Monday, February 11, 2019

Wilmington, NY History: The Wilmington Bridge

Archaeological Survey

     The New York State Museum's Cultural Resource Survey Program conducted a survey in October 2012 in preparation for the rehabilitation and bridge replacement for BIN  (bridge identification number) #1032750 which carries NYS Route 86 over the West Branch of the Ausable River. This work consisted of  background research and an archaeological survey of about 2 acres of land on either side of the bridge. 

Staff of the Cultural Resource Survey Program excavate shovel test pits in the hamlet of Wilmington
     A total of 20 shovel test pits (a hand dug hole approximately 16 in wide and up to 3 ft deep) were excavated at an interval of  25 ft . Of the 20 pits excavated, 17 contained historic artifacts. A total of 421 artifacts were recovered. Throughout the project area sub soils contained intact historic deposits consisting of kaolin pipe fragments, machine cut and hand wrought nails, a variety of ceramic types such as pearlware and annular ware, as well as brick, hardware and kitchen bone. Top soils contained a mixture of historic artifacts and modern refuse such as twist top bottle caps, cellophane and linoleum. 

     Artifacts recovered from the survey of Wilmington gives us a glimpse into the day to day lives of it's citizen's from the earliest settlers into the present. Artifacts like hand wrought nails, pearlware ceramics and early kaolin pipe fragments date to the settling of Wilmington in the 18th century. Machine cut nails and transfer printed ironstone/ whiteware ceramic illustrate the changes brought to Wilmington by the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Crown bottle caps and linoleum date to the 20th century century. 

Learn more about how archaeologists date objects!
Kaolin pipes

 Four historic archaeological sites were identified in Wilmington: 

1) The H.J. Huntington Site: is associated with a structure that was built circa 1865. It was the home of harness maker and carpenter Henry Huntington (1870, 1880 and 1900 federal census, Grays 1876 New Topographical Atlas of Essex County, New York). His harness shop originally stood on the west side of the dwelling. 

2) The Bliss House Site: The first appearance of this structure is labeled L. Bliss on Gray’s 1876 New Topographical Atlas of Essex County, New York. Jesper Bliss, a farmer, owned the property north of The Bliss House site. His sons Loami Bliss and James Bliss operated the grist mill northeast of the Bliss House Site, along the north shore of the West Branch of the Ausable River. The Bliss House, a hotel which opened in 1882, operated in Wilmington until it burned down in 1912. After that, Maximillian Bliss operated a gas station in the early 20th century. The Bliss House is one of several hotels in Wilmington that operated during the golden age of Adirondack tourism. The Hotel Olney was across the street from the Bliss House. Across the river at the intersection of Springfield Road and NY Rte 86 stood the Whiteface Mountain House. The Bliss House Site includes all artifact deposits and features associated with the Bliss estate's long occupation including residences, the hotel and the gas station. 

3) The D.B. Hayes Site: This dwelling was built in the 1850s and was originally the home to David B. Hayes. Hayes was an iron worker and lived there from the 1850s to the 1870s (1870 and 1880 federal censuses). His brother, Aaron Hayes lived there after that with his son and daughter (1900, 1910 and 1920 federal censuses. Frank Everest acquired the Hays dwelling in the 1920s, and likely resided there.

4) The Lawson and Aurilla Kilborn Site: This dwelling was built circa 1815 and represents one of the earliest structures in Wilmington.  It was identified as the home of lawyer Lawson Kilborn and Aurilla Kilborn in the 1870 Federal census, Albert Lewis in the 1910 census and John Lewis on the 1934 highway plan.  The house has been continuously occupied since it was first built. A wagon shop was also located on or near the property. 

Wilmington History

     The history of Wilmington follows a similar trajectory to many other towns in the Adirondack region. The early phase of Adirondack town and hamlet development is marked by the discovery and exploitation of water, lumber and mineral resources. Mills and lumber camps spring up, with small towns to support them. The next phase involves the blooming of the Adirondack tourist industry. It was spurred on by widely read traveler’s accounts as well as the development of railroads, which provided greater access to the remote region. Next, the proliferation of the automobile and improved roads led to a ‘golden age’ of Adirondack hotels and tourism. Today, Adirondack towns continue to draw visitors with modern outdoor pursuits like snowmobiling and alpine skiing as well as classic Adirondack recreation like fishing, hiking and hunting.

     An abundance of natural resources and the location along a major waterway gave the area around Wilmington great appeal. The potential energy in the West Branch of the Ausable River made possible the settling of Wilmington. The power it generated in the town's first mills led to the production of iron, starch and potash.  The raw materials from these products were harvested from the earth, mountains and forests of the Ausable River Valley.  There was a settlement in Wilmington as early as 1790, with a primitive mill on the Ausable almost immediately (Teft 2011: 539).

Gray's 1876 New Topographical Atlas of Essex County, New York: inset map
     Rueben Sanford is cited (Smith 1885: 638) as the town’s first prominent citizen. Arriving by 1803 and building a permanent residence by 1812. By 1820 Sanford had developed an “extensive iron manufacturing establishment” (Smith 1885: 638). Sanford is also credited as the first postmaster, as well as the owner of a shop and tavern. Rye was grown for whiskey, the production of which was a major industry in the Ausable Valley. Sanford owned two of the largest distilleries. Potatoes also grew well here. Starch mills operated at the river dam once the iron manufacturing business had “suffered great losses through the violence of the elements and the fluctuations of business” (Smith 1885: 638). Sanford’s home is on the Wilmington Historical Society walking tour.

Rueben and Polly Sanford. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
      While Sanford’s development of the West Branch of the Ausable River with mills and iron works planted the seed for Wilmington to grow, iron and water drove the development of a much different town near the headwaters of the Hudson River. Abenaki guide Lewis Elijah led a group of prospectors to a massive bed of iron ore north of Sanford Lake in 1826. Soon after, Duncan McMartin Jr., David Henderson and John McIntyre began taking the steps financially and politically to develop this resource into a large-scale mining operation. By 1832, the mine was up and running. The settling of the village of McIntyre, or Adirondac, followed a plantation model. The town was built for the workers of the mine and their needs. All businesses and housing were owned by the company (Staley 2004: 5-10).

       By the later half of the 19th century many of the same factors which led to the demise of the iron industry in Wilmington plagued the Adirondack Iron and Steel Company. Numerous floods, economic crisis’ and the realities of the isolation of the rugged high peaks region all contributed to the decline of Adirondack Iron and Steel. It was too harsh a landscape and too far from the major thoroughfares. In 1845, the death of principal investor David Henderson in a hunting accident north of the Upper Works further contributed to the decline of the operation. This ‘calamity’ is commemorated with a large monument at the site of the incident, now known as Calamity Pond.

The Henderson Monument in April 2013

      Mill operations throughout the Adirondack High Peaks were often at the mercy of the forces of nature. Like Wilmington and McIntyre, The town of Keene developed around the power of Adirondack water. “By 1823 there was a saw mill located along Johns Brook three miles north of the center of Keene. Eli Hull and Sons had a forge on the East Branch of the Ausable River and Graves and Chase had a forge within the village proper. Another forge was constructed in 1823 and was located between the village of Keene and the older saw mill. This later forge was carried away during a freshet in 1856” (Vaillancourt 1990:5).

      The 1855 and 1856 floods were indeed major events along the length of the Ausable River and throughout the High Peaks region. Many of the industrial works along both branches were wiped out. The town of Ausable Forks was particularly hard hit with the high waters destroying the rolling mill, nail factory, machine shop, foundry, dams and various houses.

Logging on the Ausable. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society

      Economic shifts affected these towns differently, in part based on their response to the shifts. Ausable Forks transitioned from the iron business to paper and pulp. The ample power available from the Ausable River continued to be harnessed while the product shifted. In Wilmington, the cost was too high and the infrastructure insufficient to log the steep slopes which had not yet been touched on Whiteface. As the iron industry faded here, the economy shifted in a new direction.

      The burgeoning tourist industry bloomed in Wilmington, due in part to it’s proximity to Whiteface Mountain. Whiteface is perhaps the most frequently and earliest climbed of the 46 highest peaks in New York. The first documented ascent came in 1814 when a surveyor, John Richards made the short trip to the summit from the line he was laying out to establish the eastern boundary of Township 11, Old Military Tract. With Wilmington, North Elba and St. Armand settled since the 1790s it is likely that it had been climbed by Euro-Americans even before that.

Whiteface from Esther Mountain March 2012
Standing Separated from the rest of the high peaks, visible from such far off points as Montreal and the Saint Lawrence Valley, Whiteface is a mountain of many names. According to tradition, the Algonquins moving through the Saint Lawrence Valley called it Wa-ha-par-te-nie meaning “it is white”.  some sources called it Ou-no-war-lah allegedly a Mohawk word which meant “scalp mountain”. Many of the names for Whiteface came about in reference to the dramatic slides visible on the west and east sides of the peak, where bare  “white” rock shows brightly from far off (Teft 2011: 539) .“Geologically, Whiteface is unique in that its anthrosite granite welled up from the earth from a separate source from the rest of the high peaks. More recently, mountain glaciers clung to its high slopes long enough in the aftermath of the last ice age to create the most distinct alpine features to be found on any Adirondack Peak” (Goodwin and Thomas-Train eds. 2013: 99).

      Ebenezer Emmons made an officially recorded ascent in 1836 during which he used a barometer to calculate the height of Whiteface to be 4,855 ft. This measurement is 20 ft shy of the current measurement. Verplanck Colvin, during his “Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness of New York” made several less accurate readings between the years of 1869 and 1878, finally reaching the figure of 4,871.655 ft, about 4 ft below the currently accepted elevation of 4,876 ft. Early citizens of Wilmington built their economy around Whiteface, first harvesting lumber from it and then by bringing tourists up and down it. George Weston cut a “pony trail” up to the summit around 1870. He eventually sold out to Sidney Weston, proprietor of the Whiteface Mountain House who would take guests of the hotel to the top (Teft 2011: 539).    

      Wilmington was home to a number of early and prominent hotels. These hotels catered to the growing throngs of tourists gaining access to the Adirondacks by stage coach at first, then rail and eventually automobile. The Bliss House was a popular stop on the stage coach line from Ausable Chasm to Lake Placid. This hotel offered guests ascent of Whiteface via horseback. The hotel also had tennis courts and a baseball field later in its history. A large clearing exists in it's previous location giving a vague impression of where these facilities existed. The farmhouse associated with the hotel still stands. The Olney Hotel was located across the street from the Bliss house. This hotel also had tennis courts, offering croquet grounds as well as cabins which could be rented as an alternative to a hotel room. One of these cabins still stands in Wilmington, housing several of it's businesses. Whiteface Mountain House (formerly located east of the eastern boundary of the project area) was also a major attraction in Wilmington. The hotel was open by the early 1870s and was originally owned by Weston and Ayer, Frank Everest took over as the proprietor in the early 20th century. In the 1920s he financed a waterwheel at the former location of the wooden dam which brought electricity to the hotel and the rest of the town of Wilmington. His home, known locally as the Everest Cabin, still stands and functions as a private residence.                     

Whiteface Mountain House. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
      “In November of 1927, the voters of New York approved an amendment to the “Forever Wild” clause of the state constitution which allowed the building of the Whiteface highway as a memorial to the men who had fought the Great War (World War I)” (Tefft 2011: 551). This tourist highway, in the vein of the road up Mount Washington further opened up Whiteface Mountain and the town of Wilmington to tourist development. It was a massive undertaking and cost around $1,250,000 and included the construction of the road itself, an ornate tollbooth, the ‘castle’ on its summit, an elevator from the parking lot and a 1/5 of a mile walkway. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech at the opening ceremonies and nearly 6 million people have driven to the top since.

      After World War II, the development of alpine skiing facilities began on Whiteface Mountain. The original trails were located on the eastern flank of Marble Mountain. The original base lodge is now the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. One of the popular, though informal, hiking trails to the Summits of Whiteface and Esther Mountains starts here and follows the path where the old T bar lift once stood. Originally, skiers were driven up on the backs of trucks or in Sno-cats. By 1952, the Marble Mountain T bar was in place serving four trails and five rope tows were installed serving the summit of the big peak. Construction for the modern facility began in 1957 and New York State Governor W. Averell Harriman rode the first chairlift up at the dedication ceremonies. The chairlift broke down, leaving the Governor suspended for an hour and a half. Improvements continued, expanding the terrain, adding lifts and eventually a gondola serving Little Whiteface. Though there were no alpine events at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics, the 1980 Olympic events were held primarily on Whiteface's slopes with some events taking place at Gore Mountain in North Creek (Check out New York Ski blog for some great NYS ski area history).

Marble Mountain T Bar. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
      Today, the hospitality industry thrives in Wilmington with many hotels, motels and lodges catering to Skiers, hikers and fisherman. With many people of the 21st century seeking to reconnect with the earth, residents of Wilmington and towns like it are increasingly extracting a living from the fields and forests. Farming, lumbering and maple syrup production are all seeing a boom in the Adirondacks. Approximately 1,100 people live in Wilmington year round in 460 households.   

The Ausable River

     The Ausable River begins at 4000 feet above sea level in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondack Mountains.  It traverses through mountainous terrain and exits spectacularly through a bedrock gorge known as Ausable Chasm. The Ausable River has two branches: the East Branch and the West Branch.

The Ausable River. Courtesy of Brendan Wiltse photography
      The West Branch (where Wilmington is located) arises from the confluence of South Meadow, Marcy and Indian Pass Brooks in the Adirondack High Peaks wilderness near the Adirondack Loj. The West Branch runs 36 miles to the town of Ausable Forks and is fed along the way by Lake Placid and the Chubb River. The source of East Branch of the Ausable River is Upper and Lower Ausable Lakes in the southern valley of the Great Range. The Great Range is 12 miles long and contains seven of the Adirondack high peaks, mountains in New York State at least 4,000 ft high. A hiking club, the Adirondack 46ers,  awards a patch for climbing all 46 of New York's high peaks. The 46ers are actively involved in many conservation and trail work projects, deeply committed to the forests and hikers of the Adirondack mountains. The East Branch is also fed by Cascade Brook on its way to Ausable Forks. The Ausable River is about 94 miles long and drains a watershed 516 square miles. The Ausable River drains into Lake Champlain north of the village of Port Kent, New York.

     The West Branch flows past John Brown's Farm and the Olympic Training Center before the Chubb River contributes its waters. Where the river passes the Whiteface Mountain ski resort, water is drawn from the river for the mountain's snow making operations. Soon after, it plunges through a series of wondrous falls known as High Falls Gorge. The West Branch of the Ausable is home to some of the finest fly fishing in the United States. Anglers catch many Brown, Brook and Rainbow Trout are each year and a number of guide services assist tourists in their catch.

The Ausable River. Courtesy of Brendan Wiltse photography
     In Wilmington, the river is dammed to control its flow which created Lake Everest, a center for village recreation.  The West Branch of the Ausable River presented both challenges and advantages to the village of Wilmington. The river was used by the early residents of Wilmington for transportation, logging and to power its industries.

      The Ausable River Association is a community conservation organization working to restore the river to it's original state while protecting it from the many environmental hazards facing our waterways today.

Ice skating on Lake Everest. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
The Wilmington Bridge

     The History of Wilmington, the Ausable River and the bridge over it are dramatically intertwined. Early development in the Hamlet of Wilmington was focused on the power drawn from the West Branch of the Ausable River. With homes and industry on both banks of the river, a bridge was essential to the village of Wilmington. 

1890's Wood and steel truss bridge. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
     At first the river was forded and crossed on simple bridges. A much more substantial wood and steel truss bridge was eventually built after many years battling the seasonal flooding and the damage it wrought.  Eventually an even sturdier steel truss bridge was built to serve the town.

1925 postcard, Steel truss bridge. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
In 1934-1935, the Wilmington Stone Bridge was built to handle the increased traffic as automobiles had become much more affordable and popular. This project, undertaken by the Works Progress Administration, complimented the construction of the Whiteface Memorial Highway. 

Wilmington Stone Bridge under construction. Courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society
    The bridge was a two-span, rigid frame, concrete arch structure, 160 feet in length, with rustic stone facing and balustrades. The use of locally quarried granite facing and parapet walls resulted in an attractive structure that blended with the picturesque setting. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Due to age and decay, it was replaced in 2015. 

The Wilmington Stone Bridge

The Wilmington Historical Society was an indispensable resource in the writing of this post. Its one of the finest historical societies in the Adirondacks. They recently published Wilmington and the Whiteface Region as part of the Images of America book series. The historic images in this post along with many more can be found in this incredible work. Order here directly from the Wilmington Historical society or buy online at the usual book sellers.


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Newspaper Articles (Listed chronologically by newspaper)

The Adirondack Post and Gazette, The Adirondack Post, The Adirondack Record-Elizabethtown Post.  Northern New York Historical Newspapers.  Accessed April, 2013

“Major Reuben Sanford,” Post and Gazette, 12 February, 1908.

“Supreme Court, Essex County against Whiteface Club (et al)”, Post and Gazette, 9 August,

“Foreclosure Sale (Hotel Olney property,” Post and Gazette, 11 January 1917.

Wilmington To Have Electric Lights,” Adirondack Record, 25 April, 1920.

“Big Blowout in Wilmington Saturday of This Week,” Record-Post, 11 June, 1920.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 29 July 1921.

Advertisement for “The Riverside,” formerly Hotel Olney, Wilmington,  Record-Post, 23 December, 1921.

Wilmington Certainly in the Foreground,” Record-Post, 5 May, 1922.

“Another Name Proposed for Wilmington Street,” Record-Post, 28 June, 1923.

“Incidents in History of the Adirondacks,” Record-Post, 16 October, 1924.

“Whiteface Mt. House to Open This Week Saturday,” Record-Post, 28 April, 1927.

Advertisement for “Whiteface Mountain House and Homestead,” Wilmington, N.Y. Record-Post, 23
August, 1928.

Advertisement for “Whiteface Mountain House and Homestead,” Wilmington, New York. Record-Post, 30
June, 1931.

Advertisement for “Whiteface Mt. House and Cottages,” Wilmington.  Record-Post, 1 October, 1931.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 5 October, 1933.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 9 August, 1934.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 27 September, 1934.

Souvenirs Whiteface Mountain Highway,” Record-Post, 24 June, 1937.

Advertisement for “Jolly Shop,” Wilmington, N.Y. Record-Post, 15 July, 1937.

“Frank Everest of Wilmington Died on Friday,” Record-Post, 5 August, 1937.

For Sale – 27 acres land in Wilmington village (Milo Richardson).  Record-Post, 24 March, 1938.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 5 May, 1938.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 3 November, 1938.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 10 November, 1938.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 25 May, 1939.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 22 June, 1939.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 31 August, 1939.

Wilmington News.  Record-Post, 18 July 1940.

“Mrs. May W. Bliss (obituary),” Record-Post, 24 July, 1941.

“J & J Rogers Co. In Pulp And Paper Industry 50 Years,”  Record-Post, 3 June, 1943.

“Whiteface Mt. House at Wilm’ton Opens May 28,” Record-Post, 28 May, 1953.

“New Building is Taking Shape as Old Resort at Wilm’ton Comes Down,” Record-Post, 2 August, 1956.

“Wm. O’Hare Buys Wilmington Inn at Wilmington,” Record-Post, 9 May, 1963.

Essex County Republican.  Northern New York Historical Newspapers.  Accessed April, 2013

                Mortgage Sale (Mallory’s Grant – property of Reuben Sanford), Essex County Republican, March-               September, 1849 (exact date unknown).

                State Tax Sale (Mallory’s Grant - Monroe Hall Saw Mill lot, Monroe Hall Hoosier lot), Essex County
                Republican, 19 September 1895,
                Wilmington.  Essex County Republican, 27 May, 1875.

Lake Placid News.  Northern New York Historical Newspapers.  Accessed April, 2013

“Lake Placid Awarded 1932 Winter Olmpics,” Lake Placid News, 12 April, 1929.

“Services for G.A.R. Veteran at Wilmington (Edwin Olney),” Lake Placid News, 12 December, 1930.

“Building Addition on the Homestead,” Lake Placid News, 13 November, 1936.

“G. Kelleher Opens Homestead Hotel,” Lake Placid News, 15 July, 1938.

“Wilmington Store is Looted by Thieves,” Lake Placid News, 24 May 1946.

“Phil Lewis Tells of Early Days at Wilmington,” Lake Placid News, 2 November, 1961.

Yesteryears (Wilmington photo essay).  Lake Placid News, 8 December, 1975

Wilmington to Vote Tuesday on Visitors Center Lease,” Lake Placid News, 27 July, 2001

“Placid Scene- What a difference a dam makes,” Lake Placid News, 8 July 2005.

“From 1932 to 1980: Dreamers did it,” Lake Placid News, 26 January, 2007.

The New York Times, New York, N.Y.  Accessed through New York State Library, April 2013.

                “A Success At Whiteface,”  The New York Times, 30 November, 1958.

Ticonderoga Sentinel.  Northern New York Historical Newspapers.  Accessed April,

                “Wilmington Hotel Burned,” Ticonderoga Sentinel, 23 March, 1911.

“Adirondack Hotel Sold,” Ticonderoga Sentinel, 24 April, 1924.


  1. On behalf of the Wilmington Historical Society, I would like to thank you for all your hard work on this project. It is a well-written overview of the history of our town of Wilmington. Thank you also for your kind words about the Wilmington Historical Society and our book "Wilmington and the Whiteface Region. ---Karen Peters, President Wilmington Historical Society

    1. Thanks so much for all the assistance on the interpretive sign when we were working on that part of this project! I'm glad for the opportunity to share what we learned :)

  2. Excellent write-up, Chris! A couple of trivia-items I would like to add in regards to Whiteface:

    1. When Ebenezer Emmons was on the summit of Whiteface, it is from there he saw, in the distance, the High Peak of Essex (Mount Marcy). Shortly afterward he would make his famous ascent of Mt Marcy on August 8, 1837

    2. When Emmons was on Whiteface, it was following barometric measurements of the peak's elevation (i.e. barometric hypsometry) that he discovered that Whiteface was higher than some peaks in the Catskills (Kaaterskill HP and Round Top, as I recall), which were previously thought to be the highest in NYS; at the time, Whiteface was thought to be a paltry 2,000+ ft in elevation!

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