Chateaugay Lake and its First Summer Visitors, by Henry Ruschmeyer

The development of the Chateaugay Lakes as a summer resort closely paralleled the various phases of the Adirondack resort era in general.(1) During the years 1865-1917, the Adirondacks enjoyed a flourishing summer civilization unique in the annals of American resort life. The Adirondack resort era went through three phases of development. It changed from a favorite spot for sportsmen, artists, and intellectuals to a playground for the rich who stayed at large hotels and built luxury camps. At Chateaugay Lake where these changes in resort life came more slowly than to the more accessible resort communities in the central and southern Adirondacks, the three phases of resort development are perhaps more clearly defined.

Moreover, the Chateaugay Lakes never enjoyed the popularity and summer business of these larger resort areas to the south. Poor and slowly developed transportation facilities were partly to blame. There was no large, steady summer clientele to support any sizable hotels until the 1870s. In 1869, when Paul Smith’s hotel on St. Regis Lake, sixty miles south of the Chateaugay Lakes, was being called the “St. James of the Wilderness,” Darius Merrill was converting his primitive hunting lodge on the upper lake into a small family hotel. It was the first hotel on the upper lake and had accommodations for twenty-five guests. The only other hotel on the lake at this time was operated by Lewis Bellows. Located on the lower lake the hotel catered to a small clientele of sportsmen and their families.

With the discovery of iron-ore in the 1870s at Lyon Mountain, four miles from the upper lake, and the subsequent construction of a Catalan forge at the lower lake to smelt the ore, adequate roads and railroads were finally extended to Chateaugay Lake. But the iron-ore industry was a mixed blessing for the resort movement on the lake. While summer visitors were provided with better transportation routes to reach the hotels and camps on the lake, large areas of timberland around the lake were either flooded or cut down. This devastation of the forests by the iron-ore interests created an eyesore to summer visitors for many years. Consequently, some people were discouraged from visiting Chateaugay Lake, further retarding the development of the area as a popular summer resort.

Nevertheless, the Chateaugay Lakes continued a modest growth during this early formative period after the Civil War. An increasing number of visitors came to the area each summer. By the late 1880’s there were four well-established hotels on the lake and a number of private camps. Steamer service was instituted in the 1860’s and continued to cater to the needs of hotel guests and campers around the lake until 1917.

By 1900 the golden age of the resort industry had dawned at Chateaugay Lake. Five hotels catered to a large, lucrative summer clientele. Four trains a day stopped at Lyon Mountain and the “Gap,” a station on the upper lake, bringing guests from Montreal and the Atlantic coast cities. Famous and prominent people of the day stayed at the hotels and built luxury camps on the lake shore. The artists and sportsmen who were predominant at the lake thirty to forty years earlier were now out-numbered by show people and wealthy businessmen. Up until the outbreak of the First World War Chateaugay Lake continued to grow and prosper as a popular resort among these pleasure seekers. Like many of the people who visited the lake during its history as a summer resort, they sought a quiet, secluded retreat free of the cares and tensions of city life. These people found such a place at Chateaugay Lake.

Even before the coming of the first white settlers in 1816, Chateaugay Lake was early destined to be a summer resort. Indian tribes of disputed origin spent their summers at the lake beginning in pre-Revolutionary years. Indian artifacts found on the beaches along the lake indicate that Indians camped there for many years prior to the arrival of the first white man.(2) Although no trace of buildings or fireplaces indicating the existence of an Indian village were ever found, numerous flint arrows and spearheads as well as the remains of crude pottery were uncovered around the lake after 1816. In the 1880s Dick Shutts, proprietor of the Indian Point House on the upper lake, discovered large amounts of pottery in the waters off his hotel. “One theory is that this early race may have established a temporary camp used annually when they came to catch and smoke whitefish. The water was famous in early days for the quantity and quality of whitefish,…”(3)

One source believes that the Montagnais Indians, a roving tribe of Algonquins who lived along the St. Lawrence River, spent their summers in the Chateaugay Lake region where they hunted and fished.(4) A more romantic account of these first summer visitors at Chateaugay Lake was told to Darius Merrill, owner of the Merrill House on the upper lake. Late in the fall of 1876 an elderly gentleman accompanied by “six bright college men” came to stay at Darius Merrill’s hotel. They were from Delaware County, New York. According to the elderly gentleman a group of Delaware Indians used to take hunting and fishing trips in the Adirondacks each summer after the War of 1812. The man’s grandfather accompanied them on one of these summer trips; they traveled up past the Fulton Chain of lakes to Upper Chateaugay Lake. The white man and his Indian friends camped near the Sandbar on the upper lake; years later numerous artifacts were found on this beach. The Owlyout Creek near the head of the upper lake was named supposedly by the man’s grandfather; “Owlyout” was an Indian word which translated meant “Great Trout Breeder.” Before his death the grandfather asked his grand-son to travel someday to this beautiful lake in the Adirondacks and to find out if the creek named by him still was called the “Owlyout.” Darius Merrill assured the elderly gentleman that the creek he referred to was known by that name. Several days later the elderly gentleman and the “six bright college men” left the lake never to return again.(5)

Groups of Indians continued to come to Chateaugay Lake in the summer even after the arrival of the first white settlers in 1816. Whether these Indians were related to the earlier Algonquin and Delaware groups who left traces of campsites at Indian Point and the Sandbar on the upper lake is uncertain. The last Indians left Chateaugay Lake in the late nineteenth century. Several geographical features around the lake bear Indian names continuing the memory of the area’s first summer visitors. The Owlyout Creek on the upper lake has already been mentioned. There was also Indian Point and Squaw Island, both on the upper lake. Allegedly, an Indian squaw was buried on Squaw Island, for whom it was named. The Indians also left the lake with a legend about a lead mine located somewhere in the mountains between Chateaugay and Loon Lakes. At this mine the Indians obtained lead for their spearheads and weapons. No one has ever found the mine for the Indians kept it a guarded secret.(6)

1) The Chateaugay Lakes are located in the northern Adirondacks, twenty miles from Canada. They are a body of water twelve miles long, composed of two main lakes, the upper and the lower, connected by a river called the Narrows. The lakes run north and south, the lower lake being the most northerly of the two. The Chateaugay Lakes originate at the Springs, five miles from the head of the upper lake. The waters of the lakes flow north into the Chateaugay River, and eventually into the St. Lawrence River, below Montreal.

The origins of the name “Chateaugay” is much disputed. According to Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester in Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness (Troy, 1872), “the Chateaugay [river] , whose old Indian name was O-sar-he-hon, a narrow gorge, and which rises in the lake of the same name, runs into the St. Lawrence near Montreal. It was named for a chateau called gay chateau, or château-gai, that stood on the bank of the St. Lawrence, at its mouth.”

Another source, Aboriginal Place Names of New York by William M. Beauchamp (Albany, 1908), maintains that the word is of Indian, not French, origin. At the New York State Historical Society Meeting, 1921, Honorable Samuel Jones said:

The true name is Chateuaga which was the name given the town when first erected, but I remember one of the members of the Assembly then observed to me that the town would soon lose its name, for that it was of Indian origin, and very few of the members of the Legislature gave it the proper pronunciation, the most of them calling it ‘Chateaugay.’

2) D. S. Kellogg, “A Day Off,” Forest Leaves, vol. I (Spring, 1904), 4–7. This article describes a trip to the Sandbar on Upper Chateaugay Lake in search of Indian artifacts.

3) Chateaugay Record, January 7, 1955 [from a scrapbook—no page no. given].

4) Morton Cross Fitch, History of Ragged Lake (New York, 1933), p. 2 (mimeographed).

5) Malone Evening Telegram [from a scrapbook—no date, no page nos. given—Charles E. Merrill, “The Old Guide Story,” copyrighted 1930, chapter 70.

6) Malone Evening Telegram [from a scrapbook—no date, no page nos. given—Charles E. Merrill, chapter 49.

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3 thoughts on “Chateaugay Lake and its First Summer Visitors, by Henry Ruschmeyer”

  1. William H. Spear is my Great Grand Uncle and Milton Chesmore married my GrGrand Aunt Dorothy, Zipporah Spear also a GrGrand Aunt married Nathaniel Collins. The Spear children’s parents where Silas and Anna Hardy Spear, they are my 2nd GrGrandparents. Anna Hardy’s sisters married : Dorcas to Labon Harris and Hannah to William D. Rounds. My Grandmother Bessie Leanna Spear married a Hockenberry, her mother was Louisa Begor.
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  2. Mr. Ruschmeyer ..do you have any information on Camp Jack owned by Jack Clifford. He was my great uncle. I know a lot about his life, especially with Evelyn Nesbitt..and I saw the picture that is posted of the camp on this site, but if you have more, or know how my family can learn more about the camp..we would appreciate it. Thank you, Lee Hartel Feld

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  3. Very nice write-up on early summer visitors. My Great Grandfather was born in Brainardsville in 1873, Thomas Charles Seely. His Father, John Seely, migrated from down river in Hinchinbrook, Quebec and married Mary Ann Miller Sellers daughter of Thomas Sellers who is berried in the Brainardsville Cemetery. I would love to see some stories related to those people that migrated to the lower Chateaugay Lake area for work at the Potash and saw mills. Also what is the best source for vital documents for early settlers in the area?

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