Transitions No. 74    June 20, 2001

In the summer of 1901, Eric Swenson sat on the porch of his camp on Upper Saranac Lake contemplatively sipping his morning coffee. The camp, which he had named Camp Arokortu (a rock or two), was filled to overflowing with his family and guests, and the sounds of laughter resonated throughout the lake’s Bungalow Bay.

The night before, Mr. Swenson’s main guide, A. Parsons, together with several assistant guides and their boats, had rowed a party of 13 across the lake to the Bartlett Carry, which connects Upper Saranac with Middle Saranac by a short overland pathway where they could then walk to the Saranac Club (later Bartlett’s) for dinner. Parsons, with the other guides, would use the camp’s treasured church boats, also called family boats or sometimes freight boats, according to use. They were larger, heavier and carried more passengers, built along guide-boat lines but not considered “guide” boats.

Edward Pearse, who had formerly managed “Hough’s,” (Saranac Inn), was their host and provided a fine meal of lake trout, spring lamb (venison) and, from the wine cellar, some wonderful Bass Ale from Canada. There were many guests in the club’s dining room that evening, and the Swenson party shared a table with a half dozen other pleasant, entertaining diners. There was J.M. Sparks from the “frontier” town, Tupper Lake, where he managed the cold-storage plant of the Adirondacks Supply Company (later, Armour & Co.)  with his two guests from Chicago, a Mr. Brown and a Mr. Cooper. (Armour executives?)

Also at the dinner table were Miss Helen Roosevelt from Hyde Park; Tom Cantwell and Mrs. Cantwell from Malone; W.K. Cavil, who was running a halfway house on the Sweeney Carry (Wawbeek Hotel); Frederick Potter and Orlando Potter, from Sing Sing, N.Y., who had rowed their guide boat from the Brandeth Camp near Racquette/Long Lakes area; and A.J. Ginsberg (Muriel Ginsberg’s uncle, Mr. G’s younger brother, skilled amateur photographer, later to become a physician) from Tupper Lake, who was staying overnight and joined them for dinner. It had been a fine evening of good food and newfound friends, with a memorable guide boat row across the Upper Lake under a moonlit sky and calm waters, the beauty enhanced by the soulful cries of the many resident loons.

Yet, this early morning, Mr. Swenson was troubled. A pall of heavy smoke lay over the lake, smoke so thick that it obscured any view of the water. The smoke was coming from a tract of land near Wawbeek Corners (intersection of Routes 3 and 30), where a pioneer forestry experiment was being conducted by the New York State College of Forestry under the auspices of Cornell University and Dr. B.E. Fernow, the appointed director of the college. Dr. Fernow, originally from Prussia, trained at the Forest Academy of Prussia as an early scientific forester.

Dr. Fernow espoused the European ideal of forestry and emphasized economic return over silvaculture (caring for the forest). His plan was to cut all hardwood on the tract down to 14 inches on the butt, and all softwood down to eight inches, on the theory that light and air would thus reach the trees left standing, the growth of which would then be more rapid. It was part of the scheme to fill in vacant places with young pine.

Unfortunately, when about 6,000 acres had been cut over, a wind upturned or snapped off nearly all the trees that had not been felled, whereupon the school cleared the lands so that they were practically bare, and then undertook to reforest with seedlings.

It was the smoke from the fires used to burn the tops and clear the land that was upsetting to the Upper Saranac property owners and so concerned Mr. Swenson that summer morning at Camp Arokortu. In addition, the Cross Clearing tract was totally denuded (only 440 acres were replanted) and was visually horrifying even if you believed in the experiment, which most observers did not. Equally disturbing was the rumor that a subsidiary of the American Sugar Refining Co. (Brooklyn Cooperage Co.) was planning to put in a seven-mile logging railroad spur from Upper Saranac Lake shores. (Good gracious!) This would involve the further destruction of all the trees to a width of 25 yards along the line of the tracks.

Mr. Swenson was a man of action and influence and, as president of the Association of Residents on Upper Saranac Lake, he had as many members of equally influential and concerned allies. The experiment by this German fellow was unacceptable. Thus that same summer of 1901, the association made application to the attorney general “to have the purchase of 30,000 acres of land in Franklin County by Cornell University declared unconstitutional and void and to have the title to said land vested in the People of the State of New York.”

This lawsuit would go on for 10 years before it was finally won by Mr. Swenson and friends (1910). In the meantime, when the annual appropriation for the college appeared in the Appropriation Bill of 1903, owing to the hue and cry that had been raised against the college, it was vetoed by Gov. Odell. The consequence of this action deprived the university of state support. It closed its College of Forestry in June of 1903 and dismissed Director Fernow. (Several years later, Syracuse University would win the Forestry College prize.) It did, however, due to a contract with Brooklyn Cooperage entered into by the university in May 1900, continue to cut wood on the college tract under an appropriation for cleaning up and replanting. We will discuss this operation and the Brooklyn Cooperage Co., which was located on Chemical Street near Walt Kennedy’s garage (110 ft. smokestack still there) in a later column.

It should be noted that Dr. Fernow’s futuristic theories, however sound, had few supporters. The visual horror of the necessary clear-cutting and the burning of the tops to make way for growing the more marketable and valuable softwoods on hardwood sites was too great a disadvantage. While his critics didn’t approve his methods, he was never “accused of any dishonesty of purpose.”

Note: The Paul Smith Society of American Foresters (SAF) presently maintains a one-mile interpretive loop trail with 15 stops called the “Wawbeek Plantation” (.8 mile from the “Y” on Route 30, Wawbeek Corners). Here, 68 acres of hardwood were cleared and white pine planted in their stead along with Norway spruce as part of Fernow’s pioneering experiment. It is a worthwhile visit.