North Elba was separated from Keene on the 13th of December, 1849. It is situated on the western border of the county, north of the center, and is bounded as follows: on the north by St. Armand and a portion of Wilmington; on the east by Wilmington and Keene; on the south by Keene and Newcomb, and on the west by a small portion of Newcomb and by Franklin county. The altitude of the town is greater than any other cultivated lands in the state. Some of the waters of the Hudson, Raquette and Saranac rivers, and the west branch of the Ausable and Chub rivers have their source in this town. The Ausable and Chub rivers drain the eastern and central parts of the town; the tributaries of the Saranac and Raquette rivers form the drainage of the western part, and the southern part is drained principally by branches of the Hudson. The surface through the interior and west part of the town is moderately rolling, but in the south, east and northeast the country assumes the elevated and broken altitude of mountains. Bordering the rivers in many places may be found an alluvial formation of rich black soil. Receding from the streams, varieties of soil are discernible, in some parts a black loam prevailing for miles in extent, while in other portions of territory (to the northwest) are large tracts of poor sandy soil from which the place derived its euphonious name of the "Plains of Abraham," or "Abraham's Plains." The timber varies with the diversity of the soil. On the plain prevails the tamarac; on the river bottoms, elm, ash, maple, pine, spruce and fir, are most abundant, and on the higher table-land are found the birch, beech, maple, iron wood, spruce and fir. In some localities are considerable tracts of valuable pine, while in others may be found large quantities of a superior quality of spruce. Unlike the other towns of Essex county, North Elba's future promises to be greater than her past, by virtue of her almost inexhaustible resources in lumber.
The southern part of the town is occupied by a portion of the Adirondack range. The noted Adirondack or Indian Pass, situated on the boundary line between this town and Newcomb is a deep gorge between Mts. McIntyre and Wallface; a portion of the latter forming the western border of the pass, is a vertical precipice a mile in length and towering to an altitude of 800 to 1,200 feet from the base. The bottom of the gorge is 2,800 feet above tide, and is strewn with gigantic fragments of rocks probably hurled from the beetling heights above by some mighty convulsion of nature. Watson thus vividly portrays this wonderful scene: "So exact and wonderful is the stupendous masonry of this bulwark that it seems, could human nerve allow the effort, a stone dropped from the summit, might reach the base without striking an impediment. The pencil cannot portray, nor language describe, the full grandeur and sublimity of this spectacle. The deep seclusion, the wild solitude of the place, awe and impress. Many miles from human nabitation, nature here reigns in her primitive silence and repose. The eagles form their eyries amid these inaccessible cliffs, and seem like some humble bird as they hover over the deep abyss." Bennet's, Connery and Round ponds are in the immediate vicinity of Lake Placid, in the north. This beautiful sheet of water is one of the most important heads of the Ausable river. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the Adirondacks, and is already a favorite resort. Although distant but a little way from Mirror lake, of almost equal notoriety, it is effectually separated from the latter by a ridge of land passing between the two. Mr. S.R. Stoddard, in his estimable little book entitled The Adirondacks Illustrated, gives the following description of this lake: "Its admirers and it has many call it the 'gem of the Adirondacks,' and it possesses many features peculiar to itself that may possible entitle it to that distinction. It is in shape oblong, something over four miles in length and about two broad, measuring through or between the islands, of which there are three, called respectively Hawk, Moose and Buck. Hawk island is small. Moose and Buck are large, beautiful islands in a line from the first toward the southwest, the three dividing the sheet into what are locally known as the east and west lakes, making it resemble a large river sweeping around them rather than a lake with islands."
The fertile plains of North Elba are thus seen to be rich in the variety and magnificence of their scenery, and in their exhaustless resources. They are encircled by a lofty "amphitheatre of mountains" which are filled with ores and are mantled by woods of the heaviest and choicest timber. Mr. Watson, (page 419, History of Essex County) refers to "a singular and apparently well authenticated account of the accidental discovery of a vein of silver ore among the Adirondacks and the loss of its trace," pointed out to him by an intelligent resident of North Elba. It was not worked, and has been lost, but there is promise of great wealth to the man with genius and energy enough to reduce the inaccessibility of the iron veins in the town, and to cleanse the ore from its native impurities. Works were established on the chub river as early as 1809 by Archibald McIntyre and Mr. Hudson, of Albany. They consisted of a forge of four to six fires, designated the Elba Iron Works. At first ores were taken from veins in the immediate vicinity, but afterwards from Arnold bed in Clinton county. Notwithstanding the laborious and expensive methods necessarily employed in running the forge, the business was for a number of years eminently prosperous. But the works lacked the reserve power necessary to the stability of enterprises of this nature, and in 1815 they were abandoned. "A decayed dam and fragments of broken wheels and shafts, and similar vestiges, are the only memorials of their former existence."
The early history of the town has been so well and completely written by Mr. T.S. Nash, a former resident thereof, in an article published in one of the county papers, in August, 1881, that we cannot do better than to take the liberty of transcribing the historical portion of the article herein. Following is the transcript:
The history of this town commenced in the early part of this century. The town of North Elba embraces the south part of township No. 11, and all of township No. 12 of the old military tract. The town is fourteen miles long north and south, and eleven miles east and west, and contains one hundred and fifty-four square miles, or nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-six acres. Township No. 11 and a strip three and one-half miles wide on the north side of township No. 12, was surveyed by Stephen Thoon in 1806. The balance of township No. 12 was surveyed by John Richards in 1813. The description of the lands in those localities are still designated by the number and the names of the surveyors of the different surveys.
The land was owned by the State of New York. The settlement commenced soon after Thorn's survey by a few pioneer hunters. Soon after the settlement iron ore was discovered, and it was thought of a sufficient quantity to pay for working. Archibald McIntyre, of Albany, investigated the matter, and in company with Mr. Hudson and another partner, bought a water-power on Chub river, and put up a forge which was known as the Elba Iron Works. When they commenced working the ore they found it contained suphur or carbon in quantities so large as to render it worthless. The forge was run, however, and ore was drawn from other points for a time, but it became a losing business, and the enterprise was abandoned. During the time the forge was in operation considerable of a settlement was made, some settlers buying their land, while many others simply went on the land, intending to buy at their convenience. When the settlement seemed to be in a prosperous condition, Peter Smith (father of the late Gerrit Smith) of Peterboro, N.Y., heard of this tract of land, made an examination of it, and returned to Albany and made a purchase of nearly the entire town not previously sold. The settlers sought to purchase their homes, but Mr. Smith told them the time had not come to sell this land, but he would not drive them from their homes, and when he was ready to sell, would give them the first chance of buying. But the settlers were unwilling to continue to improve their land, which might result in benefiting a stranger. Most of the people, therefore, left, and but few remained there for many years. During the dark days of their history schools were given up, religious meetings abandoned, and some of the few were brought up in ignorance, while others were sent abroad to school. At the death of Peter Smith the land fell into the hands of Gerrit Smith, and in 1840 he offered it for sale.
This year the second epoch of immigration began. At the commencement of the year only six families were in what is now North Elba, east of the settlement on the Saranac river. Those settlers were O.J. Bartlett, Alexas Tender, Iddo Osgood, R. Thompson, S. Avery, and Moses Sampson. In that year Thomas Brewster, R.G. Scott, R. Nash, and Alonzo Washbond, and perhaps some others were added to the sparsely settled territory.
The town continued to be settled as fast as could be expected under all circumstances till 1845, when a new episode occurred in its history. Gerrit Smith, who was the owner of nearly all the vacant land in town (which he inherited from his father, Peter Smith) in one of his acts of benevolence granted it to colored people in different parts of the country, in tracts of forty acres each. This act, although in good faith by Mr. Smith, did not prove to fill his expectations.
In 1849 John Brown (afterwards of the Osawatamie and Harper Ferry notoriety) came into town for the purpose of assisting the colored immigrants, and forming a colony of that race. Several families moved into town, some of which were assisted by Mr. Brown, but the climate and occupation of farming were both new to them, and, I believe, only two of the many who received this gratuitous gift made a home on the land thus granted. This town then formed a part of Keene, but in 1849 the citizens petitioned the board of supervisors of Essex county to be set off and have a town organization. The board of supervisors took the necessary steps to accomplish the desired action, and on the first Tuesday in March, 1850, the necessary officers were elected, and North Elba was a legally organized town. John Thompson was the first supervisor.
Schools and Religious Meetings. In 1849 a three months school was taught, and schools were annually kept after this date. During the same year a clergyman by the name of Clinton, and an older clergyman called Father Comstock, from Lewis, went to the new settlement; held a series of meetings and formed a Congregational Church. In 1847 a Methodist clergyman, by the name of Bourbon, came from Keene to look after the lost sheep of his flock, and a Methodist Society was formed. These societies continued to prosper and harmony prevailed among them till 1850 when a new chapter was formed in the religious services of the town. A clergyman by the name of Wardner, from Wilmington, a Wesleyan Methodist and a very zealous worker for the colored man, held a series of meetings, delivered lectures, etc., on the slavery question and organized a church of that denomination taking members from both the other churches which left all three societies weak. But religious meetings of some denomination were always held there after 1840.
A few years ago a new enterprise was commenced in town. The cool bracing air of summer, the lakes and mountains, the beauty of the scenery, the speckled trout, and the nimble deer in this section, attracted the attention of the tourist and sportsman, and several hotels have been built to accommodate that class of customers in summer. These houses are well filled and the business is annually increasing. There is perhaps no place in the whole wilderness region of Northern New York so well adapted to please all classes of customers as this town. The tourist, the sportsmen, the student, the geologist, can all find ample food there for their mental as well as their physical appetite. North Elba has had a checkered history, but what has been dark and gloomy in the past is now growing bright and beautiful.
The purpose of this work requires some enlargement upon some of the hints contained in the foregoing article. John Brown's career is so intimately connected with the town that it requires a brief notice. He was born on the 9th day of May, 1800, at Torrington, Conn., and was a lineal descendant from a pilgrim of the Mayflower. In his young manhood he engaged in a number of enterprises without any considerable success, and often with disheartening reverses. In 1848 he prosecuted a wool speculation in Europe, and met with disastrous failure. During his visit to the Old World he indulged his native liking for fine stock by inspecting the choice breeds of the countries he visited, and gained a knowledge which subsequently rendered him a most intelligent stock-raiser in Essex county. At an early period of his life he became imbued with the most vehement and vigorous anti-slavery sentiments, which increased in intensity as he advanced in years, and resulted finally in the tragedy of Harper's Ferry. In 1849 he called upon Gerrit Smith, and proposed to take up a farm in North Elba, and by affording the negro colonists instruction and employment, aid Smith in his beneficent project. Smith accepted the proposal, and immediately conveyed a lot to Brown, who in the same or the following year removed his family and flocks and other worldly possessions from his former home in Massachusetts to the new home. In 1850 the report of the Essex County Agricultural Society refers to a "number of very choice and beautiful Devons from the herds of Mr. John Brown, residing in one of our most remote and secluded towns."
When the Kansas difficulties arose in 1856 he hastened to join his four sons already there in the participation of those stirring scenes. He soon gained a decided ascendency in the deliberations and acts of the Free State party, and by his desperate resistance to an attack of the border ruffians at Ossawattamie, during which his son Frederick was killed, he gained the sobriquet of "Ossawattamie Brown." He manifested remarkable skill as an organizer of forces, and conducted the battles of the party with astonishing intrepidity. During a partial subsidence of the agitation in Kansas, he and his sons visited a number of the Northern and Eastern states with the real object of inciting the zeal and co-operation of the inhabitants against the whole slavery system, but with the apparent object of visiting their home in North Elba. In the following year he revisited Kansas and at once began the commission of a series of daring and lawless acts which astonished the whole country. He manumitted, vi et arma, twelve Missouri slaves, led them through Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan to the shores of Canada. The governor of Missouri offered a reward of three thousand dollars for his apprehension, and his proclamation was supplemented by a similar publication by the president of the United States offering a reward of two hundred and fifty dollars. By virtue of the influence of his own name, he convoked an assembly of his sympathizers at Chatham, Canada. Its president was a colored preacher, and the design of the association then organized was the forcible liberation of all the slaves in the country, and the establishment within the United States of a provisional government. In April, 1859, he was engaged in the enlistment of associates in Essex county. Harper's Ferry, being in easy communication with Canada and the entire North, was selected as the starting point in the proposed invasion. Brown, under the assumed name of Smith, hired a large unoccupied farm containing three dwelling-houses, and situated near Harper's Ferry, and used it as a rendezvous for the self-constituted emancipators. By the circulation of a report that the visitors were about establishing a large wool-growing business, and the presence among them of several women, they eluded suspicion. The rest of the story, the intended attack of the 24th of October, the singular anticipation of the attack by a week, the indubitable design of Brown and his co-adjusters to seize the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, capture a number of prominent citizens, to be held as hostages and ransomed by a supply of provisions or the emancipation of slaves, and escape to the mountain fastnesses where they could maintain themselves until the arrival of their expected support from the North, and the universal insurrection of the negroes, his overwhelming defeat by the federal marines and the forces of militia of Maryland and Virginia after a most prolonged and determined opposition, Brown's arrest and execution (December 2d, 1859), are all matters of common information now.
Just before his departure for Harper's Ferry, John Brown gave orders for the transportation to Westport from Massachusetts of a stone which had stood, it is said, for more than seventy-five years at the grave of his grandfather; and in the event of his death, directions were left to have it erected at his home in North Elba, with the inscriptions hereinafter set forth. The stone at this time bore this inscription: "In memory of Captain John Brown, who died at New York, Sept. ye 3, 1776, in the 42 year of his age." Brown's request was complied with, and the time-worn, weather-stained stone now stands on the old homestead, in North Elba, under the shadow of a great rock, and bearing beneath the foregoing inscription, the following:
"John Brown, born May 9th, 1800, was executed at Charleston, Va., December 2d, 1859." "Oliver Brown, born March 9th, 1839, was killed at Harper's Ferry, October 17th, 1859." On the reverse side are the following: "In memory of Frederick Brown, son of John Brown and Dianth Brown, born December 21st, 1830, murdered at Ossawatamie, Kansas, August 30th, 1856, for his adherence to the cause of freedom." "Watson Brown, born October 7th, 1835, was wounded at Harper's Ferry and died October 19th, 1859."
The many visitors at the grave have mutilated the stone by breaking off corners for relics, etc., until a few years ago, when it was locked securely under a wooden case, and exhibited to strangers only on special request. A few years ago the farm was advertised to be sold under a mortgage. Miss Kate Field, so well known as a writer and lecturess, learning of the fate which overhung the old homestead, hastened to Boston with her accustomed energy, and began at once the solication of subscriptions to save the farm from the obligion which threatened it. Not meeting with the desired success there, she went to New York, where she succeeded in forming a society, with Sinclair Toucey as secretary and treasurer. The farm was purchased and Mr. Lawrence, of Jay, engaged to manage it. To-day the place is held sacred and visited annually by hundreds of tourists. Kate Field is a native of St. Louis and was educated in Europe and the East.
Mrs. John Brown, one of her husband's most faithful and zealous companions in his life work, was born in Whitehall, N.Y., April 15th, 1816. She first met Brown in North Elba, and became his wife in 1832. After various removals following upon his death, she died in 1875, at the age of sixty-eight years.
Hotels.One of the first, if not the first of hotel proprietors in this town, was the late Joseph V. Nash. He was born September 7th, 1825, and in 1837 came to North Elba (then Keene). He worked for his father until he was twenty years of age, purchased of him the remainder of his minotiry, and worked three years for his brother, Timothy Nash, at eleven dollars a month. In October, 1851, he married Harriet C. Brewster, of North Elba, after having purchased a tract of one hundred and sixty acres of land of Gerrit Smith. This land is beautifully located on the shore of Mirror lake, about eighty rods from Lake Placid. Immediately after his marriage he erected a hotel on this tract, which was familiarly known as "Nash's" as long as its proprietor lived. Mr. Nash died May 20th, 1884, of heart disease, and was buried with Masonic honors.
The houses at present open for guests at and about Lake Placid are the Allen House, Henry Allen, proprietor; Lake Placid House, built by B. T. Brewster, now owned by Martin Brewster; Stevens House, built by Joseph V. Nash in 1877, and afterwards sold to J.A. & G.A. Stevens, the present proprietors; Grand View House, H.C. Lyon, proprietor; Mirror Lake House, A.J. Daniels, proprietor; Castle Rustico, W.F. Leggett; West Side, Oliver Abel; and Adirondack Lodge, Henry Van Hoevenberghs. In other parts of town are the Mountain View House, M.S. Ames, proprietor, situated about four miles southwest from Edmond's pond; Ray Brook House (on Ray brook) in the western part of the town, Duncan Cameron, proprietor. Frank B. Stickney officiates as postmaster at Lake Placid.
M.C. Lyon has kept a hotel on the stage route from Westport to the Saranacs, about two miles and a half south of Lake Placid, since 1847. He has occupied the present building since 1864, and has been postmaster since 1866. His daughter, Mrs. Mary E. Lusk, conducts a store in the same building.
Milling, etc. There is considerable lumbering done in the town, many logs being shipped down the Saranac river to Plattsburg. Eugene Thew runs a shingle mill on the site of the old Freedmen's Home which Gerrit Smith attempted to found. Charles Taylor runs a saw-mill and grist-mill in the east part of the town on the west branch of the Ausable river. G.T. Challis owns and runs a saw-mill and clapboard and lath factory on Chub river. E.N. Ames runs a saw-mill on Ray Brook in the western part of the town. He is a brother of M.S. Ames before named.
In 1879 the Adirondack or North Elba Baptist Church was organized and aided in the construction of the Union edifice on Abraham's Plain. For fifteen years the Baptists had been the most numerous denomination in the town. Encouraged by Revs. Levi Smith and W.C. McAllester, of West Plattsburg, these early members determined to organize. Their original membership was fourteen. The first deacons were Orrin Torrance and Reuben Lawrence, and the first clerk, Clarence Lawrence. The present pastor is Rev. A.C. Lyon, and his predecessor was Rev. D.B. Pope. Rev. Oscar Boutwell the Methodist pastor of Saranac Lake preaches occasionally in the Union Church. With the aid of summer guests the Baptists have erected a handsome chapel at Lake Placid.
Following is a list of the supervisors of this town from its formation to the present time: John Thompson, 1850; Timothy Nash, 1851-52; Daniel Ames, 1853 to 1855 inclusive; Daniel Osgood, 1856; Milo Merrill, 1857; Daniel Ames, 1858-59; Milote Baker, 1860 to 1862 inclusive; Daniel Ames, 1863; T.S. Nash, 1864-65; Daniel Ames, 1866-67; Alexis Hinckley, 1868; Andrew J. Baker, 1869-70; Joseph V. Nash, 1871-72; Moses S. Ames, 1873-74; Judson C. Ware, 1875-76; Myron T. Brewster, 1877; M.S. Ames, 1878-79; Byron R. Brewster, 1880-81; Benjamin T. Brewster, 1882; Henry Allen, 1883-84; George S. Stevens, 1885.
For more information on John Brown, see this good summary page of the events, and the source of some of the pictures used here:
John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow
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