For more than a century, Adirondack history has dealt with the complex issues of private clubs, large estates, and public access. Decisions made long ago had a lasting effect that only in recent decades has been reversing with the state purchase of major properties and opening them to the public. It’s difficult to grasp the impact on the region when, 101 years ago, New York’s highest court said of its own ruling, “We are mindful that this deprives the public at large … of the pleasure and profit of fishing and hunting in a very large portion of the Adirondack forest, and gives to men of great wealth, who can buy vast tracts of land, great protection in the enjoyment of their private privileges.”
That ruling applied to an ongoing dispute in the northern Adirondacks on William Rockefeller’s vast estate at Bay Pond (north of Paul Smiths), which still exists in reduced size, but once encompassed what is now Brandon Park. In the 1930s, the Brandon Park section was purchased by Donald Ross and has since been owned by the duPont Ross family.
While multiple William Rockefellers have owned property there for a century, the original purchase was made by William, brother of John D. Rockefeller. At the time, J. D., the world’s richest man, had begun focusing on philanthropy while William operated the family business, considered by some to be the largest, most influential corporation in history.
As powerful as the Rockefellers were, not everyone bowed to them, and in the village of Brandon, woodsman Oliver Lamora was the most prominent holdout. A Civil War veteran with a large family, Lamora refused to sell his property and ignored the No Trespassing signs on Rockefeller’s land.
The local confrontation grew into a national debate over individual rights, property rights, and rich versus poor. The entire story is covered in Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune, a book that I wrote and published in 2007. It won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction, and it’s one of my favorite true stories of standing up against near-impossible odds.
A key point in the Rockefeller–Lamora court battles, which lasted a decade, was the right to pursue fish that swam in streams entering private property. American law tends to support property ownership, but consider this: if public tax dollars were used to operate fish hatcheries, and the fish from those hatcheries were placed in a stream that entered private property, would you have the right to pursue those fish?
In hunting, it is generally accepted that game animals raised for sporting purposes and/or produced by tax-supported programs might wander onto private property. However, fish are different. Their “wandering” can follow only one path: the course of a stream or river. In the Adirondacks, these are often bodies of water shallow enough to wade in, thus allowing fishermen to pursue them without having to set foot on dry land. But Rockefeller insisted that riverbeds were also off limits.
It was a long struggle waged for many years and featured multiple, diverse rulings, several of them against Rockefeller. But money usually wins, and despite the issues, money is what really made the story catch on. Here’s why.
Rockefeller’s resources were endless. A multibillionaire, he had an unlimited number of lawyers at his disposal. To further irritate Lamora, Rockefeller used his government influence to close the Brandon post office and move it to his private property at Bay Pond, forcing Oliver to walk miles just to get his mail. When Lamora fished along the railroad tracks, Rockefeller bought the rail property. And on it went.
Lamora, on the other hand, was a pauper whose case only survived because of popular support and a sympathetic country lawyer. He had nothing else on his side except tradition.
The Lamora–Rockefeller conflict was itself indicative of historical changes on a greater scale. Woodsmen once freely roamed their beloved Adirondacks. They began guiding visitors to wonderful hunting and fishing experiences, and eventually, the rich “sports” who returned so often decided to buy a piece of the mountains for their own use.
The great allure of the outdoors had once filled guides’ pockets with dollars, but a problem soon surfaced. No one had foreseen the possibility of huge estates blocking the public from scenic mountain views, waterfalls, hunting, and fishing―things that people had enjoyed daily.
The ruling in favor of Rockefeller solidified the practice into law, allowing the creation of large, private game parks. Some called them preserves, but the wealthy loved to call their properties “parks.” While the word itself sounds inviting, the opposite was true: these were parks where no one was welcome.
In 1903, New York’s courts decided against the greater good, admitting that their own pro-Rockefeller ruling was bad for “the public at large.” But money still won, and Rockefeller’s private property was preserved. Similar “preserves” popped up across the Adirondacks, eliminating public access to some of the region’s best attractions.
It took more than a century, but times have changed. Some of the former large “parks” have been purchased by the state and opened to the public. Money is now on the other side of the argument. Tourism, hiking, canoeing, mountain climbing, and other forms of outdoor recreation are what drive the region’s economic engine.
For decades, many of the choice Adirondack locations were inaccessible, but as the last remnants of the Gilded Age gradually disappear, exciting new adventures become available to the public. This could well prove more valuable to the region’s economy than the old system of seeking work at Great Camps. Lamora may have been on the wrong side of the law, but it’s looking more and more like he was on the right side of history.
Photos: Bay Pond, Front cover of Oliver’s War