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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 6, 2011

Climbing back in time on the Indian Ladder trail,
A journey made by Mahicans, pioneers, farmers, and tourists

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — Timothy Albright and Laura Ten Eyck love the Helderbergs. As kids, they played on its cliffs, and, as grown-ups, they have each worked at the farm that bears the name of the Helderbergs’ famous trail — Indian Ladder.

Now, they’ve put together a book that, with many pictures and few carefully chosen words, tells the history and records the natural beauty of the area.

Part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, the book is called John Boyd Thacher State Park and the Indian Ladder Region.

Albright, a large, bearded man with a gentle manner, takes obvious delight in watching the changing face of the escarpment from his home at its base. He describes with relish how he and his wife watched the tumultuous falls after the recent rains of Tropical Storm Irene. “Susan and I were almost giddy with laughter, the way the water was bounding about,” he said. “People ask, ‘Is that the wind?’ No, it’s the water crashing down.”

Albright grew up at the end of Martin Road Extension. “In the summer,” he recalled, “my parents would say, ‘Go out and play in the forest.’ We were drawn to the crevices and cliffs…We would follow the Lower Bear Path to Glen Dune…We’d go swimming up in the park.”

Albright’s interest in local history, like his love of the land, began in his youth. When he was 13, he researched New Scotland’s past and entered a drawing that won a contest to become the town seal. The seal has a thistle to represent the town’s Scottish roots, a windmill for its Dutch heritage, and the Indian Ladder for the native Mahicans that lived here before the Europeans arrived. “The original had a settler greeting an Indian,” said Albright. Later, the town added a slogan to his design, which is still used today.

Laura Ten Eyck grew up in the shadow of the escarpment, too, but it was so much a part of the backdrop of her life, she said, she didn’t notice it when she was little. Her family’s Indian Ladder Farms lies at the base of the escarpment in New Scotland and is part of the book.

She recounted her awakening to its beauty.

“We came back from a long trip,” she recalled. “There was a bad storm. We were at the farm and we could hear the waterfall raging. I looked at it and thought, oh, my God.”

The Ten Eycks own property at the top of the escarpment as well. “My grandfather had a funky motor home from the 1950s that he parked at the edge of the cliff to make a camp where we could spend the night,” Ten Eyck recalled. To make it safe for the grandchildren, he surrounded the property with a chain-link fence. “It was sort of like a giant playpen at the edge of the cliff,” she said, noting that she and her husband returned to the “playpen” when they had a child of their own.

“It’s totally different looking out over the farm from up there,” she said, “than it is being at the bottom looking up.”

As a teenager, Ten Eyck started hiking in the Helderbergs with a group of friends that included Albright and Dietrich Gehring, the man who would become her husband.

“On Senior Skip Day, Grant Anderson had a party at his house. We hiked while everyone else was partying,” she recalled with a laugh.

Building a book

The book’s first chapter outlines the prehistoric history of the region — describing the Helderberg as a plateau of limestone, sandstone, and shale deposited by a prehistoric sea 400 million years ago — and moves quickly through the history of the early Dutch settlers in the 1600s, the Revolutionary War, and the Anti-Rent Wars, concluding with the Indian Ladder. First, the ladder was probably a notched tree; later, a narrow roadway blasted out by Hilltown farmers, and then a trail for tourists seeking wilderness in newly industrialized America.

The middle chapters focus on the boats, trains, horse-drawn wagons, and finally automobiles that brought visitors to the Helderbergs, and on John Boyd Thacher himself as well as the land he amassed that was made into a public park.

The final three chapters center on the communities and commerce that thrived because of Thacher Park — the lakes, the camps, and the nearby sights and attractions.

Albright had amassed photos of the park since 1984. “I wanted to share them,” he said.

How did Ten Eyck get involved? “Tim asked me,” she said.

As longtime friends, they worked well together. Albright collected all the pictures. Ten Eyck wrote the introduction and the captions for the first chapter. Albright wrote all the other captions — carefully, by hand. Ten Eyck typed them on the computer and her husband, a photographer, helped her scan all the pictures.

Pictures of 19th-Century tourists posing by the replica Indian Ladder were frequent, and the pair had to pick the best. “We tried to have a variety,” said Ten Eyck. “Most of the best pictures of the cliff are vertical.”

One of the hardest parts was finding pictures of John Boyd Thacher, surprising since he was a public figure — Albany’s mayor, a New York State senator, and a United States congressman, as well as a candidate for governor.

The search for pictures, in both private and public places, had some twists and turns. For example, Albright thought he’d find lots of pictures at the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but came up dry there. Instead, he discovered that the Department of Environmental Conservation had overseen the park until the 1970s, and there he found a treasure trove. “The DEC was very helpful,” said Albright. “They still have the photos today.”

The photographs of Charles Bouck White’s hand-built castle in New Scotland were found at the Knox Historical Association, and the pictures from the old Helderberg Ski Club were found with the New Scotland Historical Society.

Another problem was having too much rich material. “We had to sacrifice the camps and hotels,” said Ten Eyck.

The ones that were chosen are titillating. John Engle, the proprietor of Engle’s Fur Trading Post on Warner’s Lake, for example, poses with his trained bear, taken from the wilderness. Engle and his bear — not visibly harnessed or muzzled — share a rustic bench as the bear leans amiably against Engle.

“The story is much larger than the book,” said Albright.


With Thacher Park’s centennial on the horizon, in 2014, Albright said, “We wanted to get out in front of that. We wanted people to learn about its history. A half a million people used to frequent the park every year.”

The book, for example, shows a mid-20th-Century scene of the crowded Olympic-size pool that was dismantled under direction of the Pataki administration to make way for a water park, never built. On Independence Day weekend, in 1955, the book reports, over 8,000 people swam in the cliff-top pool.

Albright and Ten Eyck started their work on the book before 2010 when the park was threatened with closure because of the state’s financial crisis. The public rallied to keep it open. “Today’s state residents,” writes Ten Eyck in the book’s introduction, “continue to find themselves charged with the responsibility of protecting this scrap of ancient wilderness and ensuring their access to land that was permanently preserved for public use.”

Promotion of the park has been neglected, said Ten Eyck.

“The people working there do a fine job with what they have,” said Albright.

“But it’s been starved,” concluded Ten Eyck.

Ten Eyck described the park and some other pieces of undeveloped property at the base of the escarpment — like her family’s Indian Ladder Farms and the Heldeberg Workshop — as pieces of a giant puzzle.  “Some of the really big pieces are safe and some are in play,” she said. Despite the current funding crisis, she said, “There’s a lot of interest in land conservation in his area.”

After years of working at Indian Ladder Farms, Ten Eyck now works for American Farmland Trust to protect New York’s farmland from suburban sprawl. Indian Ladder Farms itself in 2003, with Ten Eyck’s help, obtained an agricultural easement, working with the state’s Farmland Protection Program, the Open Space Institute, and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, that means it will remain forever farmland.

Ten Eyck particularly credited the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy for its work.

“It builds off the park,” she said of conservation efforts, “and makes an excellent wildlife corridor…We have bears, coyotes, bobcats. They have a big swath of land to traverse.”

She hopes the book will draw attention to the need for preservation in the area.

Worth more than 1,000 words

Although the captions tell clearly and often with painstaking detail the story of a bygone era — girls at Camp Pinnacle early in the last century, for example, were asked to bring “pillow slips, towels, napkins and napkin rings, a pair of rubbers, a warm wrap, a heavy blanket, and comfortable clothing for the out-of-door life” —it is the book’s pictures that leave a lasting impression.

The cover depicts four women (in midi dresses) and four men (in suits with neckties) posing before the entrance to Hailes’ Cavern. The rock face at the cave’s opening is covered with the carved names of visitors, including Professor Theodore C. Hailes’s himself. “Some of that graffiti is here today,” said Albright, noting the cave is now off limits to the public. Although, since the book’s release, the park manager has already gotten inquiries about it, Albright said.

Ten Eyck’s favorite pictures are those from the Anderson family, who live at the base of the escarpment in New Scotland. “He was an artist…His photos have structure, and he paid attention to the light,” she said.

She particularly likes an Anderson photograph that looks like a painting. It shows the silhouetted back of two Anderson men, looking out from the Fallen Rocks on the face of the cliff. The men wear bowler hats, typical of the early 20th Century

They stand like bookends to a woman, the light outlining the rim of her hair, as she climbs up to join them.

“You can tell they’ve been sitting there, waiting for her,” said Ten Eyck. “Up there, you feel very small. Even though it’s a geological formation, the change is constant.”

Albright’s favorites are the large-group photos; they are everywhere throughout the book. Women in long skirts and proper hats, men in Victorian suits, often with vests, too, pose on grand old hotel porches, on the steps of the “Indian Ladder,” and in front of cave openings.

The picture Albright likes the best — a full page of the book is devoted to it — shows the family and friends of Dr. Elbert Humphrey, of Altamont, just as the 19th Century was turning to the 20th.

“They look like they’re going to church,” said Albright. And so they do — not just with their garb but also with their solemn and reverential manner.

But, they are not arranged in front of a steepled building; rather, they form a long row on a rocky ledge along the Indian Ladder Trail with Outlet Falls cascading before them.

“I hope the book encourages people to use more of the park than the Indian Ladder Trail and the overlook,” said Albright. He also hopes it will lead to a resurgence of appreciation for the park, hearkening back to the heyday of his youth.


John Boyd Thacher State Park and the Indian Ladder Region, a 128-page paperback book by Arcadia Publishing, sells for $21.99. Aside from the chain stores and online retailers, it is also for sale at Indian Ladder Farms, The Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center, Altamont Country Values, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, and The Albany Institute of History and Art.

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