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Courtesy Adirondack Life Magazine
Written by John Adamski
Ten thousand acres are all in the family
Franklin Brandreth is likely one of the last Adirondack patriarchs. When I first met him at Brandreth Park three years ago, I thought he was a caretaker of the ten-thousand-acre holding near Long Lake. Dressed in green work pants and leather boots, he emerged from his dusty pickup truck to kick a stone out of the gravel road. Although my business at the park that day was with someone else, each time I encountered Franklin he was undertaking some similar maintenance detail. Imagine my embarrassment when we were finally introduced.
I had once worked for C. V. and Marylou Whitney, so the personification of Franklin Brandreth as the dynastic heir to a private estate was not what I had pictured. Unconcerned with even the appearance of social prominence, he was at once approachable and friendly, along with being sharp as a tack, extremely energetic and opinionated as hell. Last summer I had the opportunity to interview Franklin; although he was disinclined to talk about himself, he was happy to share the story of a special spot.
Brandreth Park was established in 1851 when Franklin’s great-grandfather Dr. Benjamin Brandreth of Ossining, New York, bought Township 39 of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase for fifteen cents an acre. The acquisition—some twenty-six thousand acres of woodlands—became the first private preserve in the Adirondack Park. Dr. Brandreth was born in England and came to this country in 1835. He was the son-in-law of an English apothecary who developed and patented the first laxative pill, thereby creating the family’s fortune.
Dr. Brandreth became a successful entrepreneur in his own right and went on to serve in the New York State Senate. In the 1840s the state provided funds to build a road from Crown Point, on Lake Champlain, to Carthage, on the Black River. Knowing that the route would slice through the Adirondacks, Dr. Brandreth commissioned a Mr. Blanchard to find him a lake at the top of a watershed—he didn’t want any water running into his lake. Blanchard located Beach’s Lake in Township 39, and Dr. Brandreth purchased the entire township. Today that lake is Brandreth Lake, and North Point Road traces the old Carthage Road.
To put Benjamin Brandreth’s purchase into perspective, consider that it covered forty square miles in area just northwest of Raquette Lake and was surrounded by twenty-five miles of boundary lines. Included within those boundaries were eleven lakes and ponds, plus numerous brooks and streams. The purchase was completely forested with virgin timber—notably hemlock and white pine—and would not be extensively logged for another sixty years. By 1893 forty-five such private estates—some much larger than Brandreth’s—encompassed nearly a million Adirondack acres. Now only four remain in original, individual-family ownership, making Brandreth Park the oldest surviving private preserve.
Benjamin Brandreth had six children who were heirs. After his passing in 1880, sons Franklin and Ralph, and son-in-law Ned McAlpin bought out the other interests and owned their inheritance as tenants-in-common. A few structures built in 1874 along the north end of Brandreth Lake were divided between the brothers. Ralph combined two buildings—a dining hall for lumberjacks together with a kitchen and quarters for hired help—into one for his camp. Franklin took over a loggers’ board inghouse, claiming “it’s good enough for me!” Camp Good Enough, as it’s still known, presently belongs to his grandson Franklin and his wife, Cynthia, and serves as their home for almost half of each year. Ned McAlpin built his camp in about 1880. It is also still in use.
The first of two major logging operations on Brandreth Park began in 1911 and continued until 1919. This cut was primarily a softwood harvest, undertaken by the Mac-a-Mac Lumber Corporation, with logger John N. McDonald and Benjamin Mc Alpin, a Brandreth family member, as principals. More than three hundred thousand cords of pulpwood and eighty-four million board feet of hemlock and pine lumber were harvested and shipped out by rail. Twenty miles of track were laid within the park, including spurs to Thayer Lake, West Pond and North Pond flow, and connecting Brandreth Lake to the New York Central rail line. Brandreth Station, as it’s called by the family, was some seven miles west of Brandreth Lake. It became a thriving settlement with houses, stores and a post office.
In 1919 the tracks were removed, putting an end to both the Mac-a-Mac Railroad and the community at Brandreth Station. In 1936 Whitney Industries laid the tracks again from Brandreth Station, through Brandreth Park and into Rock Pond in Whitney Park, for its own hardwood-logging operation. After hauling was completed three years later, the tracks were taken up again.
In the mid-1920s a second harvest occurred, concentrating this time on hardwood logs. Franklin said that some skidding may have been done with surplus World War I Army tanks, but the Linn tractor—propelled like a snowmobile by tracks in the rear and steered with ski runners in front proved to be more effective in snow. The machine pulled ten sleds to the horse team’s one, but even so, the use of horses continued until 1955. This second logging operation was smaller in scale than the first and was put to an early end by the Depression, in 1930.
The blowdown of 1950 ended a planned third cut before it started. Although a salvage operation did remove storm-damaged trees, it was more an endeavor to clean up the woods than any kind of profitable venture. In later logging activities selective cutting was directed by a professional forester, a practice that continues today.
In July 1995 a more severe storm created even greater destruction. Another, more intensive, salvage effort was needed. The devastation was unbelievable, leaving the outlook for future timber harvests seriously affected. Much of the remaining old-growth white pine has been toppled.
Franklin went on to describe the difference between the two windstorms: the 1950 blowdown was caused by the remnants of a hurricane that came up the East Coast. By comparison, the 1995 microburst was a “bunch of line squalls that came right across the Adirondacks and took out whole sections of forest.” The damage left in their wake took two years to clean up.
Before leaving the subject of storms, Cynthia prompted Franklin to discuss a tornado that had touched down on the park a few years earlier. “That was five or six years ago, Labor Day weekend,” he recalled. “That was just a short distance—it only went about three miles—but it took everything in its sight. Snapped the tops right off the pine trees!” While Cynthia leafed through their journal looking for more details, Franklin offered, “We can run out there and I’ll show you where it started and where it stopped.” As my wife and I eagerly accepted, Cynthia located the passage that she sought: “September 3, 1993; area from clearing past Panther Pond; total devastation; it was three miles long by a half-mile wide.” Franklin just winked.
The trip was one of two that we took with Franklin that afternoon. From time to time he would stop his Jeep along the network of gravel roads to point out a particular feature or discuss something of historical significance. As he drove along the roadbed of the old Mac-a-Mac Railroad, he indicated the locations of log landings, rail sidings and the jackworks that were used to load logs onto flatcars. He noted the abundant coyote signs and wind-shear damage. He seemed particularly disturbed by the low water levels caused by the persistent drought. The tornado site was just as Franklin had described it—limbless pines snapped off halfway up their lengths—yet the trees still towered above the newer undergrowth of poplar and birch saplings. The swath is still very evident.
On the return trip to Camp Good Enough, Franklin stopped to chat with a carpenter at the site of a new camp being built. I was surprised to learn that there are twenty-nine camps on the estate, even though fewer than a dozen are obvious. I was further surprised to find that there are presently ninety owners of Brandreth Park, all descendants of Benjamin.
The construction under way at Brandreth Park invites some comparisons between the estate today and its beginnings. As each owner inherits his or her father’s interest, ownership has increased thirty-fold since the heirs of Benjamin Brandreth be came the first tenants-in-common. One hundred twenty years later that form of ownership, along with a corporate partnership, continues. The estate is managed by a council, members of which are elected by the owners-at-large. The president is responsible for the transaction of business on behalf of the estate, and at the direction of the council. No individual owner has any development rights. If an owner wants to build, he or she must first apply to the building committee of the Brandreth Park Association for a permit before applying to the Town of Long Lake. The park has its own building and development code, and any construction is restricted to a campsite area, which runs along the northern arm of Brandreth Lake and toward East Pond. The Adirondack Park Agency has zoned the tract at forty-two acres per principal building, but the estate’s own codes are far stricter.
The owners are particularly sensitive to the management of the park’s environment. To preserve the water quality, outboard motors are not allowed on the pristine lakes and ponds. There are no Jet-skis, ski boats or fast bass boats. Fishing—with artificial lures only—is done primarily from guideboats or canoes, and rowing or sailing is the order of the day. Brook trout are present in all park waters, with the exception of South Pond, which may have succumbed to the effects of acid rain. Both Brandreth Lake and East Pond harbor lake trout. Cynthia noted that landlocked salmon were stocked in Brandreth Lake early in 1999, to which Franklin abruptly replied, “and you’ll never see ’em, either!” Since there is no significant tributary stream, he is skeptical that the salmon can successfully reproduce.
It seems that the deer hunting hasn’t fared as well. According to Franklin, “it’s pretty well gone—the coyotes have killed off the deer herd.” The difficulty in hunting amid downed timber and the emerging dense vegetation further lessens the chance for success. Franklin’s last deer hunt was in 1997, and he didn’t see a thing.
The outlook for moose appears better. Due to their greater size and strength, moose are less likely to be preyed upon by coyotes. Although Cynthia and Franklin have not yet seen the animals, moose tracks appear occasionally on the park’s roads.
Perhaps the outlook for wild turkeys is the best. These large birds did not even exist in the Adirondacks before the 1990s. The state’s trial stocking program—together with natural migration by some birds—has established a significant turkey population in many areas. Sizeable flocks are frequently seen on the preserve.
On our tour, Franklin reminded me that hauling logs was not the only purpose that the railroad served in the early development of Brandreth Park. Around 1900 the New York Central Railroad provided passenger service, including stops at Brandreth Station. Franklin remembered coming to the station by train as a “little tiny tot” and traveling the seven-plus miles to Brandreth Lake by car. “There were only three camps here in those days, so there were only three cars. Everything came in and went out by rail.” He recalled his excitement on one occasion when his mother allowed him to ride in the locomotive and the engineer let him blow the train’s whistle at a place called Bates Crossing. “That was great for a twelve-year-old boy!”
Today, instead of traveling to Brandreth Station by train, access is by car from the north shore of Raquette Lake. After entering through the first of two locked gates, the six-and-a-half-mile drive takes about twenty-five minutes along a winding gravel road that cuts through the forest. Halfway in, the south shore of Brandreth Lake appears where its outlet empties toward Forked Lake. Near the north end of the lake, tennis courts, a baseball diamond and a picnic area appear and then some camps are apparent, but there is still no indication that there are more than two dozen homes. Standing in tribute to a bygone era, two rusted water towers are spaced about a hundred yards apart along the old Mac-a-Mac Railroad bed. Nearby, there is a small fire station and a building that houses a library and summer post office. Beyond the railroad bed and along a sandy beach stand the original Brandreth and McAlpin camps, together with several others. None of these camps can be described as truly Adi rondack in style, but they are somewhat rustic nonetheless. There are no opulent Great Camps here.
Camp Good Enough—a tidy place with white clapboard siding and a steeply pitched dark-green metal roof—is approached from the rear since it faces the lake. A matching one-car garage with a workshop is first. As if to reinforce my caretaker image of Franklin, a small sign on the building proclaims “no tools loaned.” An identical sign is posted at the rear-porch entrance to the camp in case the first one was missed. Facing the lake, three evenly spaced dormers stand above a full-length covered porch, giving the building a stately appearance. Little evidence indicates that the lodge was built from squared logs; beginning with a major update in 1955, the interior walls were refinished in painted pine boards or natural wainscot, now golden with age.
The kitchen is simple, with handcrafted cabinetry and open shelves. Pots and pans hang aloft, and a propane stove and refrigerator warm the room in addition to performing their intended functions. Except for a generator, which is seldom in use, there is no electricity. My attention was drawn to a gun rack hanging on the kitchen wall, with perhaps a half-dozen old rifles and a shotgun on display. Franklin identified a particular rifle that caught my eye as one given by Grandpa Franklin to the late Wallace Emerson—a Long Lake patriarch in his own right—and hunting companion to the elder Franklin. “Wallace carried it every year, and when he died his boys gave it to me, and I hunted with it. Now I’ve given it to my son-in-law, and he hunts with it,” Franklin explained.
The dining room is finished in horizontal tongue-and-groove boards painted cobalt blue. Several old black-and-white photographs and an aging topographic map showing Brandreth Park property lines are hung on the walls. The narrow room ex tends the full depth of the camp, and could probably seat a dozen people. There is no carpet on the wood planked floor, nor any kind of chandelier above the table.
The living room is similarly narrow for its depth and also extends from front to rear. Rustic furniture is centered about a brick fireplace, giving the room a cozy feel. Here the squared log walls are exposed and painted deep red. On display among some antique firearms, deer antlers and more old photos is a life-size oil painting of a lake trout, verifying that this is a hunting and fishing lodge after all. In a corner stands the upended half of an 1848 guideboat, fashioned into a bookcase.
A collection of old metal “posted” signs is at the top of the narrow stairway to the second floor and along the hall. Although most came from Brandreth Park, some of the signs once belonged to neighboring Nehasane and Whitney parks. There are four bedrooms on the upper level, three of which have dormers overlooking the lake. A full bath, added well after the camp was built, is at one end of the hall. The creaking stairs and floorboards add charm, serving as reminders that the building is actually 125 years old.
Throughout the interview and tour, Franklin was reluctant to talk about himself. To prompt some discussion, I remarked that he was in pretty good company having had neighbors like the Webbs and the Whitneys. “I never did know the Webbs very much at all,” he said, referring to the owners of Nehasane Park. Regarding the Whitneys, he said “I knew Sonny and Marylou pretty well . . . not that we were close friends, but we were well acquainted.” He then recited a roll call spanning fifty years of Whitney Park general managers: “I knew Fred Potter, Dave Short, Mark Chellis and Kenny Garrison, too,” he said. He spoke of the late Herb Helms—the legendary Long Lake bush pilot—who would fly the Brandreth family the six miles to social gatherings at the Whitneys’ Camp Deerland in order to avoid the ninety-minute one-way car ride. Asked what celebrities he may have encountered over the years, he responded, “I hide from people like that!”
While it may have been difficult to get Franklin to talk about himself, that’s not the case with those who know him. It seems he is something of a legend himself, and a wealth of Franklin anecdotes abounds. He has maintained an Adirondack presence for most of his life, and tales of his escapades are handed down from the generations. I’ve been told that as a youngster he blew up a laundry shed while experimenting with dynamite. And that he intentionally got lost in the woods overnight, along with two of his cousins, just to see what the experience would be like. In 1943, before entering the Navy, he worked in the woods as a logger—hooking tongs—and lived in a logging camp. And after losing a cousin’s ax in the woods sixty years earlier, he received that very ax as a present for his seventieth birthday. Even today, Long Lake innkeeper Fred Fink tells of Franklin entering the Long View Lodge through the kitchen door, lifting pot lids to see what’s cooking.
To further illustrate the longevity of Franklin’s presence in the Adirondacks, one needs only to refer to the old hotel register in the lobby of Long View Lodge. The first entry at the top of a page from the mid-1930s, dated September 3, is Franklin’s father, “Courtenay Brandreth from Brandreth Lake.” The next registrant is Franklin, who was about ten at the time. The two were there to fish. To the left of the entrance door in that same lobby is a black-and-white photograph of two men, taken twenty years later. The elder man is the late Wallace Emerson, then owner of Long View Lodge. The younger man is Franklin—a handsome Errol Flynn–looking fellow with dark wavy hair and a swashbuckling smile—displaying the same rascally twinkle that lingers today.
If Franklin is a rascal, then Cynthia is his guardian angel. She was a charming hostess, making us welcome at once. She seemed to eye his comings and goings as if to try to anticipate his next predicament. The two have been married for forty-five years and have two daughters, Cindy and Ginny, both of whom exhibit unwavering admiration for their father. However, nothing he does surprises any of them. Ginny’s two daughters are the couple’s only grandchildren.
When I asked Franklin about the future of Brandreth Park, “It’s gonna be here!” was his immediate, emphatic reply. While most other private Adirondack preserves have succumbed to the burden of operational costs and property taxes, the Brandreth estate not only survives but succeeds. Whatever management methods the park’s governing council uses, they clearly work.
When I referred to the recent sale of Little Tupper Lake and its fifteen-thousand-acre watershed, and the sale of Nehasane Park and Lake Lila in 1978, Franklin told me of a Brandreth transaction. It seems that the Brandreth Park Corporation donated nearly sixteen thousand acres of property to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in the late 1960s, keeping the remaining ten thousand acres that comprise the estate today. In the early seventies the college sold that same land to International Paper Company for eighty-four dollars per acre, while reserving hunting and fishing rights for the Brandreth family for ninety-nine years. I then asked whether the university used the property for educational purposes. Franklin shot back with, “They were supposed to but most of the time they came in here and hunted!”