Schenectady County

Union College offering treasure trove of conservation

The Moose River Plains, an 80,000-acre expanse of wetlands and rolling hills, forest lands, river va
Abi Simkovic currator of the Adirondack Exhibit in the Schaffer Library at Union College looks up at photographer Paul Schaefer Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
Abi Simkovic currator of the Adirondack Exhibit in the Schaffer Library at Union College looks up at photographer Paul Schaefer Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

The Moose River Plains, an 80,000-acre expanse of wetlands and rolling hills, forest lands, river valleys and countless brooks, streams and ponds in the Adirondack wilderness, was once almost lost.

“Here is a land roughly forty miles long by twenty-five miles wide, dotted with lakes and ponds and threaded with rivers and streams,” environmental activist Paul Schaefer wrote in a letter on a “vital Adirondack issue.”

He wrote the region was “a land of vast distances and solitude” yet “surprisingly accessible” by foot or horseback. “The mountains are not tall, but present rounding contours which dip gracefully into the myriad lakes and ponds of every description,” the letter continued. “Spruce and balsam dominate the long reaches of valley, with pine and hardwoods covering the ridges and hills.”

At a glance

• Learn more about the “Grassroots Activism and the American Wilderness” exhibit and archives on a guided tour at 12:50 Wednesday at Schaffer Library

• The official opening of the exhibit will be at Schaffer Library in the Lally Reading Room Wednesday at 5.

But in 1945, when Schaefer and Edmund Richard penned that letter, the plains were slated to be flooded over, hydroelectric dams and massive reservoirs replacing the natural splendor that inspired Schaefer to devote his life to protecting the Adirondacks.

Since the early 1900s, plans to dam Adirondack streams and create nearly 40 reservoirs throughout the region had quietly worked their way through the state bureaucracy. The Black River Regulating District was formed in 1919 and, laden with power industry officials, given expansive jurisdiction over the vast Moose River Plains. With little scrutiny, the district earned state approval to move ahead with a dam.

That was until Schaefer, conservationist and Niskayuna resident, stumbled onto illegal logging at the dam site near Panther Mountain in 1944. He caught wind of the dam plans and waged a successful battle that lasted over a decade but ultimately killed the dam project and won even greater protections for the Adirondacks he loved.

Now, researchers and hobbyists, students and visitors to Union College can dig deep into Schaefer’s Moose River Wars and the environmental battles of his life and the life of his mentor, John Apperson Jr., who laid the activist groundwork that guided Schaefer.

The papers, many thousands of letters, photographs, audio recordings, legal filings and more, of both men have been meticulously processed and archived by Union College over the past two years.

The archive, which totals 210 cubic feet of material and includes tens of thousands of photographs, spans over 100 years from 1878 to 1996. With the help of a Council on Library and Information Resources grant, Union spent the last two years sorting and cataloging the extensive collections.

Over 500 photos and documents were digitized and made available online with a series of digital exhibits that bring together some of the main historical themes elucidated by the materials. The archive was organized and is now available to researchers at the Kelly Adirondack Center in Niskayuna, and an exhibit that summarizes the life and times of Apperson and Schaefer will be housed at Schaffer Library on the Union campus for the rest of the year.

Archivist Abigail Simkovic managed the project with help from undergraduate students and library staff.

Apperson, who worked as an engineer at General Electric and lived in Schenectady until his death in 1963, was a pioneer in Adirondack recreation, creating the sport of ski-sailing (like wind sailing but on ice skates) and recording many of the region’s first summits on skis — Mount Marcy, Mount Haystack, Whiteface and more. As he explored the mountains, rivers, woods and lakes of New York’s North Country, with particular interest in Lake George and its many islands, he lugged a 5-pound camera on his long backpacking and canoe trips. (But it was the glass-plate negatives, packing materials and tripod that would have weighed him down, Simkovic said.)

“He photographed everything,” Simkovic said of Apperson. “He used them to convey what the Adirondacks are and why they are worth protecting.”

Apperson, never married, was so fond of Lake George he is known to have called it his “mistress.”

“He once said he never married because Lake George was his wife and the islands their children,” Simkovic said. “That’s how dedicated to the region he became.”

But his love of the region went far beyond play. Apperson was a fierce advocate of the Adirondacks, fighting to strengthen its protection. He battled squatters — both rich and poor — on the shores of Lake George. (He was even fired from GE for angering the wrong executive but was later rehired thanks to the help of his close friend and star GE chemist Irving Langmuir.)

Apperson, who moved to Schenectady in 1900 for a job at GE, worked hard to hold the erosion that destroyed about half of Lake George’s islands at bay, creating rip-rap on their shores one rock at a time. He hosted rip-rapping parties, demanding guests bring a rock with them, and then spending the afternoons enjoying the Lake George waters after a little anti-erosion work. He created a network of allies — Adirondack landowners and lawmakers — by sharing his photos and penning personal letters, all in support of what he called his religion: conservation.

The archives cover some of the most significant historical terrain of the conservation movement in the 20th century. Just as Apperson was a mentor to Schaefer, Schaefer was a mentor to Howard Zahniser, who penned the 1964 federal Wilderness Act, which guaranteed the preservation of massive swaths of land, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Letters between the two and with countless other conservationists will interest researchers around the country, Simkovic said.

“Pretty much anyone you can think about in the world of conservation in the last century is connected to these papers,” she said.

Even Theodore Roosevelt, America’s adventurer-president and a born and bred New Yorker, makes an appearance in the archives — possibly. As the archivists sorted through thousands of photographs of unnamed campers and outdoor enthusiasts, Simkovic came across a father-daughter pair that stood out to her. She had worked in the New York State Library and helped process Roosevelt archives.

“I have become very familiar with [Roosevelt’s] face and the faces of his family, so the faces popped out,” Simkovic said. “Actually, the little girl’s face stood out, because Ethel Roosevelt had a very distinctive scowl.”

Find the digital collection at or visit Schaffer Library or the Kelly Center to learn more about the archives.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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