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DEC Eradicates Access to Rich History

A HIKE TO LITTLE CANADA ON JOHN’S POND ROAD

Searching After Sad Memories through a Bleak Present

By Carol W. LaGrasse

 

On an overcast day in late April, Susan Allen and I set out on a walk to the Little Canada cemetery on John’s Pond Road a few miles southeast of Indian Lake village. We had no idea what we’d find, or even whether the cemetery could be visited at this date, but we knew that, in 1982, the historian for the Town of Indian Lake and Hamilton County had made a plea to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, to recognize the importance of the historical significance of Little Canada and to keep its rich history available to the public by keeping the road open to John’s Pond.

Susan had reported on Little Canada and John’s Pond Road in her Adirondack Park Agency Reporter covering the February 2005 meeting of the agency, known as the APA. She had referred to her records of the 1982 discussion about the future of John’s Pond Road because it was again worthy of consideration while the APA reviewed the DEC’s new plan for the 114,010-acre “Siamese Ponds” area of the Adirondack Forest Preserve where the road is located.

Twenty-three years ago, Ted Aber, the historian, had expressed the intention of local officials to place a marker on the grave site of 14-year old Eliza King and her 11-year old half brother Peter Savarie, who had died the same day in 1897 of “black diphtheria” in a small log house in Little Canada. Five other children were buried in Little Canada, but only their approximate burial places were known. The historian had pointed in his report to the many Frenchmen who had settled there, mentioning names like Dumars, DeMarsh, Starbuck, Abare, Gasper, as well as the Savaries and Bram King, the man said to be both of the children’s father. Bram King’s brother and sister were also stricken with diphtheria and were buried nearby.

The historian had written that, in 1914, after buying property in the area from the Indian River Company, the State had held a hearing at Indian Lake village to allow people who could prove private ownership of the land to remain. A book that they called the Township 15 book was kept by the Finch & Company, John McGinn and the Crandalls to record the sales of land to settlers in the area. It was removed from the vault at the time of the death of George C. Finch. Jerry Finch asserted that someone close to the Indian River Company took the book away. It was never recovered.

According to the historian, although many of the residents were considered rightful owners of the property that they occupied, the “people of Little Canada, were, without exception, ousted from their lands.”

“Little Canada became extinct around 1915,” Mr. Aber had written.

Documenting why the road should be kept open, Mr. Aber had poignantly told the story of Little Canada as far as he could research it to that point. After his touching description of the the people of Little Canada, he had asked the State to allow markers to be placed on the more important house sites in the settlement area. An indication of the vitality of the settlement was that it once included a store ran by “Old” Eldridge, who sold goods, including a barrel of flour that was mentioned on a board of paper and tin found at the location.

“It is our contention that New York State’s rich history should remain available to the public,” Mr. Aber had urged. “We believe that this relatively small area, known for its exceptional beauty, should be made accessible to all who may care to visit.”

At the time, he had said, the Town of Indian Lake had agreed to improve the road, which was then passable to four-wheel-drive vehicles. Despite Mr. Aber’s painstaking elucidation of the historic significance of the area, DEC had closed the road, engulfing Little Canada in the expanded Siamese Ponds Wilderness.

When the Siamese Ponds area came up for a new State management plan in 2005, there was no record of public comment, Susan observed in the Reporter. The new plan made only brief mention of Little Canada and John’s Pond Road, with the cemetery included in the area classified as “wilderness.” Although, presumably, Mr. Aber’s report was still preserved somewhere in DEC’s files and could have been attached to the record, it was not referenced or attached. The contents of the historian’s entire report had been reduced to a dismissive phrase or two. In essence, DEC’s commentary had obliterated the history of the settlement and the road. We wanted to see what could still be seen of the history of the area. Until our hike, we had not realized how ominous DEC’s omission was.

We planned to take photographs of the grave site and perhaps of remains of the settlement. We soon came to very large boulders that DEC had placed across John’s Pond Road several hundred feet from the town plow turnaround where the road begins. DEC had attached neat bright blue trail marker signs high on the tree trunks and larger, plain signs bluntly prohibiting ATV’s.

It wasn’t long after we passed the boulders when we began to have trouble traversing the road. It turned muddy, with puddles blocking the way. Compensating for a bad ankle with two ski poles, I maneuvered along the slanting cuts and slopes edging the road. But the way became worse. Streams flowed across the road. At one location, a culvert lay uselessly as water flowed either side of it. We came to a trail cut by hikers around one flooded stretch of the road. At another place, water had cut a long sandy gully and stripped away the roadbed. We faced a rushing stream that must have at one time had a bridge crossing, as rocks made it too rough to ride most wheeled vehicles through. Sequestering our map, trail guide, and camera in the knapsack, we selected large stones and boulders, and crossed gingerly. Fearful of slipping and one of my legs being twisted between rocks in the rushing water, I was thankful for a helping hand and one of the ski poles.

A realization came to me. Except for trunks of fallen trees being cut away, the “trail” was receiving no maintenance!

I thought of each spring where my husband and I faced the need to keep up the road into our place. He has made ten to twenty trips to a commercial stone quarry annually, hauling a ton of crushed rock each trip to work into the ruts and keep up the roadbed. My thoughts turned to the town of Stony Creek, where I live, where the town highway department continually maintains several gravel-surfaced roads against the ravages of weather and wear and tear. My years as a civil engineer came to mind, when I had contact with many types of construction, including bridges and highways, and I wondered how long even the most advanced highways, such as the Interstate Adirondack Northway, would stand up without maintenance. The realization that DEC was doing no maintenance of this town road—a so-called “trail”—was shocking and despairing. DEC was destroying it, whether as a trail or a town road. All of the rich history that Mr. Aber had documented was being cut off by DEC’s lack of maintenance of this public way.

John’s Pond Road had been well built and improved beyond that of an early twentieth century highway. An expert eye could see the way the road-bed had been cut away in places from the gentle hillside and built up in other places. Heavy rocks had been pushed aside. Modern metal culverts had been laid in stream courses to protect the road from erosion and make the way level. They were undermined. For many stretches, an excellent route for the road had naturally existed and the road stretched rather straight ahead of us on well-drained, level land. However, even the route’s natural attributes and the conscientious work that the people had done over the years was being sabotaged by DEC’s callousness toward the local history and culture.

As we walked along, the outing was becoming a difficult hike, considering the condition of the road, and I was getting tired. We had passed a significant distance beyond the area from which the cemetery was said to be shortly opposite. We almost turned back, but I forced myself to inch on around another bend in the road. Finally, ahead of us, we saw the sign directing people up a clear path to the tiny grave site of Peter Savarie and Eliza King. A few hundred feet above the road to the left, decaying snow fence supported by wire fencing surrounded the burial plot. Mr. Aber had written that Henry King had erected the snow fence and kept it intact ever since. Two rough wooden crosses behind marked the burial place, with little silvery plaques on short posts in front of each. Eliza’s and Peter’s short life spans were engraved on the plaques.

Satisfied to find the cemetery deep in the forest and to take our photographs, we headed on, but it was too far for me to go the additional half-mile to John’s Pond. I sat on a rotting log that had once fallen high and dry over another fallen tree trunk just before an eroded section of the road while Susan walked to the pond and back. Unfortunately, although the trees and brush had not begun to leaf out, no remains of the settlement were visible there or anyplace along our route. Except for the simple sign pointing to the cemetery and another at the cemetery, no markers memorialized Little Canada’s history along John’s Pond Road.

The hike back seemed easier, as we were not constantly studying the foldout map and the old trail guide or scanning for a path or the cemetery up into the wooded hill, as we’d been doing once we passed a supposedly nearby location. We were deep in conversation about the significance of what we had learned from our hike in search of history. Four hours from the time we had set out on a trek of only three miles each way, we returned to the pickup truck and headed to Indian Lake for lunch. I could barely walk from the truck to the restaurant door. Musing that my athletic days might be waning, I thought of others who might like to take this forbidden road.

We still had to go to the DEC’s hearing at Adirondack Community College that night on their plan to prohibit ATV access to all the trails and closed town highways like John’s Pond Road in the Forest Preserve.

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Cultural Eradication - National APA (Adirondack Park Agency) Highways and Rights-of-Way Access to Government Lands - New York
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