Verplanck Colvin was a lawyer, author, illustrator and topographical engineer whose understanding and appreciation for the environment of the Adirondack Mountains led to the creation of New York's Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park.
In 1865, when Colvin was 18, Alfred Billings Street gave him a copy of his 1860 book, Woods and Waters, about his adventures in the Adirondack Mountains. Over the next three years, Colvin spent his summers exploring the Adirondack wilderness. By 1869, he had formed the idea of doing a geological survey of the Adirondack region.
During the summer of 1869 he climbed Mount Marcy, and in 1870 made the first recorded ascent of Seward Mountain. During the ascent of Seward, Colvin saw the extensive damage being done by lumbermen in the Adirondacks. His report of the climb was read at the Albany Institute, where it garnered the attention of state officials, and was printed in the annual report of the New York State Museum of Natural History. In it, he tied clear-cutting of Adirondack forests to reduced water flow in the state's canals and rivers, an idea that had first appeared in George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, published in 1864.
In 1872 he applied to the New York for a stipend to cover the costs of a survey; he was subsequently named to the newly created post of Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey and given a $1000 budget by the state legislature to institute a survey of the Adirondacks. He proved to be an able administrator, managing crews of up to 100 men separated by difficult terrain with only primitive communication methods. He also designed and built many of the tools needed for the job, including a folding canvas boat, and a wind powered spinning reflector to enable precise sighting of a mountain top from many miles away.
During the first year he discovered Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson river. He directed surveying parties throughout the Adirondacks and determined the altitudes of most of the highest peaks, becoming obsessed with his task. Determined to fix the precise altitude of Mount Marcy he ran a series of eight hundred chains and levels over forty miles long from Lake Champlain to Marcy, each intermediate altitude being calculated to one thousandth of an inch. As the crew approached the summit of Marcy, they encountered an October snow storm with ice and freezing rain; despite urging by his guides and assistants to wait for better weather, Colvin pushed on despite the danger of becoming trapped in Panther Gorge.
In 1873 he wrote a report arguing that if the Adirondack watershed was allowed to deteriorate, it would threaten the viability of the Erie Canal, which was then vital to New York's economy, and that the entire Adirondack region should therefore be protected by the creation of a state forest preserve. He was subsequently appointed superintendent of the New York state land survey, which led to the creation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885. His work ended in 1900 when then Governor Theodore Roosevelt transferred his duties to the state engineer. 1
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 5, 1988
Verplanck Colvin Remembered
In the annals of Adirondack history there is no more controversial figure than Verplank Colvin. An indefatigable worker he wreaked hardship on his co-workers by poor planning. Meticulous in his engineering endeavors, he was less than fastidious in his record keeping.
Some of his guides termed him a slave driver while others claimed he was only hard on the shirkers. There is little doubt that he was acclaimed by many to be the greatest benefactor the Adirondacks have ever known but detractors accused him of being overly concerned with his own personal accolades. Certainly his elaborate reports to the state legislators were second only to the annual reports of the Forest Fish and Game Commission in both grandiose printing and volume of contents. He left absolutely no doubt but that he, and he alone, was the super Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey.
Verplank Colvin was born in Albany on a cold January day in 1847. His father was a lawyer who hoped his son would be too. Verplank did study law but felt stronger leanings toward the sciences. This tendency when coupled with a strong attraction to the out-of-doors contributed to his final calling — exploring in the Adirondacks.
Colvin applied himself to the study of geology and topography. Coupled with a natural talent in math he pursued civil engineering.
The year 1865 found Colvin making a stab at mapping the wilderness purely for his own information. This hobby led into his appointment to the State Park Commission in 1872. Here he was privileged to serve with such prominent men as William A. Wheeler, who was to become Vice President of the United States five years later, and Horatio Seymour a former Governor of New York State, and Franklin B. Hough, the county historian. During that year Colvin was told to initiate a topographical survey of the Adirondack Mountains.
Attacking his assignment with vigor Colvin took to the field and between July 27th and November 15th he had made 114 field observations at various lakes and mountains. By use of barometrical measurements he recorded the elevation of each station. It is interesting to note that he estimated the height of Mount Marcy at 5333.64 feet, only 10.36 feet less than the later proven height of 5344. On March 10, 1873 Colvin submitted his first report to the State Legislature which was to be the forerunner of a series of annual reports continuing through 1897. Some are dull but they offered a wealth of statistical data. In complete variance with this dry category is a combined volume containing the 3rd to 7th reports of the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Region for the 'ears 1874-1879. The diary-type pages present some pleasant reading together with an intimate glimpse into Colvin's personality.
As Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, Colvin had a free hand to prepare maps and devise his own equipment and methods. He certainly
went to great lengths to convince the Legislature that he was the top man for the job.
Many plates depict individual pieces of equipment or instruments used in the survey work and here again the title states "invented by the Superintendent" or "devised by Verplank Colvin." He had the services of some of the finest guides of that era but he rarely mentioned them by name. It was always "the old guide" or the "local woodsman" while his roster contained such famous names as Orson Phelps, Alvah Dunning, Bill Nye, Eli Chase, and Rod McKenzie. He allowed no one to share his glory.
Yet credit must be given to his devotion. He had a brilliant mind and a genuine perception of the problems ahead. His basic plan was to follow a system of triangulation whereby he would set up the theodolite on mountain tops to measure the angles to other peaks within the sighting range of his instrument.
Moving the theodolite to adjacent peaks he could arrange an overall diagram of lines the intersection of which with the aid of some plane geometry, would indicate the relative positions of the mountains to each other.
To pin point the azimuth sightings Colvin devised a pyramidal pole structure to be erected at the precise summit of each mountain. Topping each was a pole which mounted a rotating metal reflector to catch the flashes of sunlight. After dark, sightings were provided by a prearranged time signal when a powder charge was ignited to serve as a brilliant target for the distant transit. Colvin frequently worked into the night much to the dismay of his crew!
The following abbreviated extracts from Verplank's journals will shed some light on the day by day functions of the survey and disclose some of the problems of early wilderness exploration. Absence of roads caused communication and provisioning difficulties while the lack of any existing maps created a morass of hardships which could only be blamed on the remoteness of the region. For example:
"Sept. 30, 1875 - I left Albany, accompanied by the leveling party, which I had directed to extend a line of datums from Westport on Lake Champlain, forty miles backward into the wilderness to the summit of Mount Marcy.
"Oct. 6th — Reaching the western portal of the Pitch-Off Mountain pass, I was impressed for the first time with all the difficulties of the undertaking before me.
"Oct. 9th — Set out with two guides for the exploration of the region to the north-eastward of Marcy, including the Gothic Mountains. An hour or two before sunset the guides unslung their knapsacks beside a tributary brook that descended from the lofty peak to the northward, known as Slide Mt., which we proposed to ascend and measure on the morrow.
"Oct. 24th - One of the guides returned to Keene for provisions. On the 25th we rose at 4 a.m. and resumed the work of leveling. The leveler attempting to return alone along the trail to the nearest bench-mark, lost his way, failing to meet us. Alarmed we searched the trails in both directions, fired pistols, and sent one guide up the Skylight trail, and another up the old slide trail to Marcy. He was finally found near the top of Bartlett Mountain, all right, but somewhat confused.
"Nov. 4th — Again climb the side of Marcy. We work with steadiness, but with suppressed excitement and in silence. A dense fog, or frost, now enveloped us. I obtained slow but continuous progress upward, the guides at intervals chiseling in the rock important stations, to preserve the terminus of the line as far as completed. Without rest, without food, we worked eagerly and at 4:50 p.m. I placed the level on the summit of Marcy, adjusted it once more, and took the last observation. Another permanent bench-mark (No. 111) was cut in the stone and then the party broke hurrahs. The height of Marcy was found to be 5344.311 feet above mean tide!
"Aug. 24, 1986 - Sending one of the assistants in charge of baggage and heavy instruments to Saranac Lake, and another assistant with signal man to restore the signal on Ampersand Mt., I set out with my Indian guide to reconnoitre the St. Regis.
"Feb. 15th, 1877 - Passing to the southern portion of the crest (7th Lake Mt.) we found the carcass of a deer killed by a panther. The guides were now all excitement, and followed the cougar's trail eagerly. A shout announced that he had been encountered and rushing forward I came upon the monstrous creature, cooly defiant, standing at the brow of a precipice on some dead timber, little than twenty feet from where I stood. Quickly loading the rifle, I sent a bullet through his brain.
And so it went, with days of cold, hardship, and hunger being a regular part of the agenda. Along the way Colvin discovered a small body of water below the southwest shoulder of Marcy which he proved to be the highest source of the mighty Hudson River. He christened the tiny pond "Lake Tear-of-the Clouds." All of his adventures were not quite so propitious. On several occasions the only food available was bear meat and during a February expedition at Raquette Lake the party ran out of all provisions. One of the guides managed to cut a hole in the ice and haul out several lake trout which, since they had no oil for frying, had to be boiled. The fish were served for dinner and breakfast sans salt, pepper, or potatoes for two days.
Even when the survey work was completed Colvin still had his problems. The state refused payment on many of his vouchers which led Colvin to claim ownership to many maps and records since he had paid the expenses out of his own pocket. This controversy caused a breakdown in relations with the state and the master map of the Adirondack wilderness was never completed. As he grew older Colvin's mind began to fail and he died in an Albany hospital in 1920 at the age of 73.
The late Harmon Lockrow ran a book store on Spring St. in Albany and his shelves were always well stocked with Colvin reports. Inside the front covers there would invariably appear a card or a stamp which read "Compliments of Senator so-and-so." Today those books are valuable collectors items. Lockrow's father was also a book dealer and young Harmon was frequently called upon to deliver books. On one such errand he was carrying books to Colvin's home where he found the surveyor and his assistant. Mills Blake having lunch in the kitchen. On a huge table cluttered with impedimenta from the field the two men had cleared areas only large enough for their plates while the balance of the surface contained packbaskets, guns, traps, survey instruments, record books, and even snowshoes!
Many years later Lockrow attended an auction at Colvin's house which was being held to settle the dead man's estate. In the rear of the main house he found a small building where he found Colvin's original fieldnotes and sketches. Fearing that if he brought them to the attention of the auctioneer he might well be out bid for the material, he decided to bide his time. A few days after the auction sale had been completed Lockrow returned and told the man in charge that he would like to make an offer on the bundles of paper in the small building out back.
The man said "we cleaned out that building yesterday and burned all the trash." A sad ending indeed, but it would have been much more lamentable if Colvin had not prepared those voluminous reports which members of the state legislature were happy to pass along to their constituents.
Overshadowing the value of these reports his main contribution to posterity might very well have been his claim that early in his survey he was the first to recommend the creation of the Adirondack Park.
Ticonderoga Sentinel, June 10, 1920
VERPLANCK COLVIN OF ADIRONDACK SURVEY FAME DEAD
Verplanck Colvin of Albany, famous as a surveyor far and near, died May 28th at a Troy hospital, having been ill three years. He was 73 years old. Back in the 70s Verplanck Colvin was a familiar figure in this section. He superintended a survey of the Adirondacks, some of his assistants in doing that work having been the late Daniel Lynch of Minerva, the late George H. James Elizabethtown and George H Glidden and David J. Seckington, also of E'town. The Elizabethtown men named went up Mt. Hurricane with tent, signal material, etc., when the first signal was erected on that wind swept height over 40 years ago.
Deceased shot a panther which was mounted and is still on exhibition in the State Capitol. He resurveyed a portion of Tappan's line, the late Samuel Dunning and his son Douglas presiding. The principal speaker having acted as ax-men, and erected signals on various Adirondack peaks. An Adirondack peak—Colvin— was named after him. – Elizabethtown Post.