
The making of a ghost town
This, said Michaela Sweeney, senior parks project associate for OSI, was the first iteration of Adirondac, one which included mines, mills, the first Adirondack bank, a post office and numerous support buildings for miners and managers. Indeed, if you had suggested to one of the venerable 19th century mountain men that Lake Placid, not Newcomb, would become the beating heart of the Adirondacks, he might have stared at you as if he were conversing with a giraffe.
But it was not to be. In 1853, the Adirondack Iron and Steel Co. completed what’s known as the “new furnace,” the stone monstrosity encountered today just prior to arriving at the Upper Works parking lot. The investment, something like $1.3 million in today’s dollars, could churn out bars of pig iron, but it couldn’t shorten the distance between Adirondac and the far-off markets that could use it. The last fire died out in its hearth less than three years after the first one was lit. Somewhat ironically, Adirondac stopped producing iron on the eve of the Civil War, which, of course, might have created some use for it.
But with one exception, the buildings of the early 19th century mining town that came to take the name Adirondac were not the buildings of the ghost town visible at the end of the 20th century. The only one that survived was the manager’s building, now known as the MacNaughton Cottage, which was occupied by caretakers who dutifully presided over the slow deterioration of the others.
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A walk through history
By 1880, logging had superseded mining as the industry du jour, and thoughts of work at Adirondac had turned into thoughts of play. This began the Club Era of Adirondac, in which a band of sportsmen built clubhouses and cottages on the ruins of the old mining town, where they amused themselves by hunting, fishing, playing lawn tennis and even taking a stab at raising moose.
These, with some later modification, were the buildings of the Adirondac ghost town, but by the turn of the 21st century most all were beyond saving. OSI has instead creatively and effectively interpreted these cottages by removing all but the stone and brick fireplaces and chimneys, then installing plaques with renderings of what the cottages would have looked like in their day, along with a word about their occupants.
This walk through history extends from the new parking lot to the Upper Works Trailhead, where the old parking lot used to be. “It’s a beautiful grand entrance to the trailhead, letting you know that you’re someplace special,” Larrabee said.
It’s special enough that history fans will be enticed to visit, even if hiking or paddling are not on their agenda. At the end of the promenade, visitors with no further destination can double back along a new trail that follows the Hudson downstream, past a pile of rubble that was an earlier furnace, an old pump house and other industrial artifacts, along with the site of the “iron dam” across the river, a natural formation of ore that amazed Henderson and inspired his developments two centuries ago.
Even without the history, the trail is a worthwhile destination on its own, an evergreen-lined stroll along the bank of the churning Hudson River at a point where, if you care to impress your friends down in the cities, you can still throw a stone to the opposite shore.
The MacNaughton Cottage, built in 1834, was nearly past the point of no return when it was rescued by OSI. Its most celebrated moment is at the spot where Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and his family were staying when he learned President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, prompting his legendary flight out of the mountains.
Larrabee said the cottage has been stabilized and will eventually be restored and used as space for an outfitter and as a center for hiking and paddling information and supplies.
Transformation to Tahawus
As with the original mining town, the second, club iteration of Adirondack petered out, only to be revived by World War II and an insatiable demand for metal. With the tailwind of government support, once again the housing served miners and their families by those in the employ of National Lead, which had discovered that the impurity that so bedeviled their 19th century counterparts was in fact titanium dioxide, a turn of events that would give the mines another half century of life. By the time the mines closed for good in 1989, 40 million tons of titanium had been dug from the earth.
The houses of Adirondac were nowhere near accommodation enough for the workforce, which spilled into the nearby company housing community of Tahawus (although not technically correct, the entire region, including Adirondac, is often referred to as Tahawus).
A worm in the woodpile was that the new company town was, as it turned out, sitting atop a rich vein of ore valuable enough to make moving the entire village an option. They did that, in 1963. More than 90 buildings were jacked up, set on dollies and trundled a dozen miles down the road to a new development in Newcomb. For those who doubt this would be possible, 25 minutes of video evidence appears on YouTube.
An unassuming gateway
Nicole Carpenter and her three co-hikers from Burlington—Eric Coker, Jason Weinstein and Terry Zigmund—fit the mold for how state and local agencies hope the Adirondac-Upper Works plays out. Looking for High Peak access that would be less crowded than trailheads to the north, they noticed the trails emanating from the Upper Works.
They were thrilled with the result, taking the unconventional approach to Mount Marcy. “It was phenomenal hiking,” Carpenter said. “The Opalescent (River) was amazing, and we never would have seen it if we hadn’t come in from this direction.”
The parking lot on the day they returned was perhaps three-quarters full, with a steady stream of arriving hikers—but still a far cry from anything to be found in Keene Valley. Learning the history of the area was icing on the cake, and inspired a goodly share of discussion on the trail, Weinstein said.
While some of the High Peaks that are accessible from the Upper Works are not always the most popular—Cliff and Allen, in particular, have reputations as mountains that everyone should climb once, not oftener—there are multiple adventures that fly under the radar of most visitors.
Mount Adams, accessed from the Allen trailhead just up from the blast furnace, is a fierce little climb, but by consensus has one of the best views in all the park. Lake Henderson offers memorable views of Wallface, immortalized by Hudson River School landscapist Charles Day Hunt.
“Henderson is a gem; it’s a very rugged and deep glacial type of lake,” said Ruth Olbert, who, with her husband Dave, owns Cloudsplitter Outfitters in Newcomb. “People walk to it and they see that little spur, and they have no idea what’s around the corner.”
Even Mount Marcy is only 2 extra miles from the Upper Works when compared to the trailhead at the Adirondak Loj. And as outdoorsman and Adirondack Daily Enterprise writer Aaron Cerbone noted, only partly in jest, if you have to park 2 miles away from the Loj because of the crowds, it’s a wash. The Marcy approach from the Upper Works, too, has a spectacular reach along the Opalescent and, higher up, Feldspar Brook, with its flumes and falls, and deep crystal pools glittering with stones of copper, rust and bronze.
John Miller of Rochester, a veteran of the backcountry who, after a rigorous morning on the trails still had enough gas in the tank to emerge from the woods at a dead sprint, said he appreciates the Upper Works for its remote destinations, such as the haunting trail through Indian Pass and Shepherd’s Tooth, a rocky dewclaw on the side of Iroquois that’s a playground for the hardcore. The crowds and the permitting system at Adirondack Mountain Reserve, to the north, also left a bit of a bad taste in his mouth, Miller said.
“Overall, people love it,” Olbert said. “They’re impressed with the level of information, and it looks great, too. It’s really something.”
The two most popular trailheads at the Upper Works attracted 30,000 hikers last June-to-June, said OSI’s Sweeney: a solid showing, but just a fifth of what the AMR and Garden trailheads in Keene Valley reported just last summer—which of course does not include the Adirondak Loj and a bevy of second-tier trailheads.
The state, with its Adirondack Gateway project in North Hudson, has bought into the idea of popularizing the south side of the High Peaks so as to spread hikers more evenly around the mountains. Dave Hughes, Town of Newcomb advertising assistant, said the area stands ready to be “the answer to Route 73,” the busy highway accessing the peaks’ north side, and that the Upper Works makeover is a big step in that direction
The gains so far have been slow but steady. People are impressed with the Paradox Brewery and the work that’s gone into fixing up the Frontier Town A-frame at the Northway’s Exit 29, along with the state-design campground in North Hudson, a half hour to the east, Hughes said.
The Blue Ridge Road connecting North Hudson and Newcomb had a moment in the sun with the much-anticipated opening of Boreas Ponds, but the Boreas access road washed out in the 2019 Halloween storm, and has yet to be fixed.
While it has nowhere near the amenities of Lake Placid, Newcomb does have a network of small inns, two campgrounds and two acclaimed restaurants, the Newcomb Café and Campground and Lake Harris Lodge. After years without, it is now possible to buy gas in Newcomb.
Hughes ticks off the other attractions that may help pull people south: The Town Overlook has a heart-throbbing view of the Santanonis and other High Peaks that people can enjoy without even leaving their car. Great Camp Santanoni is a beautifully preserved totem to the age of wilderness excess. The Essex Chain is some of the best paddling around; Goodnow and Vanderwhacker mountains are popular fire tower hikes; and Wolf Pond is a hike of a little more than 2 miles one-way that has views somewhat similar to Boreas Ponds—yet it remains widely undiscovered.
For those arriving to the Adirondack Park from southern cities, Larrabee notes, Newcomb represents a savings in time from driving all the way to Lake Placid. And if hikers begin to see the Upper Works as a viable entrance to the Peaks, a percentage could be siphoned off to ease the numbers that inundated Keene Valley, while bolstering the economic prospects for Newcomb and the Five Towns that make up what’s been branded as the Adirondack Hub.
Newcomb’s Supervisor DeLoria compared the situation to a gyroscope, where, once wheels begin to spin, the energy is multidimensional. “We just have to get that wheel spinning,” he said.
The town has introduced an app highlighting local attractions and events, which is seeing an increased number of hits. At Cloudsplitter, Olbert said 2020 was a banner year, with a number of “never-evers,” mountain neophytes who had to be taught how to light a camp stove. This year there have not been as many newbies, but some of the previous never-evers have come back. “This is definitely something we have been hoping would happen,” she said.
That’s good for business, the town, hikers and, most of all, one of the more striking regions in the park. “It’s in our DNA to protect the land, and also to make sure people have a good experience,” Larrabee said. “This is an accessible and beautiful place.”
Don’t miss a thing
This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Subscribe now to receive 7 issues a year delivered to your mailbox and/or inbox.