DEDICATED TO MY OLD BUDDY, STEVE THOMAS -- 10/30/1951 -- 6/28/11
A BIG THANK YOU TO STEVE THOMAS FOR SHARING HIS FAMILY HISTORY AND PICS
Cruising the Saranac Lake Chain of lakes on a nice summer weekend can be a hair raising experience. You'll find yourself sharing the lakes with a wide assortment of fellow boaters. You'll come across rowboats, canoes, bass boats kayaks and party boats casually cruising along. You'll also encounter speedboats zipping by in an attempt to break the Saranac Lake water speed record and water skiers and Sea-Dooers on collision courses as they zig-zag the lakes. The DEC and local PD boats might accost you and check your cooler for illegal Saranac Adirondack Lager. You may pass Bruce Darring's houseboat where Bruce is busy at the barbeque grill preparing a meal for a large group of friends. To top it all off you'll most likely encounter Ken Hunt's Sauna Boat bearing a bevy of bikini-clad beauties, which can distract you from the serious business of boating. You'll probably find yourself wishing you could time-travel back a couple of hundred years to a more tranquil era.
In 1819, the year Jacob Moody came up the North West Bay road to settle in what is now Saranac Lake, the lakes were virtually deserted and had been ever since the Native American hunters decided to find happier hunting grounds. At that time Lake Flower was just part of the Saranac River flowing peacfully through the woods on it's way to Lake Champlain. In 1822 Captain Pliny Miller arrived here and in 1827 he built a sawmill and put up a wooden dam where the present concrete dam now sits. The backup of water widened and deepened the river resulting in a body of water which became known as Newell's Pond. This deeper water allowed logs to be more easily floated to Miller's sawmill. Somewhere between 1892 and 1899 the pond was renamed Lake Flower in honor of Governor Roswell Flower, who had secured a grant to pay for stump removal from the channel. Miller Pond, which was renamed Oseetah Lake by the state in 1904, was also enlarged by the backflow from the dam. Before the advent of tourism and the arrival of the TB industry logging was the main source of income in Saranac Lake. The lumber industry was so important that in 1846 New York State designated the Saranac River and it's branches as a public highway for the transport of logs. The Saranac Lake chain was purely a workhorse and had little recreational activity.
In 1869, when Adirondack Murray's book, "Adventures In The Wilderness", came off the press, a sudden influx of tourists began flowing in on the Saranac Lake stagecoach. The book stimulated the tourist trade to the point where it necessitated the building of new stores and hotels and created the need for more guides. At that time the only means of propelling the "sports" up the lakes was guide boats, canoes and rowboats. Two popular hotels, Bartlett's, between Middle and Upper Saranac, and Martin's, on Ampersand Bay, were already well established and had been written up in Murray's book. These hotels retained guides to move the tourists around. Most of the guides worked as lumberjacks in the winter and the extra summer work provided a steady source of income to support their families. In 1877 William Fortune Martin, who owned Martin's Hotel, had an idea that would make the transporting of tourists much easier. His plan would improve the way tourists traveled on the Saranac Lake Chain but would also cause dissension with the guides.
In the fall of 1877 Fred W. Rice and William A. Martin, son of William F. Martin, began work on the project and on the Fourth of July,1878 the Water Lily, the first steamboat in the Adirondacks, was launched. The Saranac Lake Water Lily shouldn't be confused with the steamboat of the same name that ran between Westport and Vergennes during that same period and had the distinction of being commanded by the "world's first licensed female steamboat pilot", Captain Philomene Daniels. The Saranac Lake Water Lily was a beautiful fifty foot wood-burning craft and was decked out with polished cherry and bird's-eye maple cabins and carried about twenty passengers. On board for that initial voyage was John Philip Sousa's Band which was doing a gig at Martin's Hotel that summer. Folks could now travel in comfort between Martin's and Bartletts and carry all their luggage with them. Locals and tourists gathered along the shoreline to get a glimpse of the Water Lily passing but not everyone was impressed with the noisy, smoke spouting, craft. Guides and shore owners were incensed over the loss of both tranquility and jobs and they let their feelings be known in no uncertain terms.
Messages containing threats of dynamiting and burning the steamboat were received regularly by Martin. One night around 1879 someone dynamited the dam that Martin had built to accommodate the passing of the Water Lily from Middle to Lower Saranac Lake. This channel was located where the Upper Locks are now. The destruction of the dam temporarily prevented the Water Lily from moving between the two lakes. This would be the first incident of employing dynamite in the attempt to destroy the locks and steamboats of the Saranac lake chain.
BARTLETT'S HOTEL AND CHANNEL
Three years later, in 1881, Martin's mortgage was bought out and he lost the hotel. He sold the Water Lily to Theodore White of Lake Placid who renamed it the Lake Lily. Even with the change of locale and name the harried craft got a poor reception. Lake Placid guides and shore owners reacted just as their counterparts on the Saranac Lakes did. The steamer was found sunk at it's moorings a year later. The fate of large touring boats in the Adirondacks was thought to be sealed but twenty years later a man from Hartford Maine arrived in Saranac Lake to challenge that assumption and his tour boating legacy would survive for over six decades and his boatline would be a mecca for thousands of tourists. His name was Captain Elmer Erwin Thomas.
Captain Thomas arrived in Saranac Lake in 1900 with many years of boating experience behind him. In the early days the Captain owned and piloted boats on the lakes of Maine. Later he moved to Boston where he worked as foreman on the waterfront estate of Senator W. H. Brigham at Hudson, Mass. After spending 10 years on the Brigham estate, Captain Thomas came to the Adirondacks where his first season was spent working at the Wardner Hotel on Rainbow Lake operating a small steamboat from the hotel. In 1900 Captain Thomas came to Saranac Lake with his wife, Abbie Wright Thomas and his twelve year old son, Harold. One of the first men the captain met here was Stephen Merchant, who owned shoreline on what is now called Lake Flower. Steve ran a sawmill on part of that land and agreed to sell some of his property to Captain Thomas. In 1901 Elmer filed an application with the New York State Forest, Fish and Game Commision for permission to build the docks. He then established his boat docks at what became 35 River Street. The document below is a partial answer to that application.
In 1901 the Captain launched his first boat, a small steamer called the Cleo, which held about thirty passengers. That same year, Joe Baker, of Baker's Boat landing, now Fogarty's, launched a Mississippi style sidewheeler which held over a hundred passengers. Soon after this, Elmer built his second steamer, the Pollyanna. Here is the Pollyanna at the lower locks. Later Captain Thomas also built a boat with three rudders to help in navigating the channel.
Early one Sunday morning in August of 1902 an attempt to blow up the lower state locks with dynamite failed. The next year on August 21 1903, another Sunday, a steamboat owned by Captain Eugene Torrance was dynamited. Torrance's steamboat, The White Star, had been docked at the Saranac Lake Boatline dock, which is located on Lake Flower where the state boat launch site is now. The White Star was sold to Benjamin Hall and renamed the Indian Maid. In 1906 the Indian Maid was retired and it rotted on the shore for fifteen years until 1921, when the village ordered it moved.
An unsuccessful attempt to destroy Captain Thomas' steamboat, Cleo, had also been made on the night of the White Star incident. It was believed by Chief of Police Ryan that the three attacks in 1902 and 1903 and the dynamiting of the Martin channel were connected. There were several other attempts made between 1903 and 1905 to blow up the lower and upper locks but no arrests were made. At that time dynamite was easily available locally and was used for a variety of purposes such as blowing up stumps, bringing drowning victims to the surface and some even used it for fishing until the practice was outlawed. A sewer worker in Saranac Lake was blown up attempting to thaw out a stick of dynamite by a fire. Believe it or not this seemed to be a fairly common practice judging from local newspaper articles of that era. Here's just one example.
Elmer soon built a small touring boat called the Wa Wa. Note the lady swimming beside the boat near the lower locks.
THE WA WA
Elmer was a naturalist and took advantage of every opportunity to get out into the woods. The Adirondack forests reminded him of the woods of Maine, where he and his cousin, Frank, would hunt and hike. He later wrote a book called "In The North Woods Of Maine". This book was first written for his children and was about an adventure he and his cousin, Frank, had when they were in their teens in Maine. The boys decided that they would spend eight months in the wilds of Maine, from September to April, taking only the supplies they could carry in two canoes. They built a cabin as a main base and another for when they were out on trapping excursions. They survived by trapping, hunting and fishing. They went so far as to make clothing and shoes from some of the animal skins. Besides mink, muskrat and beaver they bagged moose, bear and caribou, some in self defense. Roland and Harold talked him into submitting the story to a publisher and in 1923, just after Elmer died, the book came off the press and became the best selling volume of "The Pioneer Series" which was used in schools nationwide. Elmer never got to see it in book form.
E.E. THOMAS BOOK COVER
Here is a photo of Elmer and his son, Harold, on the old State Bridge on the Tupper Lake Road. Incidentally, in 1919 Harold accidently shot Elmer in the leg with buckshot while hunting partridges in Franklin Falls.
Dr. Tremblay removed a half dozen number 6 shot from his leg but
Elmer wasn't hurt seriously and was hunting again soon.
ELMER AND HAROLD
Here's another shot of Elmer hunting.
THE MAMMOTH ADIRONDACK CAVE
By 1909 the Thomas Boatlines were going full steam ahead and Elmer, bored and not one to sit around on his assets, asked Harold to take care of the business for that summer. His reasons for taking a job as Timber Cruiser and Inspector for the woodlands department of the Delaware and Hudson Company were two-fold. For one thing he loved being in the woods but his second reason was uppermost in his mind. He had heard from Nat Collins, a popular guide from the Chateaugay region, that there was something very interesting in a mountain near Standish. By coincidence Standish just happened to be where Elmer would be working.
Nat had discovered that there were huge caverns on "W" Mountain, now known as Haystack Mountain. Nat hadn't gone too far into the mountain but a few years later Millard C. Bellows had investigated the mountain but only ventured about 500 feet into the entrance.
W. A. Cooper, Superintendent of the woodlands department of the D. and H. Company, was also excited to explore the caverns, though they never did get to explore the entire cavern because of the limitations of the low tech equipment of the day. They described what they did see as being caverns as large or larger than the famous Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The caverns were thought to be the result of volcanic eruptions. Captain Thomas had suggested that putting a trolley line up the mountain and a hotel at the peak would attract tourists from all over. I think he had something there.
Seems the caverns were forgotten about until 1970, when Connie Pope, while doing some research for her book, "GHOST TOWNS OF NORTHERN NEW YORK" stumbled across a 1950 reprint of the cavern story in The Chateaugay Record. She planned on putting together an expedition to explore Haystack Mountain and try to locate an entrance to the caverns. I'm not sure if the search ever took place but I do know that, so far, no one has announced the rediscovery of the Adirondack Mammoth Cave.
Here are just three of the articles on Elmer's discovery. Two from the NY Times and one from the Syracuse Herald.
ELMER DISCOVERS AMAZING CAVERNS 1909
ELMER DISCOVERS AMAZING CAVERNS
SYRACUSE HERALD AMAZING CAVERNS
Here are the lower locks way back when.
LOWER LOCKS 1
LOWER LOCKS 2
Water skiing isn't a recently discovered sport. Here's a Thomas speedboat pulling a participant in 1916.
AQUA PLANING IN 1916