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July 4, 2010

Moose Lake: Serene, rustic with a tragic past

Literary legend has it that writer Theodore Dreiser scoured newspapers for several years looking for a crime to be the basis of a novel on strife between upper and lower economic classes.

One suspects he would have found ample material in America's large cities. Instead, he focused on a murder perpetrated in a remote area of the Adirondacks.

Chester Gillette was accused in 1906 of killing his girlfriend Grace Brown, whose pregnancy threatened his continued pursuit of a wealthy new flame. Prosecutors alleged he pushed her out of a rowboat on Big Moose Lake, leaving her to drown.

The trial, held in Herkimer County Courthouse, became a media event, in essence the "trial of the century," before "trials of the century" become so remarkably commonplace. Journalists from throughout the country converged on the small Mohawk Valley village to report the proceedings. Gillette, convicted of first-degree murder, died in the electric chair at Auburn Prison in 1908.

STRING OF COTTAGES

Take a look at your New York state map. Note the strange shape of Herkimer County. The county seat is at the southern boundary, on the Mohawk River. A thin northern sliver of the county is a world away, as much now as it was then. Much of the latter remains Adirondack wilderness, dotted by such small resort towns as Old Forge.

If one turns north at Eagle Bay, the road continues to Big Moose Lake. And it's here where Gillette committed the crime for which he was put to death. My wife, Marty, and I took a scenic boat ride from Dunn's Marina to learn a bit more. Ten other passengers joined us on a 1955 mahogany Chris Craft for the outing.

Nothing suggests this was once such a notorious spot. In fact, the 4-mile-long lake is as pretty and peaceful a place as one could desire for a summer retreat. Serenity, however, does not mean the place has been undiscovered.

The first settler was a man named James Higby, who arrived in 1876. At first he built a single lean-to, a site now marked by a gazebo. Others soon followed. However, our guide told us, these early arrivals were technically squatters on land owned by W. Seward Webb.

Webb, whose massive land holdings in the Adirondacks included Great Camp Nehasane and Lake Lila, and who also built Shelburne Farm in Vermont, proved tolerant but businesslike. Squatters could purchase the land and stay. Or they could leave.

Some, like Higby, took the deal. He constructed the Higby Club, a hotel complete with dance hall and bowling alleys. Rebuilt and enlarged by his son Roy after a fire in 1920, it closed for good by the 1960s. Local fire departments were given the buildings for controlled burning and training exercises.

The Waldheim, still in operation, dates to 1904. Owned by the fourth generation of the Martin family, it includes a string of cottages along the shore of North Bay. A "fire boy" continues the tradition of getting up daily to light a blaze for each hearth. Once the Martin property ends, so does road access. Beyond that, the forest remains "forever wild."

The Covey family made its mark on Big Moose, beginning when Henry Covey (also a squatter before buying most of the shore of South Bay) built Camp Crag around 1880. A couple of early Covey homes still stand. Son Earl developed Covewood in 1925. A series of camps, many notable for their vertical log construction style, hugs the shore. Covewood continues to welcome visitors every summer. (Another Earl Covey creation, the Big Moose Community Chapel, completed in 1930, deserves a visit while you're in the area.).

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