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Mapping the Adirondacks

February 26, 2012
By DON WILLIAMS , For The Leader Herald

Historian Jeptha Simms wrote of Nicholas Stoner drawing a map of "Stoner Country" in the Adirondacks during the first half of the 19th century. He was camping near the head of the Grass River where he met a French Canadian hunter and his squaw. He spent most of the night extolling the advantages of living in Adirondack country so he was up early the next morning drawing a map for them on a piece of birch bark. The trail that he drew on the map later became the Nick Stoner Trail.

The lack of a map for Nick and the early hunters got me thinking about what it would be like if there were no maps. Maps are now essential to much of what we do in our lives on earth and, without them, we would be lost. Some tell me today that they do not know what they would do without a GPS.

One of the best maps in my Adirondack library was produced by the New York State Forest Commission in 1890. It shows the boundaries of the Adirondack forest area in red and the boundaries in blue of the "Proposed Adirondack Park." The title of the old map is a "MAP OF THE GREAT FOREST OF NORTHERN NEW YORK." It is color coded in everything from virgin forests to state lands. The "Blueline" went as far north as Harrietstown and as far south as Benson. In my estimation, it is the kind of map that could be studied for hours and is filled with Adirondack history.

One of my best map finds is a set of 10 maps drawn by Superintendent of State Land Surveys, Verplanck Colvin. The set dates from 1898 and provides a peek into the past not found in any other place. An outstanding group of maps in the set begins at Sacandaga Park and goes up the Adirondack Trail, today's Route 30, listing the towns along the way and the residents along each side of the road. My grandfather's log home is sited on the map just south of Wells. Other maps in the set contain surveying details still useful today.

I also find my 1871 Asher and Adams "New Topographical Atlas and Gazetteer of New York" map of 12 counties especially historic. The original names, Wellstown, Pickleville, Sageville, Newtons Center, Hope Centre and Benson Centre, are no longer in use. The north country beyond Indian Lake was left blank, apparently not ready for mapping at that time.

Topographical maps of the Adirondacks contain some 153 bits of information that are useful to those who penetrate the wilderness. Dating back to the early 1900s, and updated over the years, topo maps are available in most outdoor stores. Without them, the Adirondack back country would be a lonely place, devoid of regular human intrusion. With a topo map and a good compass, most can traverse the wild country without mishap.

Remember when the gas stations gave away free road maps? The Esso Company printed detailed maps that included the names of the Adirondack mountain peaks. They were widely sought after and have become collectible today. They were useful in finding the location of the mountains to hike and the nearest towns and trailheads.

Large books of maps, meticulously drawn, are gems of history. Every street, building and geographic feature are recorded for history in these old books. I have several put together by county dating back to the 1800s. And, would you believe, my book of the sewer maps from Saranac Lake, offers historical details heretofore hard to find.

Mapping the Adirondacks has come a long way since the 1757 French and Indian War's map that called the Adirondacks, "Parts but little known," and the 1776 Samuel Holland Map that concluded, "This country is not only uninhabited, but even unknown!" Today we have an Adirondack map taken from outer space and modern technology to keep us from getting lost: the Adirondacks are no longer as the British Colony Map warned, "by reason of mountain swamps and drowned lands, are impassable."



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