The Mystery of William Johnson’s ‘Fish House’


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47One of the real pleasures in researching and writing When Men and Mountain Meet was exploring the actual sites of the historic places mentioned in my book: the little town of Castorland on the Black River, the LeRay Mansion at Fort Drum, Gouverneur Morris’ Mansion at Natural Dam and David Parish’s house, now the Remington Art Museum, in Ogdensburg. And then there was finding Zephaniah Platt’s grave in the Riverside Cemetery in Plattsburgh, in Lake Placid the site of the 1813 Elba Iron and Steel Manufacturing works , Charles Herreshoff’s flooded iron ore mine in Old Forge and the complex of building foundations that made up John Thurman’s 1790 development at Elm Hill.

There was one site, however, that was a little harder to locate than the others; Sir William Johnson’s fishing camp “Fish House”.

Fish House was built for Sir William Johnson in 1762. At the time, Johnson was one of the largest landowners in America, exceeded only by the massive holdings of the Penn family in Pennsylvania. Johnson’s fishing camp was built overlooking the Sacandaga River just south of its confluence with Vlaie Creek, about eighteen miles from Johnson’s primary residence at Johnson Hall in today’s Johnstown. On the camp’s roof was mounted a hand carved wooden weathervane in the shape of a fish. So his many guests could travel in comfort to the fishing camp, Johnson had a carriage road built to the camp later known as the nine-mile Tree Road. If the fish weren’t biting, guests could retire to “Castle Cumberland”, a summer villa Johnson had built two years earlier at Summer House Point in honor of Lord Cumberland, in many ways his benefactor. Fish House was burned during the American Revolution, perhaps by Sir William Johnson’s own son, Sir John Johnson, who had remained loyal to the Crown and led a Tory raid into this valley in 1780 and 1781.

Around the ruins of the old Fish House a community was established after the American Revolution. As Mrs. Charlotte D. Russell notes in her Northampton: Times Past, Times Present, “Fish House did not grow like other villages, since its early inhabitants were for the most part wealthy, conservative people who did not wish their larges estates to be carved into building lots…(in time the town would become known for its) elm-lined street, the classic homes, the magnificent two-laned bridge…before 1900 there were five sawmills, a shingle shop, two chair factories, two tanneries, a glove shop, two harness shops, a skin mill, a cheese factory, a cheese box factory, four shoe cobblers, a gunsmith, several blacksmiths, two tailors and a clock maker….a school, three churches and four hotels.”

So where is Fish House today? You likely will not find it on any road map. Unfortunately for the town, the perennial flooding of the Sacandaga River was its undoing; there was serious flooding in 1902 and three flash floods in 1913 which triggered health epidemics in that area. In 1922 the State Regulating Board was created which authorized the purchase of twenty-nine thousand acres around Northampton. Buildings were to be razed and the cemeteries emptied. A dam was built at Conklingville measuring 115 feet high and on March 27, 1930 the gates were closed.

Fish House Great Sacandaga Lake MapToday Sir William Johnson’s Fish House, and the community that developed around it, lies of the bottom of Great Sacandaga Lake. A state sign along County Route 110, near its intersection of County Route 109, indicates that “Fish House” lies about “1500 Ft. northeast of this marker”.

County Road 109 runs in a straight lie in a northeasterly direction. If one extends a line from that road, along that same course, 1550 feet from that marker you will find yourself in the lake between that road intersection and Sinclair Point across the lake.

Last summer I headed out on the lake and motored to where I believe is the site of the town under water. With my fish finder I could detect what appeared to be the old course of Vlaie Creek. I believe this to be the spot, or near the spot, of Sir William Johnson’s Fish House.

I seem to recall the depth of the water was not much more than forty feet. Has anyone ever scuba dived the lake to locate Fish House? I am sure all of us would love to hear from them if they have; especially if the water was clear enough for any pictures. There is said to be a train locomotive down there, too. The local railroad, F.J. and G., fought the damming with law suits and figured if they left a locomotive on the tracks the State would not flood the town. They were wrong.

After my book was published in 2013 I heard an interesting story about Fish House and the town that grew up there. The story is second-hand, but it seems a few years ago amidst a drought we were having a fellow was enjoying boating down the lake. This particular fellow had an engineering temperament, if you know what I mean. He carried a full set of navigation maps with him at all times, as well as a gps, and religiously followed all navigation markers. He was meticulously careful in everything he did. Anyway, seems he was motoring down the lake when…WHAM! His boat stopped dead in the water. He was shocked; his charts and teh navigation buoys indicated he had plenty of water beneath him. What had he hit? He checked his motor and found that the motor housing below the waterline was torn apart. He checked his bilge and fortunately didn’t seem to be sinking. He then hailed a passing boat and was towed into a local marina.

The boater explained his bewilderment to the marina owner to which the marina owner simply replied “Chimney”. Apparently with the low water levels our boater friend had run into a chimney top from a building in the old town of Fish House/Northampton!

A version of this story was first published at Adirondack Almanack.

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Glenn Pearsall

About Glenn Pearsall

Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016). In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park. When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

3 thoughts on “The Mystery of William Johnson’s ‘Fish House’

  1. Wanda BurchWanda Burch

    Hi Glenn,
    People do scuba dive in the area but I’m not sure if there are photos. There must be. When my son was learning to scuba dive more than 20 years ago, classes went to that area. My son was thrilled. He saw cars still in driveways and they were able to swim around the houses.

    You might also like to know that Fish House was included in Sir William Johnson’s 1774 inventory, called more elegantly “Mount Joy,” a name that was used in correspondence between Johnson and his acquaintances. Fish House became the colloquial name for the camp. There is a full inventory of the items that were in the house at the time of Johnson’s death. “Castle Cumberland” was also a name first given briefly to Johnson Hall and then rapidly changed to Johnson Hall. He did that with house names. Sometimes it takes patience to wait out which name will “stick” when correspondence first appears referencing a house or building. For example, Fort Johnson was briefly called Mount Johnson, which was also the name of his first house. The name “Mount Johnson” then bounced back to the first house before Daniel Clause took ownership.

    Reply

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