Wednesday, July 10, 2024

More Q's than A's

     It's not shaped like a question mark. Looks more like the ramparts of a medieval fortress. Something built to withstand barbarian invasions. So why does visiting the Mount Hope furnace always leave me pondering so many unanswerables? 

     Let's start with a few things we do know. Mount Hope is an area in the northern part of the Town of Fort Ann,  Washington County. Mt. Hope Brook flows out of Lakes Pond and down to the South Bay of Lake Champlain. The pond and stream are at the foot of the steep, west facing slope of the Putnam Range which tops out at around 1840'.The Putnams are tilted blocks of crust along the eastern edge of the Adirondack uplift. The furnace, located east of Sly Pond Road and south of Hogtown Road, lies on land presently owned by Camp Little Notch.

In this Google Earth shot the Mt. Hope furnace would be about in the center of the image
Lake George on left and South Bay off top right
The water bodies at center bottom are Lake Nebo and Lakes Pond

On this topo map the furnace would be near the red printed '750'
Unlabeled Lakes Pond is center bottom

     Beyond those simple facts things get murky. Nobody seems to know exactly when the structure was built. Fred Tracy Stiles writing in From Then Till Now has a couple of chapters on Furnace Hollow and the stack suggesting that Philip Skene might have had it constructed prior to the Revolutionary War. How they lifted and fitted the huge stones to a height of over 40' is also a mystery. And where did the iron ore and flux limestone come from? It had to be nearby quarries because moving such heavy material would be quite difficult. Another uncertainty is the role water played in the smelting process. There is a beautiful stream at the furnace site but I'm not sure if this is Mt. Hope Brook or a smaller tributary.

  I'ld love to see someone with research skills shed light on Washington County's early iron industry. Back in the '80's Dr. Russell Taft gave talks about mines and quarries in the area but I don't know what became of his discoveries.

Dr. Russell Taft use to share his research into area mines and quarries
Clippings from '82 & '83 

     Beyond basic historical facts, the furnace raises questions about our relationship with place and the past. This stone behemoth is an industrial relic from bygone days and most people who visit feel a sense of wonder and sense that it should be preserved. Why is that and does it apply to other industrial relics? Should the deteriorating  Bio-Tech plant along the Battenkill be saved or razed? What about the GE facilities in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls? Will our descendants question why they were demolished? And then there is all the agricultural infrastructure, the barns and sheds, that are slowly settling back into the ground around the county. What's worth saving?

Factory buildings at Kanes Falls in Fort Ann
They are all gone now

Going, going...Gone?

     Who owns our historical and cultural legacy and who gets to enjoy the world's natural beauty? Private property is a fundamental of our economic and political systems. But so is the concept of 'the commons', of places and things that should belong to all of us and to future generations as well. Parks and public lands. One administration will set land aside and the next speed dials extraction industries to come and feast. Local government in Washington County tends toward the conservative with preservation a low priority. I know people who will tell you the government (i.e. all of us collectively) shouldn't own any land. That's just before they get in their big pick-up truck and drive away on a public highway. 
     You can see the public/private dichotomy playing out in the parts of the Towns of Fort Ann and Dresden that fall under the umbrella moniker 'east side of Lake George'. This area is in the Adirondack Park which is itself a mix of residential and commercial properties, of managed industrial timberlands and of 'forever wild' state owned forest preserve.

East side scenes: Inman Pond, Shelving Rock Falls, Lake George shoreline

     The 'east side' is a recreational mecca for hikers, climbers, mountain bikers and equestrians. There are miles of undeveloped Lake George shoreline freely available for all to enjoy. In the past the area has been the site of a number of Scout camps but social and economic changes have resulted in the sale of several recently. Crossett Pond was owned by the Scouts until 1995 when it was sold to a private party. It covers nearly a 1000 acres of forest surrounding a pristine 120+ acre lake. Last year it was put on the market for nearly $15 million and sold quickly for almost $10 million. One realtor called it "...the greatest piece of property in the southern Adirondacks..." Now, one wealthy person owns it and gets to enjoy it. 

Crossett Pond

     Camp Little Notch,  formerly owned by the girl scouts, is nearby. It once featured 2350 acres of forest, stream and mountainside. An 80 acre lake and the iron furnace are also part of the property. The Open Space Institute bought it in 2010 for $3.95 million. Subsequently 443 acres were sold to a non-profit to operate a girls summer camp and the remaining acreage went to a New Hampshire timber company. The Open Space Institute touts this as a great outcome saying "The ethos of the camp is to be a welcoming and affirming place for all." Not everyone concurs. All of the land is heavily posted with no public access and open to only a very small segment of the population. To visit the furnace, long a treasured local historical resource, you'll have to somehow get permission from somebody who lives somewhere far away.

     Washington is one of the few counties in New York without a state camping park. Both Crossett and Little Notch would have been ideal locations and fit perfectly into the popular uses of the area. They could have been open to all and enjoyed by many generations to come. Why that didn't happen is another of the questions that came to me as I gazed up at the furnace. I've never heard a good answer.

Wish you could be here: Little Notch views

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