indian pass

David Henderson: Making Adirondack History

This image of David Henderson is from an oil portrait painted by Charles C. Ingham, an accomplished and well-known portrait artist during the early to mid-1800s.

If you have hiked the Calamity Brook trail into the Flowed Lands, chances are you have stopped at the stone monument at Calamity Pond that marks the spot where David Henderson met his calamitous death. For many hikers the large stone marker is a cause for celebration as it means that after walking 4.3 miles from the Upper Works trailhead there is just another 0.4 miles remaining to reach the Flowed Lands. But the inscription on the monument commemorates a sad and tragic death: “This monument erected by filial affection, to the memory of our dear father, David Henderson who accidentally lost his life on this spot. 3rd September 1845.” Aside from memorializing the death, the dedication gives no information on Henderson himself—who he was, his place in Adirondack history, or his impact on the development of the iron works at Upper Works, the remains of which can still be seen on the road leading to the Calamity Brook trailhead.

An interpretive sign just before the trailhead register at Upper Works provides some basic information on Henderson and his connection to the area.* Born in Scotland in 1807, he came to the United States as a young man. He was a savvy businessman and became a partner in a pottery manufacturing company in New Jersey. In 1829 Henderson introduced in America the British method of making earthenware from molds instead of on the potter’s wheel. A born leader and a visionary, he was also a multi-talented visual artist, violin player, and writer.

This interpretive sign adjacent to the Upper Works trailhead register provides a glimpse into the life of David Henderson and his involvement with the iron works. It is one of several panels developed by the Open Space Institute that describe the history of the iron works and the village of Adirondac.

Henderson’s impact on the Adirondacks is directly connected to his relationship to two other Scottish emigrees and brothers-in-law, Judge Duncan McMartin, Jr. (1776-1837) and Archibald McIntyre (1772-1858). McMartin was a land surveyor who served as a judge in the New York Court of Common Pleas. He also served in the New York State Assembly in 1819 and New York State Senate from 1820-1830. He owned a farm, lumber and grist mills, and a woolen factory in Broadalbin, NY, where he lived. Archibald McIntyre also ran a farm in Montgomery County and taught school in Albany, NY. He was elected to the NYS Assembly for several terms, and also served as Deputy Secretary of State, and State Comptroller. The MacIntyre Range was named in his honor. (The “a” was included in the name on the USGS topographic maps, but McIntyre himself spelled his name without the “a”.) Henderson was a friend of McIntyre’s, eventually marrying his daughter Annie, thus becoming McIntyre’s son-in-law.

McMartin and McIntyre were business partners having established the Elba Iron & Steel Manufacturing Company on the headwaters of the Ausable River in the early 1800s. The company was initially profitable. But the costs of transporting both the raw ore from a source in Clinton County as well as the final product proved to be unsustainable, and the company eventually closed.1

On October 2,1826 Henderson joined an expedition to search for iron ore closer to the Elba Iron & Steel works, and also, perhaps, to locate veins of silver that local lore for years had claimed to be in the area. Members of the prospecting party included Duncan McMartin and his brother Malcolm McMartin; Archibald McIntyre’s nephew, Dyer Thompson, and son John McIntyre; McIntyre’s African American servant Enoch; Henderson; and Lewis [also spelled Louis in some documentation] Elijah, an Abenaki Native American, who purported to know the location of an extensive ore bed. The search continued for eight days. (This group is credited with naming the lake near the ore bed Henderson Lake.2)

Henderson wrote a long and remarkably detailed letter to Archibald McIntyre dated 14th October 1826, that described “the discovery of the most extraordinary bed of Iron Ore, for singularity of situation and extent of vein, which perhaps this North American Continent affords.”3

Henderson recounted the start of their search: “On Monday got all the preparation for the woods pretty early—just before starting, a strapping young Indian of a Canadian tribe, made his appearance….The Indian opened his blanket and took out a small piece of Iron Ore about the size of a nut….” After a few questions and initial skepticism, the group decided that he was “a very modest, honest looking fellow” so they “concluded to take him along….”4

Henderson described their eight days in the woods in vivid prose including his assessment of Indian Pass—a visualization that still holds true today—which he called “as wild a place as I ever saw. On one side an immense rock rising perpendicularly from the narrow pass we had to travel through, filled in many places with large masses which had tumbled down from each side of the mountain.”5 After proceeding down from the summit of the Notch at Indian Pass they camped for the night: “Our situation here was grand in extreme—encamped at the head of the North River in a narrow pass—the moon glimmering by fits through the forest; the huge perpendicular rocks on each side, aspiring to the heavens, were our curtains,—the clouds our canopy—the ground our bed—the infant murmurs of the giant River Hudson, the music which lull’d us to sleep… .”6

The impressive vertical wall of Indian Pass remains just as Henderson described it in 1826.

Continuing south through Indian Pass the group eventually came to the ore deposit originally described by their Native American guide. Henderson writes: “…to our astonishment we found the bed of ore.…We found the breadth of the vein to be about fifty feet!—traced it into the woods…and digging down about a foot of earth, found the pure ore bed there—and let me here remark—this immense mass of ore is unmix’d with anything—in the middle of the River where the water runs over—the channel appears like the bottom of a smoothing iron.…In short, the thing was past all our conceptions.…”7

At the end of his lengthy letter to McIntyre, which includes a harrowing narrative of two nights spent away from their camp in the pouring rain, Henderson again expressed his excitement about the ore find and the importance of acting quickly to secure the property: “This enormous Iron Bed kept possession of our minds—I dreamt about it—We judge it best to lose no time in securing if possible—….the thing is too important to delay—speculators in Essex County running wild for ore beds….”8

Duncan McMartin and Archibald McIntyre as principal investors and Henderson as an active partner eventually acquired from the state the property where the ore beds were found with the intention of developing an iron smelting operation. The property was known as the Gore east of Township 47, which covered the westerly part of the MacIntyre Range, part of Indian Pass, the valley of Calamity Brook for about two miles, Mt. Adams, and the area around Lakes Jimmy and Sally. The tract included 6,080 acres and was appraised at a value of 10 cents per acre. Eventually the land holdings were expanded to 105,000 acres.9

The amount of preliminary work necessary to support the iron works—an area that through the years has been referred to by several names including the McIntyre Iron Works, Upper Works, Tahawus, and Adirondac—was massive and proceeded slowly. Roads needed to be built; dams were needed to secure a constant water source to support the operation; the land around the ore beds needed to be cleared of trees in order to extract the ore; and additional trees needed clearing to make space for a settlement to house workers, and for farming to support what eventually became the village of McIntyre (later called Adirondac) at Upper Works. The venture also needed a sawmill to make lumber, a furnace to make charcoal from the surrounding timber that would fuel the ore blast furnaces, and numerous other support structures.

In a letter to Archibald McIntyre dated 8 September 1833, seven years after the discovery of the ore itself, Henderson outlined the progress that had been made at the site: “I found the place very much altered in appearance for the better—an excellent road from the landing to the settlement, and a straight level street from the house to the saw mill, good and dry, nearly completed—the wood cut down a considerable distance south of the house,…and all clear to Henderson Lake. What struck me particularly was the excellence of the oats, …I must say that I have not seen so fine a crop of oats in these United States….”10

This bronze plaque was set in stone on Marcy’s summit during the 1937 one hundredth anniversary celebration of the mountain’s first ascent. Documentation discovered after the plaque was made casts in doubt the presence of Professors Strong and Miller, Archibald McIntyre, and possibly Ebenezer Emmons, Jr.

Henderson took a break from his responsibilities at the iron works during the first week of August 1837 to join Ebenezer Emmons, Professor of Chemistry at Williams College and a New York state geologist, and his party on a portion of his geological survey of northern New York. The purpose of Emmons’ trip was to explore the sources of the Hudson River and to attempt to climb several high peaks that Emmons and scientist William C. Redfield had seen the summer before. Taking advantage of the roads and water access that had already been established for the iron works, Emmons’ group congregated at the village of McIntyre. The party, which included Henderson, left the village on August 3, and made what is considered to be the first ascent of the mountain we now know as Mt. Marcy on August 5.

Following the death of Judge McMartin on October 3, 1837, Henderson devoted more and more time to the management of the iron works. He studied metallurgy and chemistry. He travelled to England to consult with steel experts there. He experimented with the processes, failed, and then tried again, solving problems until the iron works eventually began to produce iron. Henderson is often credited with being the force behind the success of the iron works through his persistence and unflagging belief in the viability of the enterprise.

It was Henderson’s relentless desire to achieve success for the iron works that eventually led to his tragic death. Seasonal water shortages were a constant problem for the iron works. On September 3, 1845, Henderson set out with a group from the village, which included his young son Archie and noted Adirondack guide John Cheney, among others, in search of additional water sources, and possible locations for dams.

Henry Dornburgh, an employee at the iron works for many years, recorded the firsthand accounts from members of Henderson’s party of the accident that ultimately cost Henderson his life. He recounted that the group stopped at the small wetland called ‘the duck pond,’ now known as Calamity Pond, to set up camp. There were some ducks on the pond and Henderson gave Cheney his pistol and suggested that he shoot some of the ducks for supper. The ducks flew away as Cheney approached them, so he returned the pistol to Henderson, who put it back in his belt case. At some point Henderson removed his knapsack, then his gun belt. When he laid the gun belt on a nearby rock the gun fired, shooting him in the lower abdomen. According to Dornburgh’s account Cheney ran to Henderson when he heard the discharge and the dying man said to him “‘John you must have left the pistol cocked.’” Henderson then called for his son and said, “‘Archie, be a good boy and give my love to your mother.’” He died shortly after.11

Men from the village carried Henderson’s body out early the following morning after they had “[cut] out trees and bushes to make a way for the corpse to be conveyed to the village, there being but a narrow trail then, and the trail made … is now used by tourists on their way to Mt. Marcy.”12

In concluding his account on Henderson’s tragic death Dornburgh described his importance to the iron works: “Had Mr. Henderson lived, in all probability, the Adirondacks would have flourished with iron and steel works second to none on this continent. His whole energy was in that direction.”13

The monument erected by David Henderson’s family reads: “This monument erected by filial affection, to the memory of our dear father, David Henderson who accidentally lost his life on this spot. 3rd September 1845.” Henderson was buried in the McIntyre family plot at the Albany Rural Cemetery, of which Archibald McIntyre was a trustee.
blast furnace
The stone furnace that one passes shortly before the Upper Works parking lot was the core of the iron-making operation. Construction of this furnace began in 1849 and was completed in 1854. At its peak, it produced 10-12 tons of iron per day.

Largely due to Henderson’s accomplishments the iron works reached its peak of productivity during the years from 1848 to 1853 with round-the-clock operation and production of 10-12 tons of iron per day. 

But after his death there was no one who had his knowledge, energy, and problem-solving ability to lead the enterprise. A series of unfortunate circumstances eventually precipitated the demise of the iron works. In 1856 flooding destroyed the upper dam at the village of Adirondac as well as the dam and sawmill at the Lower Works (Also known as Tahawus, the Lower Works was about ten miles south of the village of Adirondac.) The financial panic of 1857 in the United States created economic instability for the company. Finally, the death of Archibald McIntyre in May 1858 left the operation leaderless with no one with the business acumen or desire to assume responsibility. The iron works ceased operation shortly after McIntyre’s death. “Work was dropped just as it was. …The workmen abandoned their homes, and Adirondac became, as it was for many years described, “The Deserted Village.”14

The village of Adirondac has had a succession of rebirths through the years, seeing new life as a series of sportsmen’s clubs, a game preserve, and a source for timber. Mining at Upper and Lower Works was also revived, but this time the ores being extracted were titanium, a component used in the production of white paint and enamels, as well as magnetite. Most recently the piles of tailings from the titanium mining are being crushed and sold as construction aggregate.

The next time you go to the Upper Works for a hike take a few minutes to read the interpretive panels about the history of the village of Adirondac and the iron works that line the gravel road from the new parking lot to the trailhead. Feel the incredible history of the area at your feet as you walk the trails along Henderson Lake or into the Flowed Lands and stop at the monument where Henderson met his unfortunate fate. Think for a moment that it all began with the discovery in 1826 by David Henderson and his scouting party of “the most extraordinary bed of Iron Ore.”15

* The Open Space Institute (OSI) acquired the nearly 10,000-acre Tahawus Tract in 2003 from NL Industries. In 2008 the OSI transferred most of the land to New York state for inclusion in the Adirondack Forest Preserve but maintained ownership of a 212-acre narrow corridor of land from Lake Jimmy to Henderson Lake in order to preserve the historic and environmental importance of the area. Working with the Town of Newcomb, and expending close to one millions dollars, the OSI has made a number of capital improvements to the area including enlarging and relocating the parking area for the Upper Works trailhead; stabilizing the iron furnace ruins and the MacNaughton Cottage; and creating trails around the iron works with interpretive panels that explain the site’s importance to Adirondack history.

1.   Arthur H. Masten, The Story of Adirondac. (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 1968, First edition privately printed by Arthur H. Masten, 1923) 16-17.
2.   Leonard A. Gereau, Tahawus Memories 1941-1963: The Story of a Unique Adirondack Hometown. (Hungry Bear Publishing, Saranac Lake, NY 2014) 8.
3.   Masten, 18.
4.   Masten,18-19.
5.   Masten, 20-21.
6.   Masten, 21.
7.   Masten, 22. 8.   Masten, 26.
9.   Harold K. Hochschild, The MacIntyre Mine – From Failure to Fortune (Adirondack Museum of the Adirondack Historical Association, 1962, Second printing 1976) 3.
10.  Masten, The Story of Adirondac, 59.
11.  Masten, 100-101.
12.  Masten, 101.
13.  Masten, 103.
14.  Masten, 143-144.
15.  Masten, 18.

Carson, Russell M L. Peaks and People of the Adirondacks. Ed., Philip G. Terrie. Glens Falls, NY: The Adirondack Mountain Club, 1986.
Gereau, Leonard A. Tahawus Memories 1941-1963: The Story of a Unique Adirondack Hometown. Saranac Lake, NY: Hungry Bear Publishing, 2014.
Hochschild, Harold K. The MacIntyre Mine – From Failure to Fortune. Blue Mountain Lake, NY: Adirondack Museum of the Adirondack Historical Association, 1976.
Masten, Arthur H. The Story of Adirondac. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.

SEL, 9/10/2021

A sign at the new Upper Works parking lot unveils the new logo for the Open Space Institute’s property at Upper Works.

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