The first three primitive roads that crossed the Adirondacks were built in the early 1800s. Although each was known locally as an “old military road” they were not built by soldiers but may have been used for troop movements during the war of 1812. The purpose of these roads was to provide a route between either Lake Champlain, Lake George, or the Mohawk River, and the St. Lawrence River.
By the late 1790s primitive privately built roads reached from Northwest Bay on Lake Champlain to the Lake Placid area. From here a 60 mile blazed trail through the forest led to the St. Regis River in St. Lawrence County. The only written record of using this entire route was an 1802 trip by Dr. Roswell Hopkins and friends from Vermont to inspect land on the St. Regis River. Dr. Hopkins returned the following year after purchasing substantial property and establishing the village of Hopkinton. The route he followed from Lake Champlain to Hopkinton became the basis for the Northwest Bay Road.
The “old military road” that passed through the Town of Brighton was authorized by the New York State Legislature on April 5th, 1810. It read: “An Act to establish and improve a road from Northwest Bay on Lake Champlain to Hopkinton in the County of St. Lawrence.” Northwest Bay is today the Town of Westport. The road went through Elizabethtown, Lake Placid, Ray Brook, and then to Saranac Lake. It left Saranac Lake at Peck's Corners (New York Route 86 and Trudeau Road) and then generally followed the present Route 86 through Gabriels to the area of St. John's in the Wilderness Church where it turned north around Church Pond, then past the west shore of Osgood Pond and up toward Barnum Pond where it met the present New York Route 30. The road generally followed Route 30 past Mountain Pond and Rice Lake to Meacham Lake where it branched Northwest along the west branch of the St. Regis River to Hopkinton. The St. Lawrence Turnpike ran from Hopkinton through Russell to the Oswegatchie River (and thus gave access to the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg). The official name of the road was the Northwest Bay Road as was shown on an 1818 map by John H. Eddy. The other two “military roads” ran from Chester to Russell (1807) and Fish House to Russell (1812).
Although construction of the Northwest Bay Road was authorized in 1810, another Act passed on June 19, 1812 stated the previous appropriations to “have been found entirely inadequate to open and improve” the road. Finally on April 17, 1816 an Act was passed to “complete” the road, and one set of commissioners was appointed to complete the western and another the eastern sections. By law the commissioners were empowered to assess each town served by the Northwest Bay-Hopkinton route the sum of $75 to help underwrite the State’s grant of $8,000 distributed over several years. In 1824 a further Act authorized the road commissioners to assess every male living on the road between the Saranac River and Meacham Lake no more than 10 days labor on the road each year.
The road was used extensively for nearly 40 years as almost the only outlet for the region through which it ran. After 1850 the western end of the road was seldom used and eventually became impassable because most traffic used the Port Kent to Hopkinton Turnpike (built in 1829-1833), being shorter. However, at the same time, the eastern section became increasingly popular with the development of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid as hunting, fishing, and health resorts. Stage coaches ran on daily schedules and numerous inns sprang up to accommodate travelers.
The road itself was a very primitive affair. It was little more than a lumberman’s tote road: trails along which the trees had been cut down with here and there a little filling in and grading. The road was passable enough in winter, impossible in spring, and difficult in summer and fall. There are few traces of the old road left in Brighton except around Church and Osgood Ponds where some of the Red Dot Trail and Jack Rabbit Ski Trail follow the same route. In 1872 the Brighton Town Board voted to build a new road from Barnum Pond to McColloms as that portion of the “old military road” had become unusable.
The importance of the road was that it opened up the Town of Brighton to settlement The earliest settlers naturally settled near or next to the road for transportation reasons. The road also provided the basic layout of today’s main roadways throughout the Town.
- A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York by Franklin B. Hough, Albany, 1853.
- A History of the Adirondacks by Alfred L. Donaldson, New York, 1921.
- The Heydays of the Adirondacks by Maitland C. DeSormo, Saranac Lake, 1974.
- “History of the Northwest Bay-Hopkinton Road”, by Mary MacKenzie, Franklin County Review, Vol. 29, 1994.
How Did The Military Road Get It’s Name??? Excerpt from Footprints on Adirondack Trails by Charles A. Wardner:
“Why do they call the other way the “Military Road?” one of my sisters asked.
“Because the American soldiers used that road during the war of 1812, to go from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River and cut off the British who were coming up the river the next spring”, father told us. “They were successful, too. The soldiers commandeered my two teams, also the two men I had working for me, to help draw supplies to the army. One man returned after the war was over and told about the great hardships the soldiers endured that winter, going through the mountains. Some of the soldiers froze their feet riding on the back of his load rather than walking. Some of the way they were obliged to cut a road through virgin forest. I never heard from the other man”.
“Did you ever receive pay from the government for your two teams?” I asked him.
“Oh, yes”, he replied, “but I had to wait fifteen years for it. The man who returned to me had his face terribly marked up from smallpox. He said over a hundred soldiers died from that disease, in a camp in the wilderness not far from St. Regis Falls. They are buried there now in unmarked graves in what is known as Soldiers Clearing”.
1830 Map of New York State by Silas Andrus, Hartford, Conn.
North West Bay Road
Chester to Russell
Fish House to Russell
St. Lawrence Turnpike
1853 Map of Franklin County from the History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties by Franklin B. Hough
1876 Atlas of Franklin County by Daniel G. Beers & Co.
Original text is from a display at Brighton History Day, an annual summer tradition. Photos of the displays, created by Pat and Tom Willis, will be added to this article.