From its founding in 1893, and over the next 30 years, the Beaver River Club was the destination of many of the visitors to the Stillwater area.
It was the summer retreat of wealthy and influential families from Syracuse, Utica and to a lesser extent from throughout New York State. The decision to enlarge the Stillwater Dam and create today’s Stillwater Reservoir utterly destroyed this glittering outpost in the wild. Here is its story.
With the influx of tourists along the fringes of the Adirondacks after the Civil War, the old woods roads were improved and new roads built. Small steamboats made their appearance ferrying passengers on a short stretch of the lower Moose River and on the Fulton Chain of Lakes. Although travel to the Central Adirondacks was still quite difficult, it was no longer beyond the ability of many middle and upper class New Yorkers.
These early tourists were drawn to the north woods by reading glowing accounts of the advantages of a sojourn in the wilderness in newspaper articles, sporting magazines and books. Descriptions of hunting, fishing and camping in the Adirondacks read like adventure stories. Throughout the towns and cities of New York State a growing class of self-made men developed the desire to undertake a wilderness adventure by going fishing and hunting in the north woods. A wide availability of popular guidebooks such as Edwin R. Wallace’s Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks (first published 1872, updated periodically) and Seneca Ray Stoddard’s The Adirondacks, Illustrated (1874) made such a trip seem eminently practical.
As access to the Adirondacks gradually improved in the late nineteenth century, there was a land rush of sorts. Historians have paid a good deal of attention to the acquisition of large tracts of land and the building of grand “rustic” family compounds by the super wealthy robber barons of the time. While the building of the so-called “great camps” is certainly one of the distinctive features of late nineteenth century Adirondack history, it involved only a small number of visitors. A far more important development and one that had a long-lasting impact on the course of Adirondack history was the rise of “sportsmen’s clubs.”
Most early Adirondack tourists were financially well off. They could afford to take two or three weeks off work. They could afford to buy special camping gear. They could afford the cost of travel to the Adirondacks, the cost of lodging and the cost of hiring a guide. Such costs were beyond the means of most working men and women, but not beyond the means of doctors, lawyers, factory owners, bankers, store owners, wholesalers and similar community leaders.
Some of these modestly wealthy men became so enamored by their wilderness adventures that they returned year after year. As hotels developed catering to their needs, they began to bring their families along on their trips to the woods.
In the Beaver River country Fenton’s Hotel at Number Four developed into a family destination by 1870, having been in operation as a wilderness hotel ever since 1826. Dunbar’s Hotel, located at the junction of Twitchell Creek and the Beaver River at Stillwater, developed into a family vacation destination after 1879. Further upstream there were two basic wilderness hotels in seasonal operation: Munsey’s at Little Rapids and Edwards’ at Smith Lake. Ever since the 1850’s, local guides had been bringing small groups of “sports” to their favorite fishing and hunting spots throughout the Beaver River country. Basic campsites, equipped with open lean-tos or shanties, were established by guides and used season after season.
Some of these sportsmen returned to the Beaver River area every year for spring fishing and fall hunting. They often used the same guides and the same hotels or campsites. They surely must have known that elsewhere in the Adirondacks groups of modestly wealthy businessmen had banded together to form “sportsmen’s clubs.” The aim of these clubs was to cooperatively purchase or lease a large parcel of Adirondack wilderness where only club members could hunt and fish. On part of this land they typically built a main lodge where club members could sleep and take their meals. Nearby land was often sold or leased to members who wished to build their own small private camps. By providing meals for members the clubs solved the significant problem of transporting heavy kitchen gear and food into the woods. Sportsmen’s clubs cooperatively hired a group of guides who knew the area well, thus avoiding the perceived incompetence of the “hotel” guides generally available to tourists.
Adirondack sportsmen’s clubs proliferated in the years between 1870 and 1900. The Annual Report of the Forest Commission for 1893 contains a list of all known private clubs in the Adirondacks. By that year 50 private clubs owned outright or leased an aggregate total of 940,000 acres, nearly one-quarter of the entire Adirondack Park. Indeed, when the Adirondack Park was first formed in 1892, the Forest Commission considered the idea of buying this club land to make it part of the Park. The idea was rejected because the Forest Commission believed that the private clubs would be good stewards of the land with the added benefit of posing no cost to the State.
The New York State Legislature saw a benefit in encouraging the development of sportsmen’s clubs. As early as 1871 the legislature passed “An Act for Private Parks and Game Preserves” that allowed the posting of private lands as game preserves and lease of land to private sportsmen’s clubs. Because private clubs hired local hunters to patrol their land to keep out trespassers, in 1892 the State amended the law to explicitly allow employees of sportsmen’s clubs to arrest trespassers.
Even though the Beaver River country was long reputed to be a sportsmen’s paradise, apparently no one attempted to situate a sportsmen’s club there until after the railroad arrived in 1892. Remember, before the coming of the train it took at least three days to travel from Syracuse to Stillwater. Once the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad (a.k.a. the Mohawk & Malone or M&M) came into operation, a sportsman and his family could travel by train from the growing towns and cities all along the Erie Canal to Beaver River Station at the east end of Stillwater in a single day. Between 1893 and 1896 three private sportsmen’s clubs were founded in the Beaver River country: Nehasane Park, the Beaver River Club and the Rap-Shaw Club.
Dr. William S. Webb, the builder of the railroad, purchased 115,000 acres along the northeastern side of the Beaver River for his own personal Adirondack retreat. He named his preserve “Nehasane Park” after an old Mohawk name for the Beaver River. As is important to our story, Dr. Webb immediately posted the land against trespass, hired game wardens, and demolished the sportsmen’s hotels at Smith Lake and Little Rapids. This effectively closed off access to the headwaters of the Beaver River to the public. In 1894 he built his own great camp, “Forest Lodge,” on the west shore of Smith Lake, which he renamed Lake Lila in honor of his wife. Although Nehasane Park was incorporated as a sportsmen’s club, in reality, with a few exceptions, it remained the private reserve of the Webb family.
The Rap-Shaw Club was formed by a small group of businessmen from Buffalo, Rochester and Elmira in 1896. They owned no land but used cabins built by their guides, apparently without Dr. Webb’s permission, on land that was part of Nehasane Park.
The Beaver River Club was founded by 32 well-to- do businessmen primarily from Syracuse, Utica and Lowville. For some years these men had used Dunbar’s Hotel as their headquarters on hunting and fishing trips to the Beaver River country. It also appears that they frequently camped as an informal group at Smith Lake perhaps as early as 1875. When Dr. Webb posted no trespassing signs all along the headwaters of the Beaver River, they were well aware that business at Dunbar’s was about to increase. I’m sure they worried whether the change would be to their detriment. Joseph Dunbar was getting up in age, so perhaps this would be a good time for him to sell out and retire.
In late 1892 this group purchased the Dunbar Hotel. They purchased all of Dunbar’s property plus an additional 25 acres to the east, 15 acres to the west and 10 acres to the north so that in the end they owned 200 acres. This same group also signed a multi-year lease for 6,000 acres of forest and lakes in the immediate vicinity. On February 10, 1893, they formally founded the Beaver River Club. They renamed Dunbar’s Hotel the “Beaver River Clubhouse” and hired Monroe “Pop” Bullock, a well-regarded local guide, to manage it.
The founders of the Beaver River Club knew that the State was in the process of enlarging the Beaver River dam at Stillwater. A new concrete dam, built in the same year the Beaver River Club was founded, raised the water level enough so the land the club just purchased became a large island. The State legislature anticipated the flooding and authorized a series of new bridges for the Carthage to Champlain Road connecting the new island to the mainland on both sides. Maps of the time labeled the property of the Beaver River Club, “Dunbar Island.”
The new club had their island surveyed and divided into waterfront lots for sale to prospective members. The original map from 1893 drawn by S. S. Snell shows 52 cottage lots as well as building lots on four nearby islands. The Snell map shows the location of the Clubhouse on the right side of the Carthage and Champlain Road along with a laundry, icehouse and barn.
The new Beaver River Club appears on the list of sportsmen’s clubs found in the 1893 Report of the New York State Forest Commission Report. The 1893 Report describes how members of the Beaver River Club and guests reached the remote club by wagon, traveling the last 12 miles “through unbroken wilderness” along the Carthage and Champlain Road from Number Four, or by rail to Beaver River Station and then by boat to Stillwater. The report also claims that the original membership of 35 had already grown to 50 families who lived in cottages on waterfront lots. Because the 1893 Report is virtually the only contemporary account of the Beaver River Club it has been quoted as gospel over the years. My review of maps, land records and tax records does not support that membership ever exceeded 42 families. Only 26 lots were ever sold and only 15 cottages were actually built.
Nonetheless the leaders of the Beaver River Club had big plans. Beginning in 1900 they started to raise funds to enlarge or replace Dunbar’s Hotel with a new structure that could seat 80 in the dining room. The new Clubhouse was completed by 1902 at a total cost of $10,000. It is unclear from surviving photographs whether the original Dunbar’s Hotel was demolished or just overshadowed by the larger new structure. The new Clubhouse was grand enough that club members were assessed annual dues for the first time. They also commissioned a supplemental map of their property that increased the number of lots for sale from 52 to 72. At the time these small lots of about one quarter acre were being offered at $500 – $600. When accounting for inflation this means lots cost about $12,000 in today’s dollars.
During its heyday, the membership roll of the Beaver River Club read like the upstate social register. Successful manufacturers were well represented by men like William S. Foster of Utica, president of Foster Brothers Manufacturing, makers of iron beds and springs. From Syracuse there was Carlton A. Chase, president of Syracuse Chilled Plow and later president of the First Trust & Deposit Bank. Another prominent Syracuse civic leader was William K. Pierce president of Pierce, Butler & Pierce, manufacturers of heating and plumbing fixtures. W. K. Pierce also founded the company that installed the first street lights in Syracuse.
Large retailers and wholesalers were also well represented. Foremost among these was Robert Dey, founder and president of Dey Brothers department store who is credited with inspiring the current Syracuse downtown shopping district. From Utica there was William D. Moshier wholesaler of spices, extracts and coffee. A Lowville native, he joined the Beaver River Club with his brother and business partner, Charles Moshier, his father John J. Moshier and his brother-in- law, A. C. Boshart. Also from Lowville were the Richardson brothers, who operated a grocery and drugstore while developing a major wholesale trade in cheese and maple sugar.
Professional men also made up a significant part of the membership. Chief among them was Syracuse attorney, Wm. P. Goodelle, known statewide for his legal work on behalf of the New York Central Railroad. Goodelle served as club president from 1895 until at least 1910. The rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Syracuse, Rev. Dr. Henry R. Lockwood, was a founding member. Leading physicians such as Dr. J. Willis Candee of Syracuse and Dr. Martin Besmer of Ithaca represented the medical profession.
When these wealthy men and their families traveled to the Beaver River Club they traveled in style. There were trunks of clothing and household goods to be hauled by wagon from the train station to the club. Members brought servants and nannies to look after the children. In the evening everyone “dressed for dinner”’ in only slightly less formal attire than they were accustomed to wear in the cities. And there were grand parties and picnics to which club members invited their city friends. One particularly remarkable party held at the club by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Dey in 1895 included fifty guests and featured the “novel amusement” of blowing soap bubbles.
To operate this elaborate club the manager would have to hire cooks, wait staff, housemaids, fishing and hunting guides, and probably a few maintenance staff. Because there was no reasonably nearby town, hiring staff was a challenge. It appears the club hired seasonal employees from all around upstate and housed them on site. This surmise is supported by a sad newspaper article from July 1904 that reports the death of one Thomas Shaughnessy of Schenectady, age 25. Shaughnessy had been hired as staff at the Beaver River Club but did not have the money for train fare. He was killed when he struck his head on a bridge while riding to Beaver River on top of the baggage car. The Beaver River Club truly flourished during the 15 years from 1893 until 1908. In June of 1902 H. C. (Henry Charles) Churchill replaced “Pops” Bullock as manager of the Beaver River Clubhouse. The club purchased a twenty-foot long steamboat from D. H. Tuttle of Canastota, NY. Churchill used this boat to transport Beaver River Club members in style from Grassy Point near Beaver River Station to the club dock on Twitchell Creek. Churchill named the steamer “Alice” in honor of his eldest daughter.
Soon H. C. Churchill decided to capitalize on the still increasing flow of tourists to Stillwater. He could see there was a need for more accommodations, especially for tourists who did not wish to own their own camp. So, at the end of the season in 1905 he resigned as manager of the Beaver River Club in order to build his own hotel. That hotel, named “The Old Homestead,” opened the next spring on the mainland near the west end of the first bridge to Dunbar Island. Local guide Harlow Young replaced Churchill as manager at the Beaver River Club.
Disaster struck the Beaver River Club on April 22, 1908 when the Clubhouse burned to the ground. This was a devastating loss as all club members took their meals in the Clubhouse and the short summer season was about to begin. They all knew that the Clubhouse needed to be rebuilt immediately if the Beaver River Club were to survive.
Their rebuilding plans were grandiose. According to the Lowville Journal and Republican of Sept. 24, 1908 renowned architects Asa Merrick and James Randall of Syracuse were selected to design the new Clubhouse. The first floor would have a living room measuring 30 x 40, a spacious dining room, the kitchen and a pantry. There would be 18 bedrooms on the second floor and two indoor bathrooms. Wide porches would ring the north and east side looking out on the mountains.
Unfortunately, the fire insurance proceeds from the loss of the first Clubhouse were inadequate to completely finance this fine new hotel that would end up costing $20,000, or about $350,000 in today’s dollars. To raise the necessary capital to rebuild, the Beaver River Club mortgaged the new Clubhouse and all its remaining unsold real estate to Frederick William Barker, Sr. of Syracuse for $12,000.
The impressive new Clubhouse was built in a rustic Queen Anne style during the next year and, at least for a while, all seemed well again. In October 1910 club manager Harlow Young bought the Old Homestead Hotel from Churchill and renamed it “The Beaver River Inn.” Frank N. Williams of Watertown was hired as Beaver River Club manager to replace Young.
The next summer, on June 11, 1911, as club members watched from the porch of a neighboring camp, lightning struck and destroyed the fine cottages of two leading Syracuse club members, James M. Belden and William P. Goodelle. Those two camps burned to the ground and were never rebuilt.
This event seems to mark the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the Beaver River Club. Perhaps it was the economy. Perhaps the club had counted on selling more lots but buyers never materialized. Perhaps the interests of the original members had shifted. Perhaps it was no longer as fashionable to take extended vacations in the Adirondacks. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Regardless of the cause, the club suddenly found it was unable to meet the costs of operating the Clubhouse and paying the mortgage.
After waiting a number of years for payment, Frederick Barker foreclosed on his mortgage. The Clubhouse and real estate of the Beaver River Club was sold at a referee’s auction on Dec. 18, 1914 to William S. Foster, Carleton A. Chase and Charles S. Terry for $10,916.13, the amount due on the mortgage.
This was not, however, the end of the Beaver River Club. The three men who purchased the property were all current members who owned cottages at the club. On December 28, 1914 these three men and other members filed incorporation papers for a new sportsmen’s club to be called the “Stillwater Mountain Club.” Although the Beaver River Club is not explicitly mentioned, the stated purpose of the new club was to “maintain a clubhouse in the Adirondacks.” And so, the Beaver River Club continued to operate as usual under a new name. In fact, from all evidence I can find, the name “Stillwater Mountain Club” was never widely adopted. Maps drawn as late as 1924 continued to refer to the property as the Beaver River Club.
There is no record that Foster, Chase and Terry ever conveyed title to the land they purchased at the mortgage foreclosure to the Stillwater Mountain Club. I assume these three continued to hold title jointly in their own names in a hope that they could recoup their considerable investment through sale of more cottage lots. It seems reasonable to assume that some lots were sold in the years between 1914 and 1919. As is important to the history of Rap-Shaw, about 1915 a wealthy stockbroker from Ithaca named Roger B. Williams, Jr. became a member of the Beaver River Club. Williams would eventually come to own ten lots purchased from former members containing two large cottages, a boathouse and a number of outbuildings.
The state dam at Stillwater that created the waterfront property of the Beaver River Club was one of a series of dams designed to regulate water levels to keep the Black River Canal and the Black River flowing at an acceptable level for the many water-powered enterprises. These dams initially achieved their purpose, but as time passed and demand increased, talk began in Albany about enlarging existing dams and building new dams in various locations throughout the Adirondacks. Water regulation was still a main aim, but now the promise of hydroelectric power was added to the mix. Opponents of dam building pointed out that the land surrounding the proposed dams was part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and the law forbade their sale or destruction.
The political power of those in favor of new and bigger dams was formidable. To circumvent the restrictions on alienating land in the Forest Preserve, the legislature passed the Burd Amendment in 1913. The Burd Amendment specifically allowed for up to 3% of the Forest Preserve’s 6 million acres to be flooded to create or enlarge reservoirs. This potentially opened up 180,000 acres to be flooded. Then in 1915 the legislature passed the Machold Storage Law that provided for the creation of river regulating districts, subject to approval by the Conservation Department. Once approved, a regulating district could build dams, construct reservoirs, and alter or regulate river flow.
The Black River Regulating District was created in 1919. This agency took control of dams on the Moose and Beaver Rivers including the dam at Stillwater. In 1920, the Black River Regulating District received preliminary approval of a plan to construct 12 hydroelectric dams and accompanying reservoirs on Forest Preserve land. Three of the proposed dams were enlargements of existing dams to create hydroelectric capacity. One of the dams slated for enlargement was at Stillwater.
Given all the public attention to dam building in the Adirondacks, it seems fair to assume that sometime well before the creation of the Black River Regulating District in 1919 the possibility of a significant enlargement of the Stillwater dam became public knowledge. This would, of course, alarm the members of the Beaver River Club as almost all their property lay only a few feet above the existing water level. In 1920 the Black River Regulating District received final approval from the Conservation Department to raise the Stillwater dam by 19 feet to its current height. Under this plan nearly all of the Club’s more than 200 acres would be completely submerged. It was now obvious that the Beaver River Club was doomed.
On Nov. 29, 1919 the three co-owners, Foster, Chase and Terry, sold the property they obtained at foreclosure in 1914, including the Clubhouse, to Henry Wetmore. Wetmore apparently operated the Clubhouse on some basis for the next two years for those club members who continued to use their camps. Then on April 23, 1921, as the time for enlarging the dam neared, Wetmore sold the Clubhouse and club lands to Henry J. McCormick. It is especially interesting to me that this purchase also included all the boats, furnishings and other persona property of the “former” Beaver River Club. This suggests that by 1921 the Beaver River Clubhouse was essentially abandoned. Beginning in 1922, logging crews hired by the Black River Regulating District began to clear the approximately 4,000 acres that would be flooded by the new hydroelectric dam.
The Black River Regulating District drew detailed maps of the area to be flooded by the larger reservoir. The Regulating District then proceeded to negotiate with the persons who owned land below the proposed new water line. The regulating district was not interested in purchasing buildings, only the land. Owners of camps and other buildings were given until the end of 1924 to remove them or have them destroyed. These maps show that almost all of the 200 acres of the Beaver River Club, including the grand Clubhouse and all the member cottages were in the area to be flooded. The flooding would create two small islands suitable for habitation with a total of about 5 acres. Two club members purchased these islands. Arthur Virkler purchased about ¾ of an acre on the larger island nearest the old Clubhouse. Roger Butler Williams, Jr. purchased the remainder of that island as well as the smaller island just to its west.
On Feb. 11, 1925 the gates closed at new Stillwater dam and the water rose 19 feet creating a reservoir eleven miles long, one mile wide at the widest point and consisting of 6,700 lake acres. In short order almost all of the Beaver River Club was under water. Only two individuals owned any of the land once part of the old Beaver River Club: Arthur Virkler and Roger B. Williams, Jr. In time, the once famous Beaver River Club would fade into obscurity.
Photos from above: Joseph Dunbar’s Hotel at Stillwater, the original Clubhouse, The 1902 Beaver River Clubhouse that replaced Dunbar’s, The 1902 Clubhouse seen with club dock and the steamer “Alice,” The Clubhouse seen from the bridge across Twitchell Creek, The 1908 Clubhouse that replaced the 1902 Clubhouse that burned, The bridges across Twitchell creek looking in the direction of Beaver River Station.
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.