Our Hike on the Threatened Road to Whitehouse
April 11, 2006
A Photo Story

Crossing the suspension bridge over the West Branch of the Sacandaga
All photos: Carol W. LaGrasse (unless noted)

Susan Allen and I decided to travel the route to Whitehouse after witnessing the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s presentation to the Adirondack Park Agency of a management plan for the so-called “Silver Bay Wilderness” in 2005. The environmental agency proposed to eliminate the well-maintained town highway leading to Whitehouse, a ghost town in Wells that is situated at the end of West River Road on the beautiful West Branch of the Sacandaga River in Hamilton County. A popular camping and picnicking spot for visiting campers and hunters, as well as local people, Whitehouse is today distinguished by two old stone chimneys and two suspension footbridges. One of the bridges is a substantial two-span suspension crossing over the West Branch. Under the plan, a historic town cemetery with several gravestones dating from the nineteenth century would be made inaccessible.

In addition to closing 0.7 miles of the town road, DEC has proposed to eliminate many of the pleasant, spacious camping spots dating from its precursor agency, known as the New York State Conservation Department, at least forty years ago, before the Adirondack Park Agency was created in 1973. The most spacious camping area is even older. The Town of Wells relies heavily on the summer and fall visits by tourists, campers, and hunters to the area. The camping opportunities on the State-owned land along the West River Road to historic Whitehouse and at that historical site are an important factor in the town’s economy.

By cutting off vehicle access to the campsites, the historic site of Whitehouse, and the cemetery, the DEC would effectively foreclose the use of the camping areas as they have been enjoyed by generations of campers and hunters. In addition, DEC would be promoting the destruction of local cultural heritage and violating the New York State cemetery law by preventing the maintenance of an access road required by law. Finally, DEC would be destroying local historic vernacular architecture and civil engineering works by carrying out its plan to allow the bridges and chimneys to fall to ruin or deliberately demolishing them. These effects of DEC’s gradual, but radical, reworking of its policies within the Adirondack Forest Preserve are typical of the extremist viewpoint that holds sway in the agency.

When the snow melted away in April, Mike Groff, a licensed surveyor whose family has camped and hunted at Whitehouse since the ’sixties, volunteered to take Susan and me to Whitehouse over the West River Road.

Part I

A Foreboding of the Future Envisioned by DEC

As we reached the last lap of what became the vehicular portion of our trip to Whitehouse on April 11, 2006, we expected to find a clear route, because DEC had promised (1) to hold off action on its plan to block off the West River Road. To our surprise, our vehicle was blocked by huge boulders. We later learned that the Town of Wells Highway Department obstructs the last 1.3 miles of its well-maintained highway to Whitehouse each winter to preserve the surface during the winter and spring months, and opens the highway after mud season. However, the giant boulders barricading the two-lane gravel road gave an ominous impression while the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was deliberating the proposal in its “Silver Lake Wilderness” management plan to close the final 0.7 mile of the road to convert the area to wilderness. From these boulders, we set out on our hike to Whitehouse.

 

 

Dwarfed by Boulders Across West River Road

Mike Groff, a surveyor whose family has camped and hunted at the largest clearing on the West Branch of the Sacandaga since the early 1970’s, is dwarfed by the boulders placed in the West River Road by the Town of Wells to protect the highway from winter and spring damage. As Mike guided us along the road, he pointed to the many side roads to fine camp sites already closed by DEC. The campsites have spacious clearings and stone fireplaces, but boulders now block the way. Once intended to be enjoyed by the people, the purpose of the forestlands acquired by New York State is being perverted by radicals who want nothing but wilderness.

 

 

A Spring Day on the Beautiful Town Highway to Whitehouse

Susan Allen, editor and publisher of the independent Adirondack Park Agency Reporter, Keene Valley, New York, stops for a moment on the beautiful town highway that leads to the historical site of Whitehouse in the town of Wells. The day after we completed our hike, Clay Early, the Wells Highway Superintendent, told me that the town opposes DEC’s plan to close the highway to Whitehouse.

“We’re fighting them on the road. It’s a town road,” Mr. Early said. The town highway department consistently maintains the gravel-surfaced road, he commented. “We grade it with the grader and rake it constantly throughout the year, replace culverts, and take rocks out of it.”

DEC’s wilderness plan describes its radical scheme for the destruction of the town highway as follows: “Foot trail conditions will be established on this route by breaking up the road surface, removing appropriate culverts, and planting native vegetation.” (2)

 

 

The Dugway Creek Crossing

Hand laid up fieldstones support the West River Road to Whitehouse where a steel culvert carries Dugway Creek beneath the highway. The Town of Wells has maintained the highway for over 100 years. DEC failed to mention in its 150-plus page proposed “Silver Lake Wilderness” management plan for 106,770 acres in the Towns of Lake Pleasant, Benson, Hope, Wells and Arietta in Hamilton County that it is illegal for the state agency to close a town highway. Instead DEC states elusively, “The entire length of road is a public right-of-way and is currently being maintained by the Town of Wells.” (3)

 

 

Side Road Blocked Off by DEC

As we hiked to Whitehouse, we passed a number of side roads that DEC had blocked off to prevent campers and hunters from using motor vehicles to access established campsites. We encountered this good dirt road into a tree plantation on our left shortly after passing the Dugway Creek crossing. With maps and the DEC Unit Management plan for the Silver Lake Wilderness under her arm, Susan Allen stood at what would be the entry to the attractive woods road. An old sign posted by the State of New York could be seen on one of the trees.

 

 

Large Square-edged Stone Blocks Another Side road to Campsites in the Woods

As we hiked, Mike Groff recalled that DEC has been blocking off the many fine campsites on the side roads from West River Road for a number of years. Before DEC was created by the Legislature, the State Conservation Department had built these campsites, with their motor vehicle access roads. These previously blocked-off campsites are not discussed in DEC’s official impact disclosure related to the proposed “illegal” closing of the stretch of town highway and elimination of motor vehicle access to campgrounds that are currently accessible from the highway.

 

 

The View of the West Branch of the Sacandaga from West River Road

As West River Road approaches Whitehouse, it winds close by the West Branch of the Sacandaga River, affording a beautiful view to motorists. If DEC destroys the town highway, the enjoyment of the beauty of the West Branch of the Sacandaga will be restricted only to the young and physically fit.

 

 

Gravestone at Cemetery at Whitehouse, Which State Plan Will Render Inaccessible

Mary
Wife of
Sylvester Flansburgh
Died Oct. 13, 1894
Aged 44 yrs.
Amen

As a person approaches Whitehouse, hidden just off the left side of the road is a cemetery dating from the nineteenth century with tributes to a number of people, each with a different family name, engraved on five substantial gravestones. The cemetery witnesses to a settlement at the ghost town that pre-dates living memory of the Blair house and main building of a boy’s camp, each with a surviving chimney, that are referred to by specific reference in the DEC’s proposal to return the area to wilderness. The DEC refers briefly to scattered foundations and cellar holes in the woods, but its proposed management plan has no thoughts of recognizing the cultural and historic heritage of the area with an information center, plaques or other facility, or even to preserve, much less improve, the access to the cemetery. The fate plans for the Whitehouse Cemetery is like that of so many others on land bought up by the State for the Forest Preserve over the years, where DEC has erradicated highways, closing down access to these cherished places.

Additional gravestone photos

 

 

Approach to Chimney Dominating a Clearing near a Pond

At Whitehouse are two fieldstone chimneys. As we approached the ghost town, we spied to the left an old chimney dominating a clearing on a gentle little knoll beside a small pond. The DEC wilderness plan refers to this chimney as the Larry Fountain residence, which was later known as the “Blair House.” This clearing would probably no longer be allowed by the State because it is less than 150 feet from the pond. DEC intends to remove all but a few campsites, which have served hunters and campers for about forty years, by cultivating the soil to destroy the stable sod that is so amenable to camping and planting trees and removing all stone the fireplaces.

DEC dismisses the importance of the two Whitehouse chimneys in its Silver Lake Wilderness management plan with the words, “Although people in the local community have an interest in keeping these chimneys because they consider them part of the cultural history of the area, the chimneys are non-conforming under the APSLMP [Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan] Wilderness guidelines.” (4)

 
 

Chimney in the Clearing Where the Blair House Once Stood

Mike Groff stands in front of the Blair House chimney in the clearing at Whitehouse. This chimney is of the same style construction and fieldstone masonry as another chimney near the suspension bridge over the West Branch of the Sacandaga. As part of its Silver Lake Wilderness management plan, DEC intends to immediately demolish this chimney in 2007 and allow the other chimney to deteriorate of natural causes until the agency feels that it should be demolished. The chimney at the river’s edge is in better condition.

According to the 2005 DEC Silver Lake wilderness plan, when the State of New York bought Whitehouse and its 350 acres in 1962, the buildings were removed and burned.(5) The two chimneys are, therefore, the last remains of the State’s destruction of Whitehouse. No wonder the local people cherish them as a cultural symbol.

See Part II - Our Hike on the Threatened Road to Whitehouse - A Photo Story

Notes:

(1) DEC’s proposed Silver Lake Wilderness draft unit management plan was approved by the Adirondack Park Agency Commission on
March 9, with the exception of the portion related to West River Drive (and possibly Whitehouse), which was held in abeyance because of the objection by the Town of Wells. A final copy of the plan is not yet available.
(2) “Silver Lake Wilderness Area –Draft Unit Management Plan,”
Aug. 2005 – New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, p. 80.
(3) Executive summary, first page, “Silver Lake Wilderness Area,
Draft UMP,” August 2005 – NYS DEC.
(4) “Silver Lake Wilderness Area – Draft UMP,” Aug. 2005 – NYS DEC, p. 48.
(5) “Silver Lake Wilderness Area – Draft UMP,” Aug. 2005 – NYS DEC, p. 3.

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