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A day in the life of an Adirondack Ghost Town

August 15, 2008
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

ADIRONDAC/TAHAWUS - Today, County Road 25 in the town of Newcomb is traveled mostly by hikers and backpackers on their way to and from the southern trailhead to the High Peaks Wilderness. But a century and a half ago, workers, supplies, machinery and much more traveled the road to the village of Adirondac and the mining operation at the McIntyre Furnace.

In 1826 iron ore was discovered near the Hudson River at what is now the southern trailhead to the High Peaks, also called the Upper Works. Venture capitalists Archibald McIntyre and David Henderson, whose nearby namesakes are Henderson Lake and the McIntyre Range, herald their historical importance to the region, formed the Adirondack Iron & Steel Company and began mining in 1827.

"In this area in 1826, this is the howling wilderness," said Chuck Vandrei, historic preservation officer of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "There is no way to get (the ore) in and out."

Vandrei, along with David Staley, an archeologist with the New York State Museum, led a group of history buffs from all over the state on a tour of the ghost town Adirondac and the McIntyre Furnace on July 12, sponsored by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage Society.

The solution to the mine's isolation was to build an entire community there over the next five or six years. It was what Vandrei calls a "plantation mine," where everything the miners would have needed, not only for their operation but for daily life, was built on site. Farms, churches, schools, a post office, a bank and boarding houses sprung up.

Ore was mined with moderate success until 1834 when Archibald and McIntyre abandoned their efforts. But the state Geological Survey and geologist Ebenezer Emmons (after whom Mount Emmons, the westernmost of the 46 High Peaks, is named) revived the project. Emmons mapped the ore beds and conducted tests that indicated the very high quality of the ore. Because of this new information, McIntyre and Henderson resumed their efforts to mine and smelt the ore.

In 1848, the partners decided to build the large blast furnace, known as the McIntyre Furnace, which still stands today, towering more than 50 feet above the ground. The double-braced, stone, brick and mortar furnace began operating, smelting iron ore, in 1854. The iron was melted out of the ore and recast into a usable piece of iron. At the peak of the operation, as many as 100 people lived in Adirondac.

The furnace was run by water power from the Hudson River. Water came over the spillway from the dammed-up river and turned two huge, 16-foot-diameter wheels.

"It was like something out of Dante's Inferno," Vandrei said. "You would have heard this thing for miles with all the smoke, heat and noise."

The furnace also required constant fuel in the form of charcoal. Thousands of acres of trees were clearcut to feed the fires.

"If you can imagine the area around it was denuded for charcoal, it's made a pretty good comeback, I'd say," Staley said.

Staley is right. Nature has reclaimed much of the area. Today, the area around the furnace is overgrown with raspberry bushes and other greenery, obscuring much of the rusty, metal debris that litters the ground. Someone has collected and neatly stacked the many bricks that have dislodged themselves and fallen from the structure. A nearby sign warns visitors not to get too close, lest a brick fall on them.

Rusty parts of machinery from the waterworks lay scattered and half-buried in what's called the wheel pit or machinery pit. Vandrei explained the presence of leftover metal parts is rare because during the two world wars, almost any scrap metal that could be found was collected and melted down to make munitions.

"This is one of the best-preserved 19th-century ironworks in the world," he said. "This place was too far away for it to be worth it to take. There are things here that don't exist anywhere else."

After just two years of operation, the McIntyre Furnace, which cost $43,000 and six years to build, ceased operation, probably because of the difficulty associated with transporting the iron from such an isolated spot, coupled with a devastating spring flood in 1856. Adirondac became a ghost town.

"By 1858 the place was abandoned," Vandrei said. "There were stories of people finding unfinished work left on benches. There were furtive efforts to get mining going again, but the use shifts to recreational clubs."

Still, until his death in 1858, McIntyre held onto the hope that with a wealthy investor and a railroad line for easier access the operation could be profitable again.

The Tahawus Club, a private sportsman's club, used some of the old buildings from Adirondac, as well as built its own. There are a total of 14 or 15 structures left at Adirondac, according to Staley, although some of them can't be seen because of the thick vegetation. Members of the club utilized the property from the 1890s until the 1940s.

When National Lead took over the property in the 1940s, the club was relocated a few miles back down the road. National Lead reopened the mines at Sanford Lake, also known as the Lower Works, and mined titanium. The company again reused some of the old buildings at Adirondac (now called Tahawus), as well as built some of their own to house the mine workers.

Most of the buildings of Adirondac are in a complete state of disrepair, collapsing in on themselves, save one - the MacNaughton Cottage. It was here in this rooming house that then Vice President Teddy Roosevelt stayed in 1901 while on his way to hike Mount Marcy. During that trip he received news of President McKinley's impending death after being shot in Buffalo. Roosevelt's famed "midnight ride" to the train station in North Creek ensued. The town of Newcomb still commemorates this piece of American history with Teddy Roosevelt Days every September.

The MacNaughton Cottage, built in 1834, is the only framed structure left, not including the McIntyre Furnace, from the 19th century. The Open Space Institute acquired the property in 2003, conducted an archeological survey and began steps to restore the MacNaughton Cottage and the McIntyre furnace.

"If you had been here five years ago," Staley said, pointing to the cottage, "you would think this shouldn't still be standing."

The roof and chimney have been fixed, the windows boarded up, and the area stabilized for the time being. It still remains to be seen what will ultimately become of the cottage and the furnace.

Although Vandrei would like to see some repairs made to the furnace, restoring the ironworks to its former glory is not realistic, nor is transporting the hulking pieces of machinery to a museum to be restored and housed.

"Ideally, I'd like to see the place stabilized at least, so it can be interpreted and understood for years to come," Vandrei said. "I would like to see the masonry repaired; not rebuilt. It's not practical unless you are starting up the operation again. It's one of those issues we have to wrestle with in the long run - what to do with it."

Staley was one of those archeologists who worked on the survey of the area. He has helped Vandrei guide the tour for the past few years.

"The (New York State Museum) goes on to different things, but I just can't let this one go," he said. "This is a special place, that's why I keep coming back."



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