Saving the Islands at Lake George
John S. Apperson, Jr. (1878-1963)
by Ellen Apperson Brown
Lake George is, without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever
saw; formed by a basin thirty-five miles long, and from two to four miles
broad, finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal and
the mountainsides covered with rich groves of silver fir, white pine,
aspen and paper birch down to the water edge.
Thomas Jefferson, 1791
This is the story of one man’s efforts to
adopt an island, and of his realization that
he could save many more! His enthusiasm
and devotion led him to become a leading
advocate for wilderness and preservation.
His accomplishments, and his strategies,
may serve as inspiration for others who have
fallen in love with a special place and
wonder what they might be able to do…
Watercolor – West Dollar Island
By Marianne Ganter - 2014
Photo – West Dollar Island
By John Apperson - 1910
Hull and John Apperson, two brothers from Virginia, arrived in Schenectady in
1900…and began venturing into the countryside. Apparently they didn’t own
much in the way of clothing suitable for hiking and fishing… In fact, they look
rather uncomfortable sitting on a railroad tie in the middle of nowhere. Notice
that John is holding a rock, and Hull a pistol!
John, the younger brother, soon started making
weekend trips into the Forest Preserve, traveling
by train. Here are two maps from his files
showing rail connections, c. 1910.
It wasn’t long before
he discovered Lake
Like so many other young men working in Schenectady, John longed to
get out of the city, and began exploring the forests and mountains of the
NY Forest Preserve. He particularly loved camping, even in the winter, on
the islands of Lake George.
Camping on Dollar Island, 1910
He had always enjoyed hunting and fishing…
…but became excited by all the exotic possibilities of a frozen lake…
Dome Island is to the right, with ice boats and skate-sails!
Sources of Inspiration…
He owned a copy of The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fennimore Cooper,
and had most likely read Huckleberry Finn , by Mark Twain
He certainly would have read articles in the newspapers…
about debates between Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot
In 1908, while paddling during a storm, his canoe hit a log and capsized. He barely
managed to come ashore on West Dollar Island. Grateful to have survived, he soon
resolved to adopt the island and try to repair the damaged shores.
Photo by Phil Ham. 1950’s
In Virginia, while working as foreman for a branch railroad, he had learned how to
haul rocks and build roadbeds. At Lake George he introduced the same technique,
known as “rip-rapping,”- piling rocks around the shores of islands.
By 1918, he reported that 311 people had helped
him repair this and other islands at Lake George
His earliest photographs demonstrate his eye for beauty, but also show his other
motivation – to collect documentary evidence of “Problems in Paradise” such as the
disappearance of entire islands at Lake George.
In this series of
photographs, taken in 1917,
1930, and 1942, he makes
In 1910, logs were still being floated down Lake George
And trees were still being cut on Tongue Mountain…
One thing led to another…
He began to notice problems and started asking questions, such as:
• Erosion – Why the high water? Was it legal for the owners of the dam ( at
Ticoderoga) to treat the famous lake as if it were a mill dam?
• Squatters on islands – What was the state doing to regulate the use of
campsites, and to ensure that the public had access to state land?
• Logging – What was the state doing to prevent illegal logging, especially of
the high peaks?
• Development ( dance halls, hotels, etc.) – What could be done to prevent
the proliferation of unsightly structures , especially on state land?
• The Constitution – What could be done to defend the famous “Forever
Wild” clause of the Constitution, and educate the public to the issues
Logging practices, especially in the high peaks, had contributed to erosion of
soil, and to the spread of forest fires. He began taking pictures of slopes, such
as this one, that had lost soil, and couldn’t be replanted.
The remarkable New York Constitution, and its forever wild clause…
This important document inspired him to fight corruption in
state government, and recruit others to the cause. He started
a prolonged lobbying campaign - publishing pamphlets, making
speeches to clubs and civic organizations, and writing letters.
State officials had responsibility for removing
structures from state land, but they often
shirked responsibility, so he felt compelled to
push and prod them to uphold the law. Of
course, many local people resented his
activities, and made various threats. He
began carrying a pistol for protection as early
Despite careful planning,
This house fell into the lake…
Removing illegal squatters from state land…
A Few of his Favorite Projects and Activities…
1. Rip-rapping shores of islands; Bond issue for $10,000 in 1917
2. Removing illegal squatters from state islands
3. Promoting camping and other forms of recreation at Lake George
4. Taking photographs; Giving talks with slides; publishing pamphlets
5. Making friends… incl. FDR, Al Smith, George Foster Peabody, etc.
6. Blowing the Whistle…Making enemies…including Robert Moses
7. Giving talks to civic organizations; writing pamphlets
8. Joining organizations…and forming new ones, incl. the Lake George
Protective Association and the New York Forest Preserve Association
9. Developing neighborhood associations (in Huddle Bay and Turtle Bay)
10. Protecting, and eventually purchasing, Dome Island ( 1936); then donating
it to the Nature Conservancy (1956)
Ski-Sailing on Lake George
Cooking Corn Cakes for Breakfast
With sister Nancy – 1906 - In the Fulton Chain
He enjoyed a wide range of
in all seasons of the year
Irving and Marian Langmuir
Hydroplaning – unidentified woman
He made friends with others
who shared his enthusiasm
for the out-of-doors…
Camping on state islands
More island camping Skate-sailing in the Narrows
Getting a good view of the lake – on skis! Coed excursion across a frozen lake
This map of New York shows the enormous size (over 6.5 million acres) of the
Adirondack Park (Forest Preserve), in green. At the beginning of the twentieth
century, Lake George didn’t quite fall within the “blue line” and thus didn’t
benefit from constitutional protection. That changed when FDR was governor
and signed a bill…expanding the blue line to include Lake George.
Lake George is at the far
right, close to the border
Many people agreed that Lake George should be protected from logging and
commercial development, and supported the creation of a Lake George Park.
Surprisingly, the Lake George Association, a club representing many of the wealthy
landowners (with ties to logging companies, realtors, and the pulp industry…) did
not support efforts to regulate the water levels or prevent unsightly development.
Two key individuals came out in favor of a Lake George Park, making
significant gifts of land to the State in the 1920s:
Mary Loines, a widow, and William K. Bixby, a philanthropist from St. Louis.
Boathouse – William K. Bixby
Hilda and Sylvia Loines
The Roosevelt connection…According to papers in the Apperson archives, FDR
had numerous ties to Lake George and often consulted with Apperson about
political strategy concerning the Lake George Park. In 1920, Eleanor Roosevelt’s
brother, Hall, plus William Dalton and John Apperson, made a joint purchase of
the old Lake View Hotel, in Huddle Bay.
What do you think? Could this be FDR? The photo was in the Apperson collection.
Disappointed and frustrated by the politics and limitations of existing
clubs and organizations, he persuaded several friends to help him form something new.
Here (l to r) are John S. Apperson, George Foster Peabody, Ellwood Rabenold, Dr. E. MacDonald Stanton,
and Dr. Irving Langmuir at the first meeting of the NY Forest Preserve Assn.
• 1915 – attended Constitutional Convention , where he met Louis Marshall ( father of
Bob Marshall), Al Smith ( later Governor), and Adelbert Moot (Senator)
• 1916 – met Warwick Carpenter, who became Secretary of the Conservation
Commission. They collaborated on publications (The Conservationist), promoted
recreation at Lake George, and called attention to the continued logging of the high
peaks, becoming whistle blowers…
• 1919 – purchased lot on Tongue Mountain
• 1920 – purchased the Lake View Hotel Property, jointly, with Hall Roosevelt and
• 1921 – hosted a regatta for the American Canoe Association at his camp in Huddle Bay;
Warwick Carpenter was fired from his job with the Conservation Comm.
• 1922 – delivered minority report to the conservation committee of the newly formed
Adirondack Mountain Club, defending the “memorial” written by Warwick Carpenter;
fired from G.E. – but was rehired within six months. He had risen to be second in
charge of the Power and Mining Department. Later he was assigned to an
administrative position in Engineering General.
• 1923 – “kidnapped” Governor Al Smith and took him for a boat ride on Lake George,
thus convincing him that it would be a bad idea to build a highway on the steep slopes
of Tongue Mountain . This was a rare defeat for Robert Moses, the Power Broker…
• 1920s- 1930s – ongoing effort to bring Tongue Mountain and Paradise Bay under state
ownership; ongoing battle to defeat legislation that would have weakened the
constitution ( Hewitt amendment; closed cabin amendment, etc.)
Uneasy partnership with state officials…
Jay Taylor, forest ranger, and Warwick Carpenter,
Secretary of the Conservation Commission
The battle over water levels raged on for years, culminating in a court battle. To make his
case, he published a pamphlet entitled “Lake George, A Mill Pond” and testified as a State’s
witness during WWII.
Earlier, during the dust bowl, the Forest Preserve Association published a pamphlet entitled
“The Tragic Truth about Erosion.” Over 40,000 copies were distributed nationwide.
He kept wondering how to protect Dome Island, eventually
deciding to purchase it himself, in 1939.
…the Narrows, with Dome Island in the distance….
A solution for Dome Island!!! It became his crowning achievement. Working with the
board of the Nature Conservancy, he decided to donate the island to the Eastern NY
Chapter – its first land gift – in 1956, and his friends raised an endowment of $20,000
to ensure its protection.
The New York Forest Preserve Association held annual meetings on the lawn
near the old hotel annex, in Huddle Bay. Someone snapped this photo
showing Apperson (seated) and Irving Langmuir (standing), in 1938.
Interior of Appy’s Camp , Huddle Bay - 1922
Christening of Chris Craft Cadet – 1927
Margaret Cawley on skis , by door of Camp
Chilhowie, (aka Chill House) 1930s
Other organizations have continued where he left off…
The Fund for Lake George (Lake George Waterkeeper) produced a wonderful
book in 2010, teaching people how to protect the water quality at the lake.
This image was posted on Facebook… May 30, 2014
Whoever took the photo probably doesn’t know the story …
To learn more about John Apperson and his activities at
Lake George, please contact:
• Adirondack Research Library in Niskayuna ( now owned and operated by the
Kelly Adirondack Center, and Union College) The Kelly Center has granted
permission to publish many of the photos and documents from the Apperson
archives. Other photographs and illustrations are from Ellen Brown’s personal
collection of family papers.
• Lake George Land Conservancy
• Fund for Lake George
• Bolton Museum
• Online journals, i.e. Adirondack Explorer, Adirondack Wild, and the
• Author’s websites: www.appersonassociates.com;
Special thanks go to Doug Langdon, Bill White, Phil Ham, Art Newkirk, Dick Tucker, and
Bill Healy, and members of the Dome Island Committee…who have worked hard to help
preserve the Apperson legacy.