Our Hike on the Threatened Road to
April 11, 2006
A Photo Story
Crossing the suspension bridge over the West Branch of the
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.
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
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
Died Oct. 13, 1894
Aged 44 yrs.
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.
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
See Part II
- Our Hike on the Threatened Road to Whitehouse - A Photo Story
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.
(1) DEC's proposed Silver Lake Wilderness draft
unit management plan was approved by the Adirondack Park Agency
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
Aug. 2005 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,
(3) Executive summary, first page, "Silver Lake Wilderness
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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