Author Archives: Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence P. Gooley

About Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley has authored 19 books and more than 150 articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill Jones, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 69 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Ken Carter’s Plan To Jump A Car Over the St. Lawrence River


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Bizarre. That’s the best description of events forty years ago when the North Country found itself the focus of national attention. I’m accustomed to researching much further back in time to write stories, but this one is a doozy that younger folks probably never heard of and older folks might have forgotten by now. It took place back in the 1970s when daredevils were popular, led by Evel Knievel, who became more famous for his failures — crashes resulting in multiple bone fractures — than his successes, where he landed safely and was unhurt.

Most of us who witnessed Knievel’s career will remember one jump above all others — Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. He performed on motorcycles, so the rocket-shaped vehicle he used in Idaho was named the Skycyle X-2. Canada’s answer to Evel Knievel was Ken Carter, a.k.a. the Mad Canadian, Kamikaze Ken, or Crazy Ken. He performed many times in upstate New York. Continue reading

Gerald Chapman: Clinton Prison Alum, America’s First ‘Super-Crook’


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Near the end of his twenty-two-year career, Gerald Chapman’s several reputations came together in headlines touting him as a Spectacular Mail Bandit, Jail Breaker, and Criminal Extraordinaire. But above all, he was most often referred to as a “super-crook,” placing him beyond the level of most American criminals, one whose exploits were followed closely by the public. A worldwide manhunt finally resulted in his capture in 1925, but a decade earlier, he had done hard time at Clinton Prison.

Chapman, whose real name was believed to be George Chartres, or Charters, first ran into trouble in New York in 1908 and served a three-year stint in Sing Sing. After release, he was again arrested for grand larceny, and in January 1912 returned to Sing Sing, this time for ten years. As a brilliant criminal, and a handful to keep track of in any prison, he was sent north to the state’s most secure facility, Clinton Prison at Dannemora, where he quickly assumed a gang leadership position. As the source of many problems for guards and administration, he was finally relegated to an isolation cell, which at Clinton offered a very stark existence. Continue reading

Neil Litchfield, Lewis County’s Master Comedian


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One of the most popular stars of vaudeville more than a century ago was a native of Lewis County who capitalized on peoples’ love of laughing at themselves. An eloquent speaker with perfect diction, he rose to fame portraying simple farm folks and other characters. It was humor based close to home, for he was born and raised in Turin, a township whose population today remains under 800. While traveling the United States, he returned frequently to visit friends and family, while also performing in the North Country.

He was known to all as Neil Litchfield, but some sleuthing was necessary initially to uncover his story, for he at times went by the names Allen and Cornelius (the latter of which “Neil” was extracted from). They all proved to be one and the same person — Cornelius Allen Litchfield. Continue reading

Captain Lewis: Horace Brown’s Great Brown Horse


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Horace Brown, perhaps the greatest horse trainer from the northern Adirondacks and foothills, attained fame and many trotting victories in America, Europe, and Russia. Of all his successes, none was more acclaimed than the marvelous season of 1882. Collectively, it was among the unlikeliest stories in sports, an early equivalent of the US hockey team’s stunning Olympic victory in 1980, when a group of fresh, largely untested amateurs came together and conquered the world’s best.

The 1882 story became legend and was often repeated, but the first couple of names involved aren’t absolutely certain. Bear with me briefly through the details, for the story will get better. By most accounts, the horse in question was bred by Jeff Brown of Dresden, on the western shore of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. In the vicinity of Dresden, he sold it to Richard Brown (and now the names are certain,) who sold it to Lawrence Bogert, who sold it to Stewart L. Purdy of the town of Benton. Continue reading

Neil Litchfield, Lewis County’s Master Comedian


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One of the most popular stars of vaudeville more than a century ago was a native of Lewis County who capitalized on peoples’ love of laughing at themselves. An eloquent speaker with perfect diction, he rose to fame portraying simple farm folks and other characters. It was humor based close to home, for he was born and raised in Turin, a township whose population today remains under 800. While traveling the United States, he returned frequently to visit friends and family, while also performing in the North Country.

He was known to all as Neil Litchfield, but some sleuthing was necessary initially to uncover his story, for he at times went by the names Allen and Cornelius (the latter of which “Neil” was extracted from). They all proved to be one and the same person — Cornelius Allen Litchfield.

He was born in April 1855, educated in Lewis County schools, and attended Cornell University in Ithaca, about 100 miles south of his hometown. College opened up a world of possibilities, and it was there that Neil discovered and developed a deep interest in elocution, defined as “the skill of clear and expressive speech, especially of distinct pronunciation and articulation.” This became his passion, and during his college years, particularly as a junior and senior, he conducted numerous public readings in northern and central New York. Continue reading

Horace Brown: Master Horseman of Northern NY


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One of my favorite people to visit when I was a child was my maternal grandfather, who owned a 100-acre farm in remote northwestern Clinton County. Ninety acres of the property were wooded (I loved exploring nature); he had cows, horses, and a dog (I loved animals); and he was an avid fisherman (I lived on the riverbank in Champlain and loved fishing). From my perspective, everything about my Grandpa Jim (Lagree) was cool (this was back in the ’60s, so “cool” is appropriate).

On the wall near his usual sitting area in the living room was a framed photo of a horse and sulky with the caption, “Dan Patch.” Since it was my grandfather’s picture, I knew it had to be something cool, and I was right. As he explained to me, Dan Patch was the greatest trotter ever. Trotting, as I learned, was once the most popular sport across Northern New York.

Within a general loop from Albany north to Glens Falls and Plattsburgh; west to Malone, Ogdensburg, Potsdam, and Watertown; south to Boonville; southeast back to Albany; and many stops in between, dozens of communities in the Adirondacks and foothills had trotting tracks of varying quality. Participants ranged from farmers to professional horsemen, all of them eager to put their horses’ abilities up against others for bragging rights, money prizes, and, of course, side bets. Continue reading

1890s Adirondack Freshwater Pearl Fever


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Balsam pillows, maple syrup, spruce gum, custom-made rustic furniture — they’re all products comprised of raw materials native to the Adirondacks. Other businesses, current or defunct, have similar roots, but occasionally in regional history we find homegrown livelihoods that seem an odd fit for the North Country. Among the unlikeliest of those is pearl harvesting — not in the St. Lawrence River or Lake Champlain, but in creeks and rivers of the Adirondacks and foothills.

Pearls, considered the oldest of the world’s gems, are deeply rooted in history dating back thousands of years. They were highly valued in ancient Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Roman, and Arabian cultures. Polynesia, Ceylon, and the Persian Gulf were the primary pearl sources, but as man is wont to due, excessive harvesting badly depleted the world supply. While the search continued for natural alternatives, the first cultured pearl (cultivated through a process that imitated nature) was developed in the 1890s. Patent battles to control the method continued until 1916, but in the meantime, many countries turned to harvesting pearls from fresh-water clams. Continue reading

1757: What Adirondack History Might Have Been


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“These are mere deserts on both sides of the river St. Lawrence, uninhabited by beast or bird on account of the severe colds which reign there.”—Samuel de Champlain.

“One cannot see a more savage country, and no part of the earth is more uninhabitable.” —Pierre Charlevoix, 1756. And about winters in the north: “It is then a melancholy thing not to be able to go out of doors, unless you are muffled up with furs like the bears…. What can anyone think, where the very bears dare not show their face to the weather for six months in the year!”

The last quotation (1767) is from John Mitchell, who cited the above comments by Charlevoix and Champlain in assessing New England, New York, and Quebec during discussions about the future of the American colonies. His writings at that time supported a solution Mitchell had proposed a decade earlier, one that would have drastically altered today’s map of the Americas and seriously revised the history of the Adirondack region. Continue reading

Telephone Party Lines Were Once High Entertainment


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History is often said to repeat itself, or to come full circle, but the same is seldom said about technology, which by its very nature constantly improves and leaves old ways behind. But as a follow-up to last week’s piece on heroic telephone operator Ida Blanchard, here’s a look at an old way of doing things that has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts, buttressed by the capabilities of modern telecommunications. We’re talking here about telephone party lines.

Yes, they’ve become a thing again, which should come as quite a surprise if you were lucky enough to experience the original. Continue reading

Ida Blanchard: Heroic Switchboard Operator


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Fire! … Please send help — there’s been a car accident! … We found our son in the pool … please help us! … We need an ambulance … I think my husband’s having a heart attack! … My wife can’t breathe and she’s turning blue! Many of us have experienced terrifying moments like those at one time or another. In modern times, amazingly quick responses are the norm from fire and EMS personnel directed by information received at county emergency service centers.

Until several decades ago, those positions were nearly all filled by men. But for much of the twentieth century, most rural areas lacked coordination of services. A vital cog in emergency situations back then was the local switchboard operator, who was nearly always a woman. In almost every instance where policemen and/or firemen were needed, the telephone operator was key to obtaining a good outcome. She was the de facto emergency services coordinator of yesteryear.

Her importance during times of crisis was often overlooked, with most of the glory going to policemen and firemen capturing criminals, rescuing victims, and saving lives. But emergency personnel and telephone-company executives were aware of the vital role operators played on a daily basis. Continue reading