Settlement came slowly to the upper Beaver River valley in the west central Adirondacks. John Brown Francis, governor of Rhode Island and grandson of John Brown, the original titleholder, built the first road from Lowville to Number Four in 1822 with the hope of starting a village there. To spur settlement he gave 100 acres each to the first ten families willing to clear the land and establish farms. A number of pioneers moved in, the first of which was a man named Orrin Fenton who arrived in 1826. By 1835 there were about 75 residents. Gradually all attempts at farming failed. By 1864 the settlement of Number Four was nearly deserted.
W. Hudson Stephen’s early history of the Number Four area describes the scene:
“An irregular winding road, through woods for eight miles, and we emerge amid partially cleared lands, with here and there an apple and cherry tree in the grass plot of a deserted farm – into quite a “deserted village” – houses without tenants – barns wanting boards and crop – an abandoned school-house, windows out and door gone – into the cultivated clearing of No. 4. Beyond Chauncey Smith’s on left, and the Champlain Road, extending eighty miles into the Wilderness, on right, the red house of Fenton, perched on brow of the hill, is approached by road leading down to Wetmore’s, and through the lot to the landing on Beaver Lake.”
The three pioneer families who remained at Number Four made their living from the wilderness around them. Chauncey Smith was a hunter, trapper and wilderness guide as was Isaac Wetmore. Orrin Fenton operated a popular sportsman’s hotel.
To be sure, Beaver Lake was and remains one of the more picturesque spots along the western edge of the Adirondacks. Early visitors were entranced by the deep forest and the views of the lake from Fenton’s that stood on a hillside above the river. The Beaver River originally had a number of quite beautiful falls nearby including High Falls, Fish Hole Falls and Eagle Falls. The fishing and hunting were considered excellent. The natural beauty of the area drew guests to Fenton’s.
The farming was terrible. The soil was thin and rocky. The winters were cold and long. Any potential markets were a good distance away over bad roads. There was simply never enough economic activity to support a village of any size. Almost 200 years later, summer cottages and camps dot the shores of Beaver Lake, but more permanent dwellings are few and far between.
The original Number Four Road from Lowville ended at the pioneer village. The only way deeper into the forest to the east before the mid 1840s was by following hunter’s trails or by ascending the Beaver River. Although possible, travel up the river was difficult. The next ten miles of the Beaver River was blocked by no less than nineteen sets of unnavigable rapids and falls. For this reason very few early visitors ventured very far upstream from Beaver Lake.
Beginning in 1844 a road was cut across the Central Adirondacks from Carthage on the Black River to Crown Point on Lake Champlain. Even though it was not much more than a trail through the forest, the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road gave determined travelers access to the upper Beaver River.
Using this road east, after passing around the rapids through twelve miles of dense forest, the terrain opened out into a great marsh that stretched further east for about eleven miles. This area above the falls was known as the still-water of the Beaver River.
David Smith, legendary hermit: 1820–1850
All available accounts agree that a man named David Smith was the earliest year-round inhabitant of the Stillwater area. He was presumed to have arrived sometime in the early 1820s and reportedly built a shanty near the junction of the Beaver River and Twitchell Creek. He is said to have lived in that location until about 1830.
Smith preferred the life of a hermit and did not welcome visitors. To avoid having his solitude interrupted by the infrequent hunter or trapper, sometime around 1830 Smith moved further upstream where he cleared a few acres and built a shanty on the bank of the beautiful lake that forms the headwaters of the Beaver River. For many years thereafter that lake (now known as Lake Lila) was called Smith’s Lake. David Smith lived there for the next 20 years pretty much undisturbed until around 1850. He then disappeared.
There are no first person accounts of Smith. Everything we know about him comes from stories handed down by local hunters, trappers and guides. Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester gave the earliest written account of Smith’s life in his Historical Sketches of Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness (1877). Sylvester claims that Smith lived by hunting and trapping and that he had an excellent collection of taxidermy specimens that he exhibited on his infrequent trips to town. Sylvester also describes an incident where Smith supposedly walked 40 miles to Number Four in the dead of winter to get help because he was choking on a piece of moose meat. The taxidermy and choking stories seem exactly like the sort of tall tale guides might tell around the campfire.
Sylvester himself, ordinarily a careful chronicler of local history, seemed doubtful about the truth of story he related about Smith’s life. He openly mused about what the real story of Smith’s life might be if it “could be written.” Since Sylvester personally visited the Beaver River country on many occasions, he probably heard stories about David Smith from several different local residents so he decided to tell his story, whether all the details were true or not.
Later writers who bothered to discuss the first settlement of the Beaver River country simply repeated some version of Sylvester’s account of Smith’s life. One notable exception is the meticulously researched 1896 account of another attorney, Charles E. Snyder. When discussing David Smith in his “John Brown’s Tract: an address to the Herkimer County Historical Society, December 8, 1896,” Snyder explicitly notes that Smith was the subject of much speculation among local residents.
“The mystery of his life, no one so far as I have learned, has ever discovered. Some claim that he went to the woods on account of the death of his fiancée, others maintain that he sought refuge there because his wife made it too interesting for him at home, while still others insist that he was a political refugee from a foreign country, hiding here in the midst of the forest. All accounts of him agree that he was not a hunter and trapper. The deer, it is said, used to come about his place without fear.”
Whether Sylvester’s taxidermist or Snyder’s deer-loving vegetarian was the real David Smith is impossible to know. For now, the details of Smith’s life remain mostly a guide’s legend.
James “Jimmy” O’Kane, a squatter: 1844-1858
When the workers clearing the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road reached the confluence of the Beaver River with Twitchell Creek they built a sturdy cabin on the high ground there to serve as temporary living quarters. Soon after the road builders left, a man named James O’Kane moved into the abandoned road builder’s cabin. He lived there as a squatter until his death in January 1858.
We know quite a bit about O’Kane from first hand reports. During a fishing and hunting trip in 1851 the artist Jarvis McEntee and his friend Joseph Tubby spent the night in O’Kane’s cabin. McEntee described the cabin like this:
“Here is a specimen of what the seeker after the beautiful has to partake of by the way of accommodations. The cabin was built of logs having a bank roof and one window and door. It also possessed the luxury of a floor, a comfort that we shall not often meet, I fear, and last of all a large cooking stove.”
O’Kane himself did not make a favorable impression on the two young painters.
“He was tall, very tall, being six foot three inches, and although he stooped considerably, this was the first thing we remarked about him. He had long black hair and the unmistakable features of an Irishman and though we might have doubted from whence he came, these doubts were put to flight at the sound of his voice. Taking him altogether with his huge frame, his sunblossomed face, his old gray cravat and unctuous woolen shirt, he was decidedly an unpleasant-looking chap to sleep with in a log cabin.”
McEntee admits that O’Kane tried to make them welcome, but stories told them by their guide led them to hide their liquor jug to keep O’Kane from using it too liberally. After an evening spent fishing, they all tried to get some sleep in the close, foul smelling cabin. The two young artists remained uneasy.
“We turned in, however, and making pillows of our knapsacks and rolling ourselves in our blankets, sought sleep. The driver and Puffer [the guide] were soon unconscious, but with Jimmie’s soliloquies over the mice and chipmunks that ate his beans and the fears that if we all slept he might appropriate some of our small articles, kept Joe and I awake. However, after we had ceased answering his questions, for some time he laid down three or four old bags of straw, black with grease and dirt, and wrapped himself in an old blue military overcoat and amid mutterings and growls among which we could distinguish “Montreal and Quebec” he slid off into the quiet land.”
We also have a first person account from Nathaniel B. Sylvester who personally visited O’Kane on at least several occasions during the 1850s. Sylvester says O’Kane grew his own vegetables to supplement what he could hunt or catch. Passing sportsmen contributed liberally to O’Kane’s larder.
Apparently O’Kane also kept a barrel of salted small animals in his cabin to eat in an emergency.
When Sylvester visited in May of 1857 he found O‘Kane feeble and ill. “It was the first day of the spring in which he had been able to crawl out to the bridge across the creek and set his poles for fishing.” O’Kane died the following January. He was the first person on record to be buried at Stillwater supposedly at his favorite spot on the high bank of Twitchell Creek.
There was little new settlement in the Beaver River country during the next decade. Lumbering came to the region in the 1850s. Lumber camps were built and abandoned when the nearby forest had been consumed. No new significant buildings were constructed in the Beaver River country until the era of the sportsmen began after the end of the Civil War.
Photos from above: Fenton’s at Number Four after 1870; High Falls; A bark trapper’s shanty; A stockade style guide’s cabin with a floor; and An early Adirondack trapper’s cabin.
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.