History

THE HISTORY OF PISECO LAKE

Text & images courtesy of Fred and Cindy Adcock

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Early History

Over a billion years ago, the area that encompasses Hamilton County and the Town of Arietta was covered by the sea.  Many fossil remains have been found embedded in the rocks throughout the area.  Between 50-200 million years ago, the crust of the Earth expanded slowly upward until it stood 10,000 feet above the sea.  Thousands of years later, the sea receded to its present level, and one million years ago, a great glacier started to move down from the north. Seventeen thousand years ago, the Adirondack region was covered by glacial ice.  This force smoothed and rounded the mountain peeks and gouged out holes where the earth was soft.  Mountain lakes were formed by the slowly receding glacier that dropped rocks and boulders and filled lakes with melting water.  At this time, the level of Piseco Lake was 20 feet higher and covered much of the land north of the lake.  In the years following the glacial assault, nature began to repair the land, as shrubs and trees began to cover the land.

Human incursions into this wilderness region would come many thousands of years later.  Native American Indians were preceded by a prehistoric race, which may have left evidence of its existence in the area. 

In the 1860’s, Alvah Dunning, a famous Adirondack guide who lived in the Piseco area before moving to Raquette Lake, unearthed bits of pottery and a greenish stone ax after felling a 500-year-old cedar tree.  These pieces were thought to be very ancient artifacts. 

During this time, Sheriff Ephraim Phillips wrote about hiking to a large mountain north of Piseco Lake to visit a burial place of ancient aborigines.  He told that he found earthen mounds with entrenched headstones on top of the mountain.  Many of these headstones were inscribed with ancient hieroglyphics.

Long before the first Europeans settled in America, Native Americans frequented the Adirondacks to hunt and fish.  Local Indians called the area the “Great Wilderness”.  Mohawks from the southern valleys and  Algonquins from Canada fought many skirmishes over the mountainous region.  The Mohawks, in contempt, called the Algonquins “Hatirondacks” or “tree eaters,” because their diet consisted of tree buds and bark.  Slightly changed, this word continues to identify the northern mountain region of New York State as the Adirondacks.

In the early 1800’s, a local surveyor, Joshua Brown, named Piseco Lake after an old Indian living on the western shore.  His name was Pezeeko.

Many artifacts from the habitation of Native Americans have been found at the Arrowhead development, Half Moon Beach, Piseco Lake Outlet, and near the Irondequoit Club.


Settlement of Piseco and Arietta
 

The land that now makes up Hamilton County was purchased from the Iroquois Indians by Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield in 1771.  Totten and Crossfield, wealthy New Yorkers who probably worked as agents for Edward and Ebenezer Jessup, purchased over a million acres of wilderness land.  In 1775, Totten and Crossfield applied for a patent from the British government for transfer of the land title.  The American Revolution struck abruptly in 1775 and land transactions were forgotten during the fighting between England and its colonists.  When the war ended, all lands reverted to the State of New York.  By 1785, the Jessups, who had sided with the Loyalists, fled the country, and Totten and Crossfield petitioned the state for the original land claim.  The State of New York, in dire need of money, granted the title and the area was divided into 50 townships.  The land was now ready for purchase, as New York’s expanding population poured across the state.  Settlement came slowly to the rugged Adirondack wilderness.  A surveying party led by famous woodsman, Nick Stoner, had charted the land and a road was cut through the wilderness from Pine Lake.  It was during this expedition that Stoner suddenly came upon a large body of water, located south of what is now Piseco Lake, and promptly named it Spy Lake.  In the year 1810, the first settlement on this road was a group of Shakers from the Albany area.  They constructed a small cluster of homes and barns and manufactured a variety of wood products.  They also attempted to farm the rugged land. By 1820, the Shakers had abandoned their land at “Shaker Place” and Eli Rudes took up residence on the site.

In 1827, Seth Whetmore moved his family from Canajoharie and developed the small community of Whetmore northeast of Piseco Lake.  This settlement contained a sawmill and a post office, and led to the construction of a road from Lake Pleasant, which extended around the northern shore of Piseco Lake. Shadrack Dunning, who was known as an Indian fighter, became the first permanent settler on Piseco Lake.

In 1834, Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, a prominent citizen of Albany, started to purchase large areas of land south of Piseco Lake.  In 1836, the New York Legislature divided the town of Lake Pleasant to form a new town.  It was named, “Arietta” after Van Rensselaer’s mother.  The Town of Arietta was populated by woodsmen, lumbermen, and a large number of farmers who tried to entice a crop from the rocky soil.  The wilderness of the area was evident when the town board set a $20 bounty for wolves and panthers in 1839.  At this time, land developer Andrew K. Morehouse founded Piseco Village at the north end of the lake.  Morehouse had great plans for a large village between Cold Stream and Mill Stream.  Morehouse offered land contracts to new settlers and quickly established machine shops and sawmills to supply the new village with needed building materials.  Morehouse envisioned five blocks of buildings on streets named Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Court.  By 1840, there were 15 families, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and a general store, with a population of 209 people living in Arietta.  Many of the new settlers became dissatisfied with Morehouse’s strict contracts, and by 1847, the village of Piseco was almost deserted.  When the Civil War ended in 1865, the population of Arietta had fallen to 82 residents.  One of the few settlers to remain in the area was Floyd Ferris Lobb, nicknamed, “Old Lobb”.  Lobb constructed a camp on the west side of the lake and sustained himself by fishing, trapping, and hunting.  He died in 1891 and is remembered for developing the Old Lobb Trolling Spoon.  The area where Lobb first constructed his lean-to is still known as Lobbville.


Industrial History of the Piseco Area

Following the Civil War, the Piseco area was revitalized by industry.  The abundance of natural resources attracted entrepreneurs, especially from the lumber and tanning businesses.  Sawmills and other small cottage industries had been present earlier in the century, but expansion of the country brought about the need for greater quantities of building materials.

During the 1870’s, Eli Quesnell (later spelled Kennell) purchased over 2,000 acres of land along the west branch of the Sacandaga River and set up a sawmill and shingle mill powered by water from nearby ponds.  Quesnell cut the timber during the winter months and stored the logs on the river flats.  In the spring, the Sacandaga was dammed and then released to float the logs down river.

A sawmill had operated at the Piseco Lake Outlet since the 1840’s.  This facility, called Van Rensselaers Mills, processed lumber and manufactured clothespins, tool handles, and washboards for many years.  Sawmills were also operated at Old Flow near Evergreen Lake and just west of Rudeston on current Route 8.

With the great desire for leather in the shoe and glove making businesses in Johnstown and Gloversville, the need for tanneries near a Hemlock tree source was essential.  Hemlock bark was used to process animal skins into leather.  In 1868, the Arietta Tannery was opened in the southern part of town by William Claflin.  He operated the facility until William and Brackley Shaw purchased it in 1882.  The Shaw brothers also owned a tannery in Wells, New York, as well as the Silver Lake Tannery in the Piseco area.  By 1888, the lumber and tanning industries were prospering along with the local economy. 

The road between Piseco Village and the Lake Pleasant town line contained 12 saloons, all well patronized by crowds of lumbermen and tannery workers.  The economic boom was short-lived, as the mountains were denuded of trees and hemlock bark became scarce.  The tanning industry also began to use chemical processes in leather production, thus moving the tannery operations closer to markets in larger cities.

Large mining operations were in progress in the central Adirondacks in the late 1800’s.  During the 1850’s, two brothers by the name of Belden dug a gold mining shaft on the south side of Belden Mountain near Spruce Lake.  The secretive brothers supposedly brought their gold out of the wilderness and through the village of Piseco sealed in barrels enroute to the train station in Amsterdam.  The mine was worked for several years until one of the brothers became ill.  Many people, then and now, still wonder if the mine was actually producing gold.  The mineshaft was still visible into the 1960’s although it was filled with water.

Spruce gum picking was a profitable industry during the latter part of the 19th century.  Gum from a spruce tree was hand picked and the bark was scraped off each piece.  The gum was shipped to Boonville where it was packaged for consumer sales.  Local resident Tim Crowley and members of the Abrams family searched the woods at this time for the gum.

Tree tapping to produce maple syrup and sugar was an important Adirondack industry.  At the turn of the 20th century, some sugar bushes contained over 50,000 trees and produced thousands of pounds of maple sugar and hundreds of gallons of syrup.  The Irondequoit Club and the Abrams family worked sugar bushes and employed many eager farmers looking for income during the tapping season in the month of March. 


Tourism on Piseco Lake

The first tourists were the sportsmen who came to the Piseco area for the hunting and fishing.  In the early 1840’s, a group of city dwellers from Troy and New York City traveled to Piseco and took up residence at Daniel Rudes’ boarding house at Higgins Bay.  This group found the fishing most favorable, as they caught hundreds of pounds of fish from the lake.  Soon after, these men formed the Piseco Lake Trout Club and built a clubhouse.  In 1849, the club caught 866 pounds of fish, and soon after disbanded. 

Travel to the Northwoods was both difficult and tedious, and the sportsmen (or “sports” as the locals called them) were the main tourists throughout the late 19th century.  Many local residents made much needed income by accommodating and guiding the city visitors in their pursuit of wild game. 

Sheriff Ephraim Phillip’s narrative entitled, Lucretia or Lost in the Adirondacks, published in 1890, centers mainly around visitors to Piseco Lake and the old Piseco Lake Hotel located at the head of the lake.

By the 1890’s, Foote’s Lake Piseco Inn was in operation along with Abram’s Sportsmen’s Home, Rudes Inn, and the Irondequoit Club to handle the increasing influx of tourists.  By 1900, Piseco Lake was established as a summer resort with visitors enjoying the fresh mountain air and the cool lake waters.  At this time, a few summer visitors started to build permanent camps around Irondequoit Bay. 

The Schmidt family constructed a camp known as Point Comfort and Frank Jennings built Camp Irondequoit.  Many summer residences were also constructed across the bay around “Cottage Hill”.

Travel to Piseco was still a two-day adventure involving trains, wagons, buggies, and boats.  Much luggage and provisions had to be brought into the mountains for these extended vacations.

With the coming of the automobile and the construction of better roads, more city dwellers traveled to Piseco.  As automobile technology improved, frequent weekend visits were possible and numerous cottages or “camps”, as they are called in the Adirondacks, were constructed around the lake.  The State of New York acquired land on the west side of the lake and constructed three campgrounds by the 1930’s.

With this new wave of tourists, local economy and employment opportunities improved, especially during the summer months.  However, making a living solely from summer tourists and fall hunters remained difficult.  Suffering through depression, world wars, and the advent of commercial aviation industry, many entrepreneurs in the region were forced to close or relocate businesses.

Interest in winter sports and the commercial development of the snowmobile in 1955 has ensured the continued year round success of the tourist industry in the Adirondacks. 


Historic Chronology of Piseco Lake

• Over a billion years ago, the Adirondack region was covered by the sea

• 17,000 years ago, the Adirondacks were covered by glacial ice

• Incursions by Native American were preceded by an early prehistoric race

• Prior to European settlement, the Mohawks and Algonquins vied for control of the Adirondack region

• In 1785, Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield petitioned the State of New York for land claims in the Adirondacks

• During the early 1800s, surveyor Joshua Brown named Piseco Lake after an Indian living on the western shore, named PEZEEKO

• In 1810, a group of Shakers from Albany settled on the current Route 10

• In 1827, Shadrack Dunning became the first permanent settler on Piseco Lake and Seth Whetmore developed a small community northeast of the Lake

• In 1836, the New York State Legislature divided the town of Lake Pleasant to form a separate town named “Arietta”

• Piseco Village was founded by Andrew K. Morehouse by 1840

• During the late 1840s, the first sportsmen visited the Piseco area

• Following the Civil War, the Piseco area is revitalized by the lumber and tanning industries

• By 1900, Piseco Lake is established as a tourist resort

• By the 1960s, a strong interest in winter sports, such as skiing and snowmobiling, ensures the continued success of the tourist industry in Piseco