‘Beaver River Country’ by Edward Pitts
In his new book of Adirondack history, “Beaver River Country,” Edward Pitts takes us to a part of the region less frequented and less well known than most. My only previous contact with the area came when I traveled there to research an article some years ago. This book offers reason to return.
Pitts is thorough. He covers the geology, with good explanations on glaciation, and he makes thoughtful comments on native presence. When it comes to later times, he gives clarity to some of the speculative efforts that dominated early land transactions in the North Country, helping the reader better understand names like Totten and Crossfield, Macomb and Brown.
Then it’s time for more traditional Adirondack tales, those about lumbering, trapping and primitive settlement. When farming didn’t prove feasible, entrepreneurial types took to guiding hunters and fishermen. Building cabins, and aided by exuberant children and intrepid wives, they carved out small incomes from urban clients lured to the wilderness by books written by Joel Headley, William H. H. Murray, and others. Some operations evolved into sportsmen’s hotels.
More wealthy arrivals began amassing land. Some, like William Seward Webb, operated with impunity, while the merely comfortably well-off or middle class had to take on risks or collaborate and create clubs. The Rap-Shaw Club (to which the author belongs) still thrives. Others, like the Beaver River Club, are long gone.
Railroads and dams are key to understanding the region’s history. Growth ensued after Webb’s Mohawk and Malone Railroad (later called the Adirondack Division of New York Central) came in 1892. Webb acquired 350,000 acres for right-of-way, ultimately keeping 40,000 for his own private enclave at Nehasane Park.
The dams that created Stillwater Reservoir permanently transformed the often marshy Beaver River, but it wasn’t done without plenty of politics and influence from business interests. Water requirements for the ill-fated Black River Canal were more of a factor than I’d previously realized.
Risks for those seeking footholds, whether to settle or merely come for recreation, included threats from bigger landowners, financial crises, and changing state regulations. And some faced eviction, fire and flooding from newly constructed dams. I was amazed how many individuals and clubs relocated buildings, even good-sized lodges, in anticipation of being inundated by water.
The last passenger train came through in 1964, and the settlement at Beaver River has no road access. Still, people flock to this rustic retreat. During my one previous visit, we traveled by boat from Stillwater and ate lunch at the Norridgewock Hotel. The first inn with that name stood from 1899 through 1914. This, and some successors, succumbed to fire. Today’s version dates to 1974.
How does the Norridgewock manage to thrive? And why are there still a good 100 seasonal camps at Beaver River? That’s attributable to the growth of snowmobile traffic. The first one reached Stillwater and Beaver River in 1959, and they continue to come.
The book perhaps has more detail than needed for readers not specifically interested in this particular region. However, it’s very smoothly written and gives useful insights into the Adirondacks as a whole. Sketches of unique characters and humorous anecdotes keep the flow moving. Butterfly collecting came as no surprise, but I hadn’t expected the “novel amusement” of blowing soap bubbles at a Beaver River Club party in 1895.
Interesting photographs and old maps complement the text. I would have appreciated some modern map renderings, however, to better ground me in the various locations.
Still, I enjoyed the book, and I consider it an essential volume for a complete Adirondack collection.