Category Archives: Natural History

New England’s Darkest Day


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When Abraham Hasbrouck (1707-1791) awoke on the morning of May 19, 1780, he looked at the sun, and probably saw a reddish glow around it.

He recorded in his diary that by eight in the morning, “the sun was darkened.” It became so dark that one thought it was night time. Hasbrouck continued in his diary entry that it was not a solar eclipse. Citizens like, Richard Miller Devens, to the Northeast in New England, not only saw the reddish glow around the sun, but remarked, ”a black scum floated on rivers.” General George Washington camped to the south in New Jersey also commented about the unusual nature of the morning. Abraham Hasbrouck, living in Kingston, New York in Ulster County, had no idea that he was witnessing what would become known as, “The Dark Day.” Continue reading

A North Country Eel Story That Will Leave You Squirming


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When stuff doesn’t work, we either play Mr. Fixit or call someone. Whether it’s a job for your auto mechanic, furnace repair technician, or electrician, the expert usually has a good idea of what’s causing a particular problem. But sometimes malfunctions are real puzzlers.

From the 1870s well into the 1900s, mystery surrounded many incidents where faucets or pipes were opened but the water didn’t flow. When that happened, there were real consequences: a factory couldn’t operate or a school might close. For citizens lucky enough to have running water in their homes, it meant going without — or, if it were available, hauling water from community wells.

For a plumber, the natural assumption was that a clog was the culprit — a piece of clothing, a collection of sediment, or an accumulation of greasy materials. When nothing of the sort was found using the usual tools, a difficult search ensued — unless plumber was experienced. In that case, he might have suspected eels. Continue reading

The Extinction of the Long Island Heath Hen


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Turvey Heath Hen IllustrationRecently, the federal government of the United States relaxed land-use restrictions designed protecting the greater sage-grouse, hoping the change might spur economic development via increased oil and gas excavation and expansion of cattle grazing areas. The grouse, a strange chicken-sized bird known for its flamboyant displays of plumage and bizarre, warbling vocalizations, once made its home on the great western prairies of the United States and numbered in the millions. Where settlers once encountered birds blanketing the landscape, today a mere five-hundred thousand remain.

A similar bird once inhabited the more eastern portions of the United States. The heath hen, a sub-species of grouse, exhibiting a similar appearance and familiar behaviors, extended along the coast as far North as Massachusetts, South to Virginia, and East to Pennsylvania. In New York, an environment of scrub oak and pine trees made Long Island an attractive home for the hens. Their habitat stretched from the pine barrens of Suffolk County west to the Hempstead Plains. (John Bull in his Birds of New York State notes that they may have also appeared in the scrub and sand plains west of Albany). As in other locations, it is generally assumed that here, a combination of hunting and habitat change led to the hens extinction. Still, it is only an educated assumption – the the Long Island heath hen and the causes for its extinction have gone largely unexplored. Continue reading

Strange Phenomena: The New York Railroad Storm


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Shining Auroral CloudRecently a study of the cause of “bright nights” – evenings on which the sky gives enough light to read a book or newspaper – appeared in Geophysical Research Letters before being reported in a number of newspapers and popular scientific publications. Part of the story’s appeal is undoubtedly the claim that such strange phenomena have been experienced repeatedly and regularly throughout history.

Pliny the Elder, for instance, is said to have described the appearance of a “nocturnal sun” and the transformation of night into day, while an 1842 description recalls ne’er-do- wells exposed by a midnight at once transformed into midafternoon. The letters of mid-19th century Parisians reported surprise at being able to make out people and objects previously obscured by shadow. The reports of a Copenhagen observatory of the early 20th include a more scientific accounting. That such astronomical oddities, though infrequent, occur regularly would suggest that New York ought to have had its share of bright nights. 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

DEC Acquires Historic Setauket Property for Conservation


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dec logoThe New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has acquired 17 acres of woodland in the historic maritime hamlet of Setauket. The property will be added to Patriots Hollow State Forest.

The property, the former Fitzsimmons Farm, is located in the Old Setauket Historic District within the watershed of the Long Island Sound. Its protection is cited in the 2016 Open Space Conservation Plan, released by Governor Andrew Cuomo in December, as a priority acquisition for protection of the Long Island Sound Watershed. The $3,400,000 purchase was paid for with funds from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). Continue reading

Adirondack Spruce Gum was Once a Hot Commodity


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All this talk from me during the last two weeks about spruce-related subjects (Sprucelets and spruce beer) is linked to past conversations with my mom, a native of Churubusco in northern Clinton County. It’s officially known as the Town of Clinton, but to local folks, it’s just Busco — and about as country as it gets around here. Growing up there on a farm in the 1920s and ’30s, Mom partook in things that were once the norm, like drinking raw milk and chewing spruce gum.

Her repeated mention of loving to chew spruce gum intrigued me. But as a young boy, I made the mistake of thinking any old evergreen would do, so I tried white-pine sap, something I still regret to this day. Maybe it doesn’t actually taste terrible, but in my recollection, it was terribly terrible, like turpentine. To avoid steering anyone away from it based on an old memory, I confirmed through our state DEC website and others that white-pine resin can be used to make turpentine. And the higher the pitch level, the stronger the turpentine taste — so my memory is good that the taste of raw pine resin was awful. Continue reading

Spruce Beer: An Old Adirondack Favorite


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In keeping with last week’s spruce theme — Sprucelets: An Original Adirondack Medicine — is a look at one of the most common drinks in early Adirondack history: spruce beer. Like the aforementioned Sprucelets, it was believed to be of medicinal value due in part to its vitamin C content. Several evergreens share those same properties, and their use dates back centuries.

In one of the earliest mentions of evergreens used as a health aid in North America, there remains disagreement as to which tree along the St. Lawrence River (at today’s Quebec City) was used by Jacques Cartier in 1536 to cure scurvy. His voyage journal says that after learning nearby natives were quite ill with an unknown disease, Cartier quarantined his men on their ships, which were frozen in the ice.

As he noted, the precaution didn’t work. “Not withstanding these defences, the disease begun inside our group, in an unknown manner, as some of us were getting weak, their legs were becoming big and swollen, the nerves as black as coal. The sailors were dotted with drops of blood, and then the disease went to their hips, thighs, shoulders, arms and neck. Their mouths were so infected and rotten that all the flesh fell to the level of the roots of the teeth which had fallen out.” Continue reading

Sprucelets: An Original Adirondack Medicine


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Cold and flu season once again has sufferers scrambling for any kind of relief from all sorts of medicines. A little over a century ago, right here on Northern New York store shelves, next to cough drops by national companies like Smith Brothers and Luden’s, was a local product made in Malone.

Sprucelets were created mainly from a raw material harvested in the Adirondacks: spruce gum. Like hops, blueberries, and maple syrup, the seasonal gathering and sale of spruce gum boosted the incomes of thousands of North Country folks seeking to make a dollar any way they could. Much of what they picked was sold to national gum companies, but some was used locally by entrepreneurs who established small factories and created many jobs.

Among these was the Symonds & Allison Company of Malone, founded there in 1897 by Charles Symonds and Aaron Allison when the latter purchased half-interest in Symonds Brothers, a convenience-store operation offering food, coffee, candy, and tobacco products. Continue reading