Legends of History: Herb Clark
(This year’s Winter Carnival theme “Myths and Legends” brings to mind many legendary men and women in local history, from wilderness guides, to sports legends, to heroes in healthcare. Historic Saranac Lake is providing a series of articles celebrating some of the mythical and marvelous figures from Saranac Lake’s past.)
Upon arriving in the Adirondack region, many a visitor has felt called to climb one or more of its 46 “High Peaks” — defined as mountains with summits that measure 4,000 feet or more above sea level. Over 7,000 ambitious climbers have even been inspired to climb all 46 of the High Peaks, gaining them the privilege to wear the coveted patch of the Adirondack 46ers.
Each of these adventurous souls follows in the footsteps of Saranac Lake local legend Herb Clark, the man credited to be the first Adirondack 46er, who made his 46th High Peaks climb to the summit of Mount Emmons in 1925.
Herb Clark was born near Keeseville in 1870, just before the depression of 1873. Herb’s parents had 11 children, and they often struggled to provide for their large family. An extremely hard worker who loved his family dearly, Herb helped by selling crops from their garden and performing many tasks valuable in the area in his day, such as loading pulpwood for 50 cents a day, cutting hay, and serving as night watchman at the Saranac Club. He also commanded an oversized guideboat, often rowing over a ton of supplies at a time between Bartlett’s Carry and Ampersand. His prodigious rowing skills earned him many championships in the rowing races that were popular at the time.
So, how did this hard-working young man evolve from champion rower to champion climber? In addition to his freight boat work, Herb also earned money as an Adirondack guide. In Herb’s day, visiting sportsmen who wanted to enjoy the hunting and fishing opportunities of the Adirondacks and live to tell about it would hire an experienced woodsman to help them navigate the rough terrain safely and comfortably. Herb was well known for his excellent fishing and hunting skills, calm demeanor and wicked sense of humor, all of which no doubt combined to make him an outstanding guide. In 1906, Herb applied to work with another Adirondack guide, Ed Cagle, who worked for the Louis Marshall family, one of the six founding families of Knollwood Club on Lower Saranac Lake.
The Marshalls had two young boys named Bob and George, and Herb soon became their cherished companion, delighting them with his storytelling, humor and knowledge of the great outdoors. Bob once wrote, “To me, Herb has been not only the greatest teacher that I have ever had but also the most kindly and considerate friend a person could even dream about, a constantly refreshing and stimulating companion with whom to discuss both passing events and more permanent philosophical relationships and, to top it all, the happy possessor of the keenest (sense) of humor I have ever known.”
It was Bob and George Marshall who first aspired to climb to the tops of the beautiful mountains that surrounded their home. Herb had never scaled a major mountain before, but he accepted the challenge to guide the two young men up their first peak, Whiteface Mountain. Two years later, the boys announced their dream to climb all of the High Peaks in the Adirondack region, a campaign that would lead them to climb 46 mountains with their lanky friend and guide, Herb Clark.
Today, such an endeavor would typically involve driving to a trailhead, hopping on the trail and following the series of markers to guide one to the top of each mountain. One hundred years ago, it was often a long trek or row just to get to the foot of a mountain. Many trails were not marked at all, and several of the mountains on Bob, George and Herb’s list had likely never even been climbed before! Luckily, Herb had a rare and uncanny intuition for how to tackle a new peak. George remarked, “Herb was really a marvel. At the age of 51, he was the fastest man I have ever known in the pathless woods. Furthermore, he could take one glance at a mountain from some distant point, then for several hours not be able to see anything 200 feet from where he was walking and emerge on the summit by what almost always would be the fastest and easiest route.” Many trips to the tops of mountains prompted Herb to coin the name “cripplebush” in reference to the seemingly impenetrable ring of brush that surrounded mountain peaks with unforged trails at the time.
Among the 46er club members, Herb Clark is honored as 46er No. 1, with Bob and George Marshall in spots 2 and 3. Several years ago, another 46er and Saranac Lake resident, Joe Ryan, came upon Herb Clark’s grave in St. Bernard’s Cemetery and observed that Herb’s climbing achievement was not recognized on the stone. He sparked an effort to change that, and in May of 2013 a new headstone was dedicated in a wonderful ceremony honoring Clark that included his family and many dignitaries in the area.
Herb has also been honored by his induction into the Saranac Lake Walk of Fame and receipt of the Adirondack 46ers Founders Award — very fitting tributes to a man who achieved such great heights not only as a mountain climber but as a family man, outdoorsman and friend.
If he were alive today, Herb would be proud to know that his descendants are part of the fabric of the local community. Herb’s grandson Jim served until recently as treasurer on the Historic Saranac Lake Board of Directors. Herb’s great-granddaughter Libby got her start in the museum field, working as a student intern at Historic Saranac Lake.