By James M. Odato
Hikers reaching the 4,057-foot peak of Mount Colvin witness a dramatic landscape. That same view captivated two men to the point of obsession.
One, Verplanck Colvin, for whom the mountain was named, was the self-taught surveyor who mapped the Adirondacks.
Nothing was named after the other man, Joseph M. Jillisky.
In his campaign to chart the region in the 19th century, Colvin drew a blue line around its borders on a map and envisioned a protected wilderness.
The Albany-born adventurer mounted a crusade, arguing that the rugged territory needed to be preserved as the source of the Hudson River. He spent 28 years commanding crews in the woods on surveys, sometimes using his own money and equipment when public funds from the state Legislature weren’t enough.
Jillisky lived from 1953 to 1992 and could discuss Colvin’s surveys from the 1870s and 1880s as if they happened during his lifetime.
He admired and came to believe Colvin had been underappreciated and misrepresented by historians.
Jillisky trekked the paths that his hero hiked over the Adirondacks. And he went over the words Colvin wrote in 440 field books and in annual reports to the New York Legislature from 1872 to 1889. Jillisky became an expert on a man described as unyielding and puzzling and produced a 1,156-page Colvin biography (plus 164 pages of footnotes). Both the Kelly Adirondack Center in Niskayuna and at the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake own the unpublished manuscript, all 200,000 words.
A few people have read the material in those archives. At least two noted writers have credited it for its scholarly value.
“Obsession is an accurate word,” said Neal Burdick, who wrote the foreword around the time of the 1983 copyright. He knew Jillisky as a researcher with little to say if it didn’t involve the legendary surveyor.
Burdick brought Jillisky to speak about Colvin at St. Lawrence University’s 1980 Adirondack Conference on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake. He recalled trying to get to know the aspiring biographer during a canoe outing at that time and having to work hard not to drift in circles.
“He hadn’t been on canoes much because he didn’t know how to paddle,” Burdick recalled. “He was more interested in talking about Colvin than paddling.”
Burdick had arranged the conference and put together a Colvin panel, including Jillisky. Others on the panel, now deceased, were better known in the history community: William Verner, the former curator at the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, and Warder Cadbury, a University at Albany professor and research associate at the Adirondack Museum.
“People have tried to write biographies or articles about Colvin over the years,” Burdick said in introducing the panel. “It is difficult because the man is an enigma and there are a lot of questions that aren’t really answered with simple research.”
Jillisky wanted to answer some of those questions. His manuscript’s hundreds of footnotes show he read scores of documents, vintage newspapers, and obscure yet related subjects such as “The Adirondack Survey” published in the New York Tribune in 1884, “The Collector’s Guide to Rocks and Minerals,” and “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.”
Jillisky typed and typed and didn’t care about length. He named his biography “What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me: Verplanck Colvin and the Exploration of the Adirondack Mountains.” He disclosed in his author’s notes that the first half of the title came from a discarded name for a Gustav Mahler composition. Mahler created the music in 1895, five years before the state government discontinued Colvin’s work in the mountains.
Jillisky appreciated Colvin’s writing style — direct, fresh, somewhat exaggerated and bursting with energy. The biographer chose an 1879 entry by Colvin to cite in his introduction: “Elsewhere are mountains more stupendous, more icy and more drear, but none look down on a grander landscape, in rich autumn time; more brightly gemmed or jeweled with innumerable lakes, crystal pools, or wild with savage chasms, or dread passes; none show a denser or more vast appearance of primeval forest stretched over range on range to the far horizon, where the sea of mountains fades into a dim, vaporous uncertainty.”
Jillisky’s own style was no less poetic when he wasn’t discussing the geology and science of the ranges. His observations in the manuscript may strike a familiar chord now. “In our own age, climbers are ascending the mountain peaks in greater numbers than ever before, drawn to whatever it is that an individual spirit might find on a raw, rocky, windswept summit, whether the consummation of an exhilarating physical experience, a vision of universal harmony, formal symmetry, aesthetic repletion, or a silent, thrilling moment of volcanic ecstasy,” Jillisky wrote.
His previous writing experience was modest and he may not have had any formal education after graduating from the La Salle Institute, an all-male, military school in Rensselaer County, in 1971. He lived with his father, Joseph H. Jillisky, a shopworker for 42 years, in Latham, eight miles from Colvin’s home in Albany. The younger Joe studied at the University at Albany and Skidmore College and received a bachelor’s degree in American history, his obituary said. It said he was still working on the Colvin biography at the time of his death.
“He was so intense about the things he did.”Classmate Wayne Palka
“When he got interested in something, he followed through with it.“Drama coach Patrick Horner
He had no steady job, but wrote screenplays and some music reviews and handled some public relations for the Albany Symphony, according to Burdick.
At La Salle, he was named a cadet captain and was active in the drama club, taking lead roles in “The Odd Couple” and “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and drew laughs from the audience, said Wayne Palka, a classmate.
He recalled Jillisky as being consumed with the stage work and loving to write humorous scripts that were takeoffs on popular movies such as “Patton.”
“He was so intense about the things he did … none of them struck me as a career. So you wonder what is a guy like that going to do for a living,” Palka said.
Brother Patrick Horner, the drama club coach, said Jillisky was the inspiration for reviving the club after it had been mothballed. No one knew of Jillisky’s interest in the Adirondacks or Colvin, but, Horner added, “when he got interested in something, he followed through with it.” He had heard during a reunion that Jillisky had died but did know the circumstances.
Jillisky’s manuscript made its way to the Adirondack Museum thanks to Cadbury, the UAlbany philosophy professor and Adirondack historian who had befriended Jillisky. In a December 1983 letter to Cadbury, in the museum file, Jillisky revealed his intentions. He said he’d become interested in Colvin in 1972 and decided to write a “simple,” “bare-facts,” biography, but after being frustrated at the difficulty of obtaining Colvin’s reports and finding sparse accounts of Colvin, he decided on a bigger study that took him seven years.
He said he had been working in Philadelphia and returned to Latham in 1976 because of a serious intestinal malady. He had expected he would write the biography during his convalescence. Instead, he dug deeper into the research and revised the scope of his proposed book to be a history on the exploration of the Adirondacks.
He judged that Colvin was in the vanguard in charting not only the rocks and the mountains, but also in thinking about the commercial sacrifices needed to preserve the resources. “Colvin was perhaps the first individual to wrestle with these problems,” Jillisky wrote.
At the time of his death on July 12, 1992, Jillisky had few possessions, topped by a used Pontiac valued at $300, according to public records. He is buried with his parents at Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Watervliet.
He died at age 39, two months after two significant commemorations for Colvin. One was held as part of the Adirondack Park Centennial south of Albany on May 9 at Colvin’s grave overlooking the Hudson in Coeymans. A second one, on May 16 at Beaver River, drew author Anne LaBastille and Norman Van Valkenburgh, state director of lands and forests.
Jillisky was in the crowd that witnessed the unveiling a rock on which Colvin had chiseled survey data decades earlier,Van Valkenburgh said.
Nina Webb served as master of ceremonies. She had been working on her own Colvin biography for years, reviewing some of the same material that Jillisky had researched. Webb’s biography, “Footsteps Through the Adirondacks: The Verplanck Colvin Story,” was published four years later by North Country Books Inc.
In her work, Webb, who died in 2001, credits Jillisky for his contributions to her book and cites his manuscript.
His was a project that was just too large, according to those who read at least parts of it, including retired professor and author Phil Terrie, St. Lawrence University’s Burdick and Van Valkenburgh.
Webb’s book, 185 pages of text and photos, fell well within the limits of a publisher’s comfort zone.
“She did something that was well done but also important,” said North Country Books owner Robert Igoe, who closed his business earlier this year. “It is something that needs to be out there, needs to be done. Colvin was not a real widely known part of the Adirondack history. The effect that he had on the settling of the Adirondacks was enormous.”
Igoe’s publishing house, the premier press for Adirondack writings, did not receive a pitch from Jillisky, he said. But he gasped when told the length of the manuscript.
Van Valkenburgh recalls being visited by both Jillisky and Webb at his office at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, where the Colvin reports and notebooks were stored.
He said he met Jillisky a few times and that the aspiring biographer once asked him to be his literary executor. He agreed, but never heard any more about it.
“It would have been up to me to get the darn thing published,” Van Valkenburgh said. “I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it unless he died.”
Van Valkenburgh later discovered an unpublished report of Colvin’s and got it into print. In its 67-page foreword, Van Valkenburgh introduced readers to Colvin. In the acknowledgement section, he said he was much obliged to Jillisky.
“I learned that Jillisky had just completed a full-length volume detailing Colvin’s life and work,” Van Valkenburgh wrote. “I was fortunate in making his acquaintance and he kindly provided me with a copy of the manuscript of his monumental work … . Jillisky’s book provided the basis for my short biographical work and also served as a standard against which I was able to confirm other data I had in hand.”
Jillisky’s manuscript pointed out conflicts and contradictions with his subject. He noted that Colvin had a big ego, rubbed some people the wrong way, and advocated for development in parts of the Adirondacks, such as building railroad lines through the heart of the forest preserve.
The surveyor also may have left lasting environmental damage to peaks when he called for burning and clearing to help him triangulate points for mapping.
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Jillisky does not go into Colvin’s final years, as Webb did, discussing Colvin’s mental illness and his May 1920 death in a mental institution in Troy, not far from the La Salle Institute, at age 73.
Jillisky tries to clear Colvin’s reputation as it was set down in Alfred L. Donaldson’s 1921 book, “A History of the Adirondacks.”
Colvin didn’t respond to requests, so Donaldson interviewed a state bureaucrat who had taken over after Colvin was forced out of the land survey program in 1900 in a power struggle, Jillisky found. He said the clerk gave a poor accounting of Colvin, including that there was no value in the work for which Colvin had devoted some 40 years of his life. The account influenced Donaldson’s portrayal.
Jillisky emphasized that a series of surveying professionals who retraced Colvin’s charts and maps in the decades after Colvin’s death found his lines and bearings accurate and reliable. The permanent markers Colvin banged into Adirondack peaks helped surveyors study his triangulation methods.
Colvin christened many of the landmarks in the Adirondacks. Names of men among his crew, such as Sabattis and Phelps, dot the map.
Jillisky walked the same ground as Colvin, becoming a 46er, starting on Mount Marcy in September 1972 and finishing on Mount Marshall in October 1990.
It helped him understand Colvin’s purpose. In his author’s notes to his treatise, he mentioned how Colvin influenced ecology professionals, including Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, and conservation policy, such as the state’s purchase of property for preservation and clean water protection.
He concluded that Colvin “remains the most important, most interesting Adirondack personage of all.”