The earliest maps of the Adirondacks weren’t of the Adirondacks at all.
Explorers and settlers and military strategists circled in on what is today’s great state park, but for hundreds of years the Adirondacks remained a black box of wilderness.
One of the earliest published maps of the greater Adirondack region — dating to 1556 — was derived by a Latin mapmaker from the travels of earlier explorers who had mapped and detailed parts of the Northeast. Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where, standing atop Mount Royal, he looked south to see the Adirondack mountains bulging from the earth’s surface.
“Parte incognito,” the map labeled the Adirondacks. Parts unknown.
By 1756, those parts were slightly better known but still deemed off limits to anyone who might find use in a map of the area.
“This Country by reason of Mountains, Swamps and Drowned Lands is unpassable and uninhabited,” read a map published in British newsmagazines during the French and Indians Wars, which focused some fighting in the Lake George-Lake Champlain corridor.
British soldiers carried similar maps in their saddle bags as they maneuvered throughout the area.
“At the very beginning, the Adirondacks were unknown,” said Caroline Welch, who, along with father Cal Welch, both of Scotia, helped curate a new exhibit of Adirondack maps at Union College’s Kelly Adirondack Center in Niskayuna called “Parts But Little Known: Maps of the Adirondacks from 1556.”
The former home of renowned Adirondacks advocate and conservationist Paul Schaefer makes a fitting place for an exhibit of Adirondack maps. Anchored by the floor-to-ceiling Adirondack Park relief map that Schaefer and his friends devoted thousands of hours to producing, the exhibit unfolds along thematic lines in the house’s different rooms: war maps, transportation, resource development (think timber) and eventually tourism and recreation.
The exhibit includes around 30 maps — new and old, mint and ragged. The majority came from Union’s collections, but the oldest maps are on loan from a private collection.
One map shows the dozens of square plots laid out for the grand vision of Rhode Islander John Brown, who bought over 200,000 acres of Adirondack wilderness sight unseen. He planned to convert the land to a center of commerce and production, doling out township names like Perseverance, Sobriety, Enterprise and Economy.
“The joke was he actually spent the most money on Economy and got the least out of it,” said Margie Amodeo, who works at the Kelly Center.
Another map, which Schaefer commissioned, is a hand-drawn rendering of the logging trends in the park. Based on timber company records and other open-source documents and maps, each lake in the park is stenciled in blue pencil while green, light green and yellow mark the condition of the forest — never logged, logged, softwoods logged only, burned.
Maps produced by famed landscape photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard make an appearance as well.
The exhibit delves into the decades-long effort by Verplanck Colvin to truly map the Adirondack, just as discussions about preserving the region — even if only to protect water sources and canals — were heating up. In the late 1800s, Colvin and his crew of cartographers trudged through the wild with long chains, triangulating locations to peaks and valleys through painstakingly slow calculations.
As the state took a bigger role in the region, and more and more people flocked there to stake out homesteads or camps or just to visit, the importance of accurate maps continued to grow.
Even the outline of the park itself has changed dramatically over the years — as maps can attest. The exhibit showcases the six times the Blue Line has moved since the park was established 125 years ago.
The maps also reach into the personal. A topographic map of the High Peaks region includes hand-drawn lean-to locations and notes scribbled in the margins: “About here, at the foot of the Gorge, is Gorge Camp, where we may spend the first night.” The map was owned by Kay Dockstader, one of the earliest Adirondack 46ers, No. 41.
“The notes in the margins, the folds, it’s a really well-loved map,” Cal Welch said.
Canoe routes, snowmobile trails and the tourism maps of Lake George village dished out at visitor centers and motels all make an appearance.
Taken together, the maps spell out the history of the park — from the cartographic fringes to the center of a thriving effort to trace trails, streams, railroads and the outlines of old-growth, recently cut and century-old forest. But the maps also tell the story in a way that only maps can. Cal Welch said the goal of the exhibit was to let each map “speak for itself.” His daughter went a step further.
“Maps show you the story,” she said. “They are not telling you, they are showing you. It’s fascinating to see what they knew and what they didn’t know, what they understood and didn’t understand and how the knowledge developed over time.”
The exhibit runs until September. Visitors can drop by the Kelly Center between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and between 1 and 4 p.m. Thursdays. A special opening will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 10 for people who can’t make it during the week.