Log Jammin’ and Other Things at the Adirondack Museum
The Adirondack Museum celebrates development in the Adirondack Mountain Forest Preserve, a 6 million acre swath of New York State that contains human settlements as well as protected forest, focusing on the areas of the logging industry, rail transportation, recreation use, tourism, and more. Robert had wanted to visit during our stay at Sacandaga Lake so we chose the day after our hike to take the trip north. After arriving and browsing the exhibits in the visitor center we crossed the open-air section of the museum, stopping at a turn of the century locomotive engine and rail car and then a replica of a lean-to traditional to the area en route to our first indoor exhibit.
The former, a circa 1900 steam engine and passenger car, was an example of the infrastructure created in the early 20th century to accommodate the huge growth of the tourism industry in the mountain region. In operation from 1900 until 1929, the Marion River Carry Railroad was notable for being the shortest standard-gauge railroad in the country, running only 1,320 yards to ferry tourists and those owning property around an impassable stretch of river between Utowana Lake and the Marion River/Raquette Lake inlet. The latter lean-to is a traditional form of shelter in the region used by hunters and guides in the region before becoming popular with campers, hikers, and others; thousands were constructed across the public areas of forest preserve land, many of which are still in use.
One of the major stories of the Adirondack region is that of logging – and the logging exhibit was really interesting to all three of us. Beginning in the early 19th century and accelerating in the post-Civil War era, major logging of the region’s white pine, spruce, and hemlock forest began, which ultimately caused serious deforestation and prompted the establishment of the Adirondack Park that would allow some areas to remain forever wild. The exhibit included in-depth explanations of each stage of the tree getting to the mill, but also an excellent overview of the process. In summer, loggers would begin cutting hemlock but mostly spent time creating roads and skidways in preparation for the autumn surge when most of the cutting was done. Starting in January, logs would be hauled out on these snow-packed ice roads and brought to banking grounds at the waterways. As the ice melted in spring, the logs were released from the collection points and floated downstream to sawmills and pulp mills accompanied by log drivers who would break up the frequent jams and drive strays caught in inlets.
The museum also did an exceptional job in portraying the dangerous and unglamorous life of lumberjacks and log drivers who faced bitterly cold winters, endured backbreaking labor, and encountered unsafe working conditions. Very few occupations with the logging industry were likely easy or safe but running logs down steep icy mountains and log hopping across rivers to break up jams that could suddenly dissolve and tip the runner were just two of the demanding and dangerous tasks.
The exhibits also excelled in chronicling the evolution of the industry in relation to the introduction of different technologies. Key inventions such as the Berienger Brake, which prevented horses being overtaken by the heavy logging transport sleds on the icy downhill skidways, to the sprinkler wagon, which iced over ruts to ensure smooth passage of the loads, contributed to the efficiency of the industry, enabling the economy of the area to grow. Other factors dramatically impacting logging in the region were also chronicled such as the replacement of horse teams with heavy-duty tractors to haul logs, the investment in the construction of extensive networks of transport railroads, and the birth of the chainsaw.
Another section of the museum that I was particularly fond of was the transportation exhibit, which included additional information on industrial and recreation-driven rail transport in the region as well as the role of the horse in traveling the rugged area. Horses were an integral part of life in the Adirondacks well into the 20th century, used not only for plowing the fields of the subsistence farmers who populated the region but as a main source of transportation via wagon, cutters, and sleighs. But beyond their essential functions in farm work and transportation, horses were used extensively in the region for racing and ice racing, birthing a harness racing tradition that remains today.
We spent a few hours going through numerous areas of the museum, but we didn’t even make it to some of the exhibits including sections on tourism and boating in the region. We did get to see however the beautiful racing sloop Water Witch that is located in the visitor center, which speaks to the amount of wealth present in the vacation home market on the lakes. Finally, the visit to the museum provided us with a lovely view of Blue Mountain Lake, whose shore host private holdings as well as state-owned areas, serving as an example of the multiple land uses in Adirondack Mountain Forest Preserve.