Plenty of history, scenery to take in as you work off the pie
By Tim Rowland
Growing up in rural West Virginia (which is to say, all of West Virginia) there were no such things as Turkey Trots. I don’t even want to think what would have happened to someone peddling such an idea.
That’s not to say no one got any pre-drumstick exercise. Most fathers, sons and a few daughters were out in the woods at daybreak on Thanksgiving, tramping through miles of woods hunting deer and, more to the point, avoiding the kitchen at all costs.
There is no question that more beers were drunk than deer were shot, to the point that many fathers charged with the ceremonial carving of the turkey produced a bird that looked as if it had been fed into a wood chipper.
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But for those who want a little or a lot of holiday weekend exercise, a nice choice is Split Rock Mountain, between the Lake Champlain communities of Essex and Westport. Split Rock has something of a reputation as rattlesnake habitat — in 1940, herpetologists collected five live snakes and sent them to South America in something of a serpent exchange program, receiving several poisonous vipers in return.
Ater the scientists collected their specimens, the mountain was turned over to bounty hunters who were expected and encouraged to wipe out what snakes remained. Obviously, they didn’t quite.
According to the Lake Champlain Land Trust, the 3,700 acres of lakeshore property is the largest such protected preserve on the New York side. Split Rock itself sits like the dot on an exclamation point of a mountain ridge, and perhaps is the oldest and most fabled landmark on the lake, dating to its time as the delineation between Indigenous nations.
There are 11 miles of trails in the Split Rock Wild Forest — the trailhead is six miles north of Westport on Lake Shore Road, marked with a prominent DEC sign — and they are generally grouped into southern trails that lead to views of the lake and/or down to the shore, and a longer, northern loop that runs the ridgeline toward privately owned Split Rock itself.
On a Friday in mid-November when time didn’t afford the full loop, we had a very pleasing hike on the North Rim Trail to Ore Bed Overlook, an out-and-back of 4.5 miles with an ascent of 750 feet.
Like all trails on Split Rock, this one almost never came to fruition. It is scarcely a stretch to say that this gorgeous Split Rock Wild Forest was within minutes of being sold for vacation homes when some heroic land conservancies rode to the rescue.
More than a century ago, the property was purchased by Henry Lee Higginson, founder of both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the common license plate (long story, not worth it). Much of the mountain later became the property of conservation-minded Gary Heurich, whose efforts to sell to the state were repeatedly thwarted by public funding mechanisms that failed to materialize.
The land went to auction, and developers were waiting under a tent for the bidding to start when frantic representatives of Lake Champlain Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and the Open Space Institute finally struck a deal with the property owner as he was driving to the sale. Donations of $1.5 million were supplemented with $2 million from a new state mechanism known as the Environmental Trust Fund.
So today, the trail has only some dwindling evidence of civilization. After a three-tenths of a mile, the southern trails branch right, while the rim trail heads left. You may see the occasional foundation, chimney or fender from an old jalopy as you hike.
The trail meanders up the ridge, the climbing remaining moderate. It passes the Robin’s Run junction (veer right) until at 1.8 miles the climbing becomes more steep as you ascend the ridge. The Ore Bed Overlook spur branches right off the main trail and arrives at its destination at 2.1 miles.
Views extend south down Lake Champlain and west to the Champlain Valley and High Peaks beyond. Returning the way you came, you may notice a herd path going right up the hill. Take it, and you will arrive at a more easterly view of numerous bays and the Vermont Green Mountains. Three eagles were having a time, as the winds of a coming squall created an amusement park of updrafts and kicked up whitecaps on the lake down below.
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Across a chasm looking north you can see open rocks of the Split Rock Mountain summit that are easy to access where the main trail passes them by. Keep going and you can make a loop, returning on Robin’s Run after taking in northerly views toward Essex.
If the northern trails have better views, the southerly trails have better stories, including a tragedy that occurred in 1890 at a granite quarry at Barn Rock.
Faced with the nagging problem of how to lower eight-ton blocks of stone down a 500-foot incline to the water, owners concocted a new, steam powered two-track tram that would, in theory, lower a loaded car by cable to a waiting boat below.
Acting a counterweight, the loaded cars headed down would simultaneously pull the empty cars up the adjacent track. According to an old newspaper account in the Essex County Republican, something of a work holiday was declared so everyone could come watch the new contraption in action.
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“All was excitement” on a winter day as the first car was loaded and the cable unspooled from an iron drum, lowering the load at a controlled speed. Until the cable — later discovered to have iced up — lost the necessary friction to keep it snug around the drum. Onlookers watched agape as the cable unwound with cartoonish speed and the car cascaded to the waters below.
Unfortunately, everyone was so intent on watching the full car plummeting down, they failed to notice the empty car rocketing back up the tram at an equal amount of speed. Propelled by the massive weight of the loaded car, the empty car obliterated the infrastructure designed to stop it, sailed through air and landed in the assembled crowd, killing four bystanders. The quarry never operated another day.
Two years later it was sold at a sheriff’s tax auction, and in 1904 the operation’s metals — perhaps the tramway among them — were sold as scrap.
Ore Bed Overlook/Split Rock Wildway
- Distance: 4.5 miles round trip
- Elevation: 950 feet
- Elevation gain: 750 feet
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