The book that launched the Adirondacks’ vacation industry

As another Adirondack tourist season approaches, it bears noting that the industry’s beginnings, in the mid-19th century, can be attributed to books.

Three pre-Civil War volumes in particular proved to be springboards for what became a revolution in regional economics — those by Charles Fenno Hoffman, Joel Headley and Samuel H. Hammond. Of those “Three H’s,” Headley was the most influential. Others, most famously W.H.H. Murray, would come later and prove to be even more persuasive, but Headley was first. The Adirondacks began to be reshaped into what they are today by him and his book.

Before we go any further, some context is necessary to set the stage.

Prior to the 1830s and ’40s, America was still in the grip of Puritanism, which demanded that everything in life be done for a practical reason. (An old joke goes that they were perpetually agitated because they feared that somewhere, somebody might be having fun.) The forest, den of evil, was meant to be cut down, not hiked in; rivers were to be navigated solely for commerce, not for pleasure; and who in his right mind (always “his” — to the Puritans, women had no say in this or any matter) would climb a mountain just to see the view?

Midway between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, attitudes began to change, for complex reasons that we lack space to detail here. In summary, economic progress created a leisure class that had the time and money to recreate; expanding urbanization, with its attendant horrors of rampant disease, crime and filth, spurred a desire for “anti-urban” settings of peace, cleanliness and refreshment; as the frontier was pushed west, untamed nature became less threatening; and the provocative writings of the Romantics and Transcendentalists, like Emerson (who visited the Adirondacks) and Thoreau (who didn’t), persuaded people that it was OK to enjoy nature as it was, not lay it bare.

Into this tempest of rapidly evolving outlooks stepped writers such as “The Three H’s,” Headley chief among them. His popular 1849 book, “The Adirondack; or, Life in the Woods” (no one knows why he chose to chop the “s” off the region’s name), written in the extravagant style typical of his times, set the standard for travelogues that soon brought dozens, then hundreds, then thousands to the forests and waters and mountains.

The Rev. Joel Tyler Headley (1813-1897), suffering from physical and mental maladies, took to the woods during the summers of the 1840s, camping in hopes of regaining his health. In seeking wellness, he predicted the spin-off “cure” industry headlined in Saranac Lake a generation later by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Whereas the Puritans had seen the Devil in the wilderness, Pastor Headley found “one of the open books of God.” In contrast to resource extractors, he envisioned the future of the Adirondacks as “the locus of vacations for people from outside the region,” writes Philip Terrie in “Contested Terrain,” by far the best comprehensive Adirondack history book of recent vintage. And so it came to pass.

A facsimile edition of the original 1849 book (pictured), with a fine Introduction by Prof. Terrie, was published by Harbor Hill Books in 1982; it may be obtainable in specialized bookstores, on eBay or via a Google search.


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