Plattsburgh Daily Press, March 22, 1937
DAM CONSTRUCTION RECALLS HUGE SARANAC LOG DRIVES
Captain Pliny Miller's Activities 125 Years Ago, Later Dwarfed by Succeeding Operators, Presaged the Legislative Drive to Halt Devastation of the Adirondacks.
SARANAC LAKE — The construction of the new $10,000 dam across the Saranac river at the Paul Smith's building on Main street, replacing the 125-year-old structure built by pioneer lumberman Captain Pliny Miller, recalls to the memory of many old time residents of the village the time when the annual spring log drive was the most important event in the village's calendar.
Although Captain Miller erected the dam and a sawmill at the site in 1822, shortly after his arrival in the "settlement-on-the-river," the Saranac river was not declared a public highway until 1846, 40 years after the Salmon river in the upper part of the county was thrown open for use by the state. Nevertheless the Saranac river was a highway for the lumbermen of the region long before the state took official notice of its use.
Cutting of the towering mountain trees took place in the winter. Crews of lumberjacks, mostly French-Canadians, entered the forests in the late fall and set up rough camps preparatory to cutting. The scene of operations usually was on a hillside so that the logs could be rolled into the river. Skidways were built to the water's edge, where the logs, in 13 foot lengths, were marked with the owner's sign.
The lumberjacks were experts, able not only to negotiate swift rivers but the sluggish lakes as well. On the lakes, with no currents, it was frequently necessary to rig a crude sail on the logs, which had been "boomed." Night driving was a common practice. The drivers were men of steel, able to open a jam or ride logs through rapids. The dexterity of the men in riding logs is still a topic of conversation in the communities of the region.
The day the ice went out was usually a period of celebration in all the lumbering camps of the region. Many of the lumberjacks could tell within a day or two when the ice would give way. Bets would be made and pools formed on the ability of the men to predict the crackup. Frequently these pools would run into several thousand dollars. The winner would treat the whole camp as soon as they reached town and there would be a "jamboree" which on occasion took all of the, winnings.
Every lake, river, and stream large enough to flow a log could tell part of the historic story of the lumber era of the Adirondacks if they could but speak. The big operations, however, centered around the longest rivers—the Hudson, the Racket [sic] and the Saranac. Lumbering on the upper reaches of the Hudson began in 1810 and 1811, and for three quarters of a century the maws of the great lumbermills in Glens Falls, Fort Edwards, and Sandy Hill absorbed millions of feet of virgin Adirondack forests.
The Racket also was the scene of lumbering activity shortly after the beginning of the 19th century. Extensive cutting on the Racket, however, did not extend back into the mountains until 1850 or thereabouts. From 1850 until the beginning of the 20th century the Racket boomed with the sound of rolling logs and big sawmills. During that period a total of 102 trade marks, each indication of a different company, were registered in Albany.
The Saranac river [was] used even earlier than the other two streams. In 1787 an English sawmill was built at the mouth of the river at Plattsburgh. Penetration into the mountains was gradual and it was nearly half a century before the headwaters of the river in the Saranac lakes were reached.
Captain Miller, the militiaman of the War of 1812, erected his sawmill and dam near the bend of the river where the Paul Smiths company later erected its power plant. The dam built by the captain formed the present Lake Flower, and has been in continual use since then, though his sawmill was torn down at the time the company took over the property.
The captain's operations were on a small scale, however, compared to what was still to come. Orson Richards, in 1887, purchased the area around Lower Saranac lake. His foreman, Almon Thomas, who later was to become a large operator in his own right, had charge of the first drive down the Saranac. The first great drive consisted of 50,000 "markets" or 10,000,000 feet of wood. This first big drive was to be repeated year after year for nearly 50 more years until the state, after many bitter legislative struggles, passed laws setting off the great Adirondack park, which put a stop to the devastation of the forests.
Among the many firms and men who operated along the Saranac river a few of the better known were the H. O. A. Tefft, Loren Ellis, J. H. & E. C. Baker, The Maine company, Thomas and Hammond, and the lumber king, Christopher F. Norton. Norton reigned over the area for the 20 year period from 1860 to 1880 and at one time controlled practically every mill along the river. He is still recalled by old time residents of the village as a man of great vigor and energy. He died, broke, in 1890.
Today the only scene of intense activity in the lumbering industry is to be found in Tupper Lake where several industries still use thousands of feet annually. The manner of lumbering has changed however, and the great drives are a thing of the past in the Adirondacks. Today most cutting is done deep in the woods and sleds or trucks are used to haul the wood out.
The drive for legislation to control the ruthless devastation of the forests, coupled with the number of sportsmen who sensed that a great natural park was rapidly vanishing, brought a halt to the intense activity. The Adirondack League club bought up thousands of acres of land and leased thousands more. The appeal of fishermen and sportsmen also brought results from the state government.
In 1872 the first legislation towards preservation of the forests was passed when a commission to survey the region was established. In 1883 a law was passed forbidding the sale of state land in Franklin, Essex, Clinton, St. Lawrence, Fulton, Hamilton, Lewis, Herkimer, Saratoga and Warren counties. This was the first effective step toward control. In the same year an appropriation of $10,000 was made for purchase of lands. In 1892, after a struggle of 20 years on the part of proponents, the Adirondack park was created.
Since that date lumbering as a large scale industry in the mountains has been steadily on a decline. The state has bought more timberland each year until in 1937 more than 50 per cent of all timberland within the Adirondack park is owned by the people of the state, a heritage for future generations.