Hidden history along Bigelow Road
BLOOMINGDALE — Eyeing the forecast late Saturday, I decided it would be a good idea to go out for a ski on Sunday morning before the rain hit. And boy, did it hit.
Due to a lack of time, I thought it would be a good idea to ski out Bigelow Road just outside of Bloomingdale. It was close, and I know the snowmobile groomer goes up the abandoned road so conditions would be good.
I set out on a fresh inch of snow, making the first tracks of the day. Bigelow Road is mostly used by snowmobilers to access the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, which intersects with the road just shy of a mile-and-a-half in. The road is wide and flat, a remnant of former times.
I don’t know when the road was closed, but it used to run from Oregon Plains Road over to the Bloomingdale-Gabriels road and come out near the Shamrock Bar and Grill. But at some point, the single lane bridge that crosses Negro Brook was closed and the road, for all intents and purposes, was closed. That left it open for recreation.
Now Bigelow Road is used for walking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling. Since it connects to the Bog Trail, this trip could easily be made one-way by parking a car on Merrill Road or the Bloomingdale-Gabriels Road, where the Bog Trail crosses.
The name Negro Brook may come as a shock to some people, and you may have even heard its original, horrendous name. But there’s some history in the Bloomingdale and Vermontville area that lends a little context to the stream’s name.
The story behind Negro Brook, and the accompanying hill nearby, is actually rooted in the fact that a wealthy abolitionist granted thousands of acres of land in the Tri-Lakes to black people who were free or had escaped slavery.
Garrett Smith at one point owned about three-quarters of a million acres in New York, and pledged to give away 120,000 acres of it to black families looking for a place to settle as the tension that would lead to the Civil War grew.
Smith’s most famous grant turned into the settlement known as Timbuktu, in Lake Placid. The abolitionist John Brown lived there and is where he’s buried. According to Sally Svenson’s recent book, Blacks in the Adirondacks, Smith also gave land away in the area of Negro Brook.
John Thomas was given 40 acres in the town of Franklin by Smith after escaping slavery in 1840 and making his way, partially on the Underground Railroad, to Troy. Thomas soon bought 50 acres of his own land in Vermontville, and apparently gained the trust and respect of the locals.
“It was rumored after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (passed in 1850) that his former Maryland master had heard of his whereabouts and sent agents to Franklin County to retrieve him,” Svenson writes. “‘But upon being warned that Thomas was armed and would never be taken alive, and that the local whites would stand by him,’ his pursuers ‘abandoned their purpose, and turned back.'”
Another couple brought to the area by a Smith land grant soon became the only black employees of a new inn on Lower St. Regis Lake, soon to be known as Paul Smith’s Hotel. And Svenson says that one Bloomingdale couple may have met when the man was working as a barber at the hotel, where “he was reported to have shaved the faces of future president Grover Cleveland and impresario P.T. Barnum.”
While this history is interesting, Bigelow Road also offers something for the here and now. The Bloomingdale Bog Trail and Oregon Plains Road are well known birding hotspots, and there are no shortage of avian oddities to be taken in.
After I skied out to the bridge, coming across a single snowmobiler on the way, I turned around to head back. I put some music on and quickly got into the rhythm of skiing. Losing myself in a Phish jam, I wasn’t on the lookout for birds.
But I was soon startled by a large flash of black with a sinister red spot glowing in the early morning light. As it flew down the trail in front of me, I realized it was a pileated woodpecker just before it hung a sharp right and disappeared into a thick stand of balsam trees. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make the ski memorable