By Renée S. Gordon
“Old John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save; But though he lost his life in struggling for the slave, His truth is marching on.” Anonymus.
High Peaks Byway, Route 73, is the Adirondacks scenic route that takes you into the Village of Lake Placid, one of only three cities in the world to have hosted the winter Olympics twice. Just as Ancient Greeks made stops at sacred sites to worship those traveling the route, you can pause and ponder the natural beauty of the picturesque ravines, valleys, mountains and waterfalls that flank the road. The highway bisects an extremely mountainous region of the Adirondacks and showcases the highest peaks in the region. High Peaks Byway is entirely within Essex County, one of the largest counties in the state and Lake Placid is 1,967-ft. above sea level at its highest elevation. www.dot.ny.gov/scenic-byways
North Elba is a township four miles southeast of Lake Placid, a village within that township. The area is referred to as Lake Placid/North Elba. It was established in the early days of the 1800s as a result of the discovery of iron ore in the vicinity. Lake Placid was part of the Adirondacks tourist boom in the late 19th-century and by 1900, Lake Placid was experiencing its “Golden Age,” with seven big hotels, numerous other accommodations and activities and great private camps.
Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, opened the Placid Park Club in 1895 and convinced the town to change its name to Lake Placid. In 1905, the club remained open at the end of the summer thus, helping the village to become known as a winter destination and the first winter resort in the country. Melvil’s son Godfrey was instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to select Lake Placid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics when he went alone to St. Moritz to convince the committee in 1928. www.lakeplacid.com
Seventeen sites are featured in Lake Placid’s “Main Street Walking Tour”. The first structures were built in the 1870s along Mirror Lake. The lake was once known as Bennet’s Pond but was renamed in 1870. Elijah and Rebecca Bennet were the first documented white settlers in the area. Elijah was crippled at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War and was given a pension with which he purchased two 200-acre lots from the state.
Pioneer Monument, located on the lake, pays homage to the Benjamin Brewster and Joseph Nash, early settlers of the area. The land upon which Main Street stands once belonged to Nash. The memorial is a small boulder with interpretive information etched on it.
St. Eustace Episcopal Church was originally constructed on Lake Street, and was known as St. Eustace-by-the-Lakes, in 1900. Twenty-six years later, the decision was made to move the church to its current location on Main St. The church was dismantled, the windows were removed and the timbers numbered. The church was reassembled with a stone tower replacing the original wooden one. This Gothic-Revival structure is situated atop a hill with panoramic views of the lake and the town. Beautiful stained-glass windows grace the interior with the most arresting being the three paneled St. Eustace Window. Eustace is the saint of hunters and it is believed he is memorialized in an unsigned Tiffany creation. www.steustace.org
Lake Placid Olympic Center was constructed in stages with the earliest, Neo-Classical section, designed by William Distin as the Olympic Arena in 1932. The Visitor Center is to the right of the arena with the 1980 arena, to the left. A popular belief is that Lake Placid is where “miracles are made” and you can feel its special aura as you near the Olympic complex. Visitors can experience the thrill of winter sports year round through public skating, and national and international competitions. Athletes continue to train here and one should not be surprised to encounter Olympic level competitors in casual settings.
The 1932 Winter Games were held February 4-15 and, because of international economic conditions, were attended by only 17 countries but were exciting nonetheless. These games were only the third Winter Games of the modern era. American Eddie Eagan earned the distinction of being the first person to win a gold medal at both the Winter and Summer Olympics in boxing and bobsledding. Two-man bobsled competition was introduced at the games and was won by American brothers. They heated the runners of their sled prior to the race, a practice that has since been banned. In 1980, Winter Games were the setting for “The Miracle on Ice,” the US men’s hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union. Daily 15-minute tours are offered.
The historic Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort has the best location in Lake Placid, on Mirror Lake and Main Street. The resort was the first in the nation to receive Audubon International’s Platinum Eco Rating for Hotels and has vigorously instituted a sustainable green program that includes everything from eco-friendly light bulbs to a 3,400-sq. ft. green roof and a crushed limestone beach.
Resort guests can take advantage of the private beach, night club, Sauna and Fitness Center. There are a wide selection of accommodations from deluxe rooms to family suites and pet friendly rooms. Generations, the resort’s restaurant, is open three meals a day and uses locally produced food. A number of specialty packages are offered with additions such as a Gondola Cruise on the lake, Adirondack Scenic Flight and he Total Olympic Experience. The Golden Arrow is celebrating its 40th anniversary of ownership by the Holdereid Family. During that time the resort has hosted many renowned guests including the Austrian National Ski Team. www.golden-arrow.com
A glass-enclosed elevator at the Olympic Jumping Complex whisks you to the observation deck of the K-120 (393.7-ft.) meter jump for outstanding views of the entire region. Visitors also tour the ski jumpers preparation room. www.whiteface.com
The Olympic Bobsled Experience is one for your bucket list. Visitors can join a professional driver aboard a bobsled and zip along the famous 1980 bobsled track. Reservations are required and must be made a minimum of 48-hours in advance. www.whiteface.com/activities/bobsled-experience
Lake Placid Toboggan Slide has been one of the village’s most popular sites since it opened in the 1960s. Toboggans take turns going down a 50-ft. high converted ski jump trestle and out, as far as 1,000-ft. depending on the ice, onto Mirror Lake. The chute operates from December to February depending on the weather. www.northelba.org/?page=government/park-district/toboggan-chute
Lake Placid Olympic Museum explores the history of the resort and the Winter Olympic Games of 1932 and 1980. It presents a brief, but thorough overview that adds considerably to your understanding of the region and its significance of winter sports.
As you enter the museum the first exhibit provides the history of the games. The original Olympic Games were held in Ancient Greece every four years in Olympia and can be documented to 776 BC. They continued until outlawed in 393 by Emperor Theodosius for being pagan rites. The games were dedicated to Zeus, their supreme god, and the final award ceremony took place in the vestibule of Zeus’ temple. All free Greek males were eligible to participate and the first recorded winner was Koroibos, an unassuming baker. Unmarried women could be spectators but married women could not, probably because all entrants competed in the nude. Any married woman caught attending the games was to be thrown off a cliff to her death. The games were revived in 1896 and held in Athens with 13 nations in attendance.
Highlights of the displays are a gallery of Sonja Henie’s costumes and photographs. The “Norwegian Doll” was the first winter athlete to capture the world’s attention and go on to a lucrative film career. The largest collection of Olympic torches outside of Switzerland is also on view. Interestingly this was originally a ritual and torchbearers carried the sacred flame to the altar of Zeus, running a distance of 2,500-meters, 1.55-miles. The 1936 first torch of the modern games, candle-lit, is displayed. www.whiteface.com/facilities/olympic-center/olympic-museum
Gerrit Smith purchased a large amount of land in Upstate NY and in 1846 he began selling farmland to African Americans in hopes that they could gain self-sufficiency. Plots were sold to 2,000 blacks, approximately 140,000-acres, for $1 per plot. Four hundred Blacks settled in the Lake Placid/ North Elba area in a settlement known as the “Freed Slave Utopian Experiment,” or Timbucto on 17,000-acres. John Brown heard about the venture and, being a farmer, came to North Elba in 1849 to volunteer his skills. He purchased 244-acres of land and moved into a small wooden cabin. The land was mountainous and the African Americans largely lacked the skills to be farmers and by 1855 only 10 families remained on the land. www.gerritsmith.org
Brown used the farm as a base but did not spend large amounts of time there. His wife and family resided there as he fought in Kansas and planned his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. www.northelba.org
On October 16, 1859 Brown and followers attacked the United States Arsenal. The goal was to obtain weapons to arm slaves in the South so they would have the means to rise up against their masters. On October 17th, word reached the citizens of Harpers Ferry and Washington, DC. Government troops under the command of Robert E. Lee arrived and found Brown and his men pinned down inside the armory.
On the 18th a wounded Brown and six of his men were captured and two of his sons and eight other men were killed. The captives were taken to Charlestown, Virginia for imprisonment and trial. Nine days later he went on trial for murder, conspiracy and treason. On November 2nd, the jury deliberated 45-minutes before finding him guilty on all counts and sentencing him to hanged in public on December 2nd. He was pronounced dead at 11:50 AM on the 2nd.
The John Brown Farm State Historic Site is located a few miles from Main Street in Lake Placid. The farm’s tranquil setting belies the significance of the man who lived there. The four room farmhouse, built in 1955 by Brown’s son-in-law Henry Thompson, is the second on-site., replacing a log house. Furnishings date from the era but only a bootjack is known to have belonged to Brown. Guided tours of the house are regularly scheduled.
A short distance away is the barn. It features interpretive information on regional Adirondacks, African American history. An excellent 15-minute video is shown on request, “Northward to Freedom.” The film relates first person narratives of fugitives who arrived in the area. Most escaped along Blackman’s Road, now known as North Star Road. The most poignant tale is that of a woman who gave birth to twins while fleeing. She ran away several times, was caught, returned and severely punished. Finally her owner beat her, slit her ears, branded her on her stomach and hand and cut off her finger. The punishment was so horrifying that the owner’s wife helped her escape. This film is intense but it is a must-see.
The family cemetery is located adjacent to the farmhouse. It contains the graves of John Brown, his two sons and some of his followers whose graves were relocated to this cemetery in 1899. A large boulder and iron fence denote the location. After Brown’s execution, his wife brought his body here for internment. His son Watson’s body was originally given to a medical college in Winchester where it was used as an anatomical specimen until the Union Army took possession of it. Interpretive plaques have been placed around the farm and in the cemetery that interpret the site, the events and the individuals.
On May 9, 1935, a 6-ton commemorative sculpture by Joseph Pollia was unveiled on the farm. The bronze sculpture is more than 8-ft. tall, on a granite base and depicts Brown and an African American boy. The John Brown Memorial Association, an African American group, provided the funding. Lyman Epps Jr., a Lake Placid resident sang at the 1935 event. Epps had been a soloist in 1859 at John Brown’s funeral.
The 1824 Colonial Essex County Courthouse in Elizabethtown, NY housed Brown’s body on the evening of December 6, 1859. His wife stayed in the Mansion House Hotel, directly across the street, as a four-man honor guard, Henry Adams, Richard Hand, Orlando Kellogg and A. C. Livingston stood watch over the body. The funeral cortege set out again on the 7th and reached North Elba in the early evening.
“John Brown’s Trial at Charlestown, Virginia” by David Lithgow hangs in the courtroom. This massive, 6 x 9-ft. painting features a courtroom scene from the trial including both the defense and prosecuting attorneys. It debuted on December 11, 1923. Visitors are allowed into the courtroom and it is much as it was in 1859. www.co.essex.ny.us
Lake Placid has it all and you can experience it year round. Information on all the sites and attractions is available online so you can craft a very special experience. Tour like an Olympian. www.iloveny.com
I wish you smooth travels!
*This song was originally written about a Scotsman of the same name. Julia Ward Howe used the tune for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.