Adirondacks: Lumber Industry and Forest Conservation

The Adirondack region is rich in natural resources. During the nineteenth century, numerous attempts were made to harvest iron ore and minerals, but the difficult terrain made operations unprofitable. However, the vast forests of the Adirondacks were more accessible for harvest due to the presence of rivers for floating the logs downstream to mills. Logging companies would purchase land, clear it of timber, then essentially abandon the land. Because companies would allow the barren land to revert to state control due to unpaid taxes, most of the Adirondack region was owned by the state of New York, which would enable the eventual establishment of Adirondack Park.

As New York was settled, sawmills were constructed to provide lumber for housing and other needs. Excess lumber was exported to England and Ireland. The former country especially valued raw goods like lumber from the Americas, since Britain had little to no available lumber due to centuries of over-logging. The first sawmills in the state were concentrated around the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, later the British town of New York, and along the Hudson River. The first documented sawmill in the Adirondack region was at Queensbury in Warren County, just south of Lake George. The mill was built in 1764 by Moses Clement. Another sawmill was constructed in 1767 at Willsboro in Essex County, located on the shore of Lake Champlain, by William Gilliland, and a third was erected in 1772 in Ticonderoga, Essex County.

The primary species of lumber produced in New York was the white pine. The Adirondack region also was noted for its spruce and white cedar. Hemlock was initially considered a dispensable tree and was stripped of its bark for use in the tanning process, but later the wood was found to be usable. Small-scale lumbering began in the Adirondacks in 1803, but took off in the 1820s. By the following decade, so much timber had been harvested that “the large pines around the perimeter of the area were exhausted…so lumbermen switched to spruce.”

Lumber industry historian J. E. Defebaugh described early sawmills as simple structures, comprised of an exposed upright saw powered by a water wheel. Eventually, mills operated two saws working simultaneously, referred to as a gang mill. Early sawmills were sited next to rivers or other bodies of water, which provided power for saw as well as a convenient route for shipment. Steam power came later in the 1830s, though at the height of the lumber industry in New York in the 1860s, three-quarters of the mills in operation utilized only one saw.

The Fox brothers of Warren County were the first to float logs downstream to mills; previously, sawmills were moved around where cutting occurred. Finished lumber was then combined into rafts and floated downstream to markets, a method of transportation that continued until the 1880s. Defebaugh described the construction of a raft:

The pine and hemlock were laid from 24 to 30 courses deep, several courses projecting above the surface of the water. Each course was laid at right angles to the preceding one, and this served to hold the lumber together. As most of the lumber was in 16-foot lengths, the lumber squares thus formed measured 16 feet on each edge. These were made into a raft. The customary size of a raft was 148 feet in width and 160 feet long. A raft of this size, containing 25 courses, would include 180,000 feet of lumber or more.

The state of New York encouraged the expansion of the profitable lumber industry which brought in much tax revenue. Because of the importance of streams as transportation infrastructure, the state legislature designated several creeks, rivers, and other flowing bodies of water as public highways, many of which were used for floating lumber. The first was the Salmon River in Franklin County in 1806. The Raquette River was added in 1810. Other designated rivers originating in the Adirondack region included the Black River in 1821 and the Grasse River in 1824. The state also encouraged settlement in these timber-rich areas. An act in 1827 granted additional land to settlers who established sawmills. In the late 1830s, the state of New York commissioned a geological survey of the Adirondacks by Ebenezer Emmons. He was the originator of the name Adirondacks for the mountainous area. Previously known as the High Peaks, the new name was derived from a group of Indians who supposedly lived in the mountains. The results of the survey drew in industries including mining, lumbering, and tanning as well as more settlers. Tourism in the Adirondacks also started at this time.

However, the quick growth of the logging industry in the state resulted in a decimated landscape. In the 1860s during the peak of New York’s logging industry, environmentalist George Perkins Marsh understood the danger of deforestation, writing that,

We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions, and devise means for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven, to the springs and rivulets with which it waters down the earth.

Surveyor Verplanck Colvin became an advocate for the preservation of the Adirondack region following trips there in the 1860s. After climbing Mt. Seward in October 1870, he submitted a report to the New York State Board of Regents. As Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, Colvin urged the creation of an Adirondack Park, for “the interests of commerce and navigation demand that these forests should be preserved; and for posterity should be set aside, this Adirondack region, as a park for New York, as is the Yosemite in California and the Pacific States.”

Since the Adirondacks contained the headwaters of several important state waterways including the Hudson River, the state government began the process of setting aside land for public use and protection. In 1872 the State Park Commission was established. Legislation passed eleven years later truly began the preservation and conservation of the Adirondacks. An 1883 law prohibited sale of state lands in Adirondack counties. Also that year, the state repossessed over 600,000 acres of land for non-payment of taxes. The combination of these actions signaled the momentum for protecting the Adirondack region.

In the state Laws of 1885, Chapter 283 allowed for the creation of a Forest Commission. The forest preserve of the Adirondacks was defined as,

All the lands now owned or which may hereafter be acquired by the State of New York, within the counties of Clinton, except the towns of Altona and Dannemora, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Lewis, Saratoga, St. Lawrence, Warren, Washington, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan.

The New York State Assembly established Adirondack Park in 1892. Article XIII of the act stated,

Such park shall be forever reserved, maintained and cared for as ground open to the free use of all the people for their health and pleasure, and as forest lands, necessary for the preservation of the headwaters of the chief rivers of the State, and a future timber supply, and shall remain part of the forest preserve.

The “Forever Wild” clause was also included in the new state constitution drafted at the 1894 constitutional convention. The clause stated,

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

The first state nursery was established on Tupper Lake in 1899. Another was opened at Saranac Inn in 1903. That same year, 3,000 acres of forest that had burned at the East Branch of the St. Regis River were replanted, with nearly 4 million spruce and pine matured within thirty years.

Logging continued in the Adirondacks even as the region received environmental protections. Pulpwood for the production of newsprint began in Massachusetts in 1867. Spruce was desirable for this product, and the Adirondacks had plenty. Mills that processed pulpwood and produced paper included Hudson River Pulp and Paper Company near Luzerne. By 1908 the company, a forerunner to International Paper, operated 18 mills with eleven in northern New York.

Logging railroads penetrated the area starting around 1884 and continued service until 1945. As noted by researcher William F. Fox, “The use of the railroad makes it possible to get out hardwood timber, which otherwise could not be utilized because the logs are too heavy to be floated down the stream and would sink.” While the state purchased property to be converted to public lands, the logging companies scrambled to harvest as much timber as possible from their lands, which Fox cautioned that “may soon mean denudation.” Overlogging was not only a danger to the Adirondack forests. The trains also posed problems during droughts, with sparks flying from the engine smokestacks igniting parched woods. The dry spring and summer of 1903 was particularly costly, with nearly 300,000 acres burned, $666,000 in standing timber lost, and $145,000 in logs, pulpwood, and other products destroyed.

Log driving ceased as the paper industry expanded. As Adirondack historian Paul Schneider explained,

Pulp mills preferred their wood cut short, and as the four-foot “pulp stick” gradually replaced the thirteen-foot “saw log” it made life difficult for the river riders. Even if a company found a decent supply of big timber, it was not a good feeling to ride a log down the river smoking a nice bowl of tobacco and find yourself surrounded by pulp sticks. There was no way off; a stick four feet long and five inches around won’t hold a man up.

Log driving ended on the Hudson River in 1924 and on the Moose River in 1948. The last boom for sorting logs, the Big Boom on the Hudson at Glen Falls, closed in 1952.

Adirondack Park became a popular destination for outdoor recreationalists in the early twentieth century. The New Deal programs implemented during the Great Depression, specifically the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), repaired and improved the infrastructure in state and national parks across the country. Four CCC camps were built in the Adirondacks in 1933—Fish Creek Pond in Franklin County, Bolton Landing in Warren County, Eighth Lake in Fulton County, and Speculator in Hamilton County. Work included improvement and development of campsites and trails, stream improvement, and reforestation. By 1935 the number of CCC camps in the state increased to 106, up from 69 the previous year. In order to comply with the state constitution, which required the camps be temporary structures and not require clearance of timber. All CCC camps in the park closed in 1942.

Environmental and land use regulations including the “Forever Wild” clause limited logging activity over the years. John Courtney began work as a lumberjack in the late 1950s in the Tupper Lake area. He recounted in a 1995 interview, “When we came to Tupper Lake in 1958 there were eight sawmills—Jamestown, Lake and Lake, Edgar, Draper, Elliott Hardwood. But they all closed in the seventies. There’s one mill now in Tupper, it just opened a year ago and I don’t know how long it will last.”


James Elliott Defebaugh, History of the Lumber Industry in America, Vol. 1 (Chicago: The American Lumberman, 1906), 308-309.

Otis, 78.

Defebaugh, Vol. 1, 313-314.

Ibid., 314.


Defebaugh, Vol. 1, 320, 393; Otis, 39.

George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Charles Scribner, 1865): 328-329.

Verplanck Colvin, “Ascent of Mt. Seward and Its Barometrical Measurement, 24th Annual Report on the New York State Museum of Natural History (Albany, NY: The Argus Company, 1872), 180, quoted in Norman J. Van Valkenburgh, The Forest Preserve of New York State in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains: A Short History (Schenectady, NY: Adirondack Research Center, 1983), 24.

N. Y. Laws of 1885, ch. 283, § 7.

Defebaugh, Vol. 1, 398.

N. Y. Constitution, 1894, art. VII, § 7.

Floy S. Hyde, Adirondack Forests, Fields, and Mines: Brief Accounts and Stories Concerning Lumbering, Forest-Related Products, Farm Specialties, and Mining, Yesterday and Today (Lakemont, NY: North Country Books, 1974), 72.

Ibid., 26.

William F. Fox, History of the Lumber Industry in the State of New York, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Forestry, Bulletin 34 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 28.

Ibid., 29.

Bill Gove, Logging Railroads of the Adirondacks (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 6; Defebaugh, Vol. 1, 403-404.

Paul Schneider, The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 228.

Ibid., 228.

Norman J. Van Valkenburgh, The Forest Preserve of New York State in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains: A Short History (Schenectady, NY: Adirondack Research Center, 1983), 160-161, 169.

Schneider, 232.

Last updated: November 21, 2018