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.


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.).


Big Moose is striking for its almost total lack of intrusive architecture. This is particularly notable in light of so much being in private hands. Most structures are dark green or brown, and keep a low profile. Nowhere are there large breaks in the landscape. Many of the boathouses, including a brown-shingled 1885 creation that claims title to being the oldest, add to the scenery.

Some camps are accessible only by water. A boat launch serves these owners as well as members of the general public seeking a day's outing. Boats also come in handy for residents of Echo Island, the one habitable island within the lake's perimeter.

There's a "browse line" around the shore. This grooming phenomenon comes courtesy of the deer who graze the forest from the lake's frozen winter surface. We spotted a loon teaching its young baby to dive. Apparently, there were two chicks a week earlier, but one fell victim to a snapping turtle. Our guide also told us about a rock on which Theodore Roosevelt allegedly carved his initials.

Entering East Bay brought us by Pine Tree Point. From 1892 until 1963, scouts traveled by train to this location to work on trails and lean-tos. From there, it's a mere 6 miles to Raquette Lake, at least by water. Those relying on automobile must travel 20 miles. Steep slopes and ledge rock on East Bay make development difficult. Our guide pointed to one camp high atop the hill, telling us, "I'm told it's 98 steps down to the water, and 250 back up."

By now, some of us had grown to like the lake enough to inquire about the availability of camps. Most are in third- or fourth-generation ownership, we were told, and change hands relatively rarely. It's understandable that those fortunate enough to have homes here would want to keep them.

Oh, yes, that murder. Chester Gillette brought Grace Brown by train to Tupper Lake on that fateful weekend in 1906. The pair came to Big Moose Lake the next day. Chester rented a guide boat, and the two drifted out to South Bay.

The conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, but prosecutors successfully argued that Gillette pushed Brown out of the boat, then he swam away. In any event, he was soon apprehended at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, about 10 miles distant.

"If I were going to commit a murder," our guide confided, "I'd have gone a lot further."

Following our tour, we had dinner at Big Moose Inn, a short walk from the marina. Built by a guide in 1903 as a hunting lodge, it's a quintessentially Adirondack place. Our waiter told us duck was his favorite item on the menu. I took his advice and found it delicious. The same held for Marty's osso buco, served with risotto. We also liked our salads with the house dressing, a French vinaigrette with blue cheese crumbles.

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