The Mount Riga Story
by Seymour Smith, 1976
with updates by Chuck Doll, 2006
Back in the 1940's our Chapter became concerned that its camping program was not compatible with the basic ideals of the Club. At the 1949 annual meeting, George Hull moved that the Chairman Leslie Rood appointed a committee to evaluate the situation. This committee was appointed consisting of Ethel Dorrance, Doris Williams, Kornel Bailey, John Gardner and Roger White with John Ensor as chairman. A questionnaire to our then 400 members brought a 30% response which endorsed our family-type camp on bantam Lake but also emphasized the need of a wilderness-type camp. There were many suggestions for a location, among them the Mount Riga area.
During the Revolutionary Years and well into the 19th century the Housatonic Valley area, of which Mt. Riga is a part, was the center of the iron industry in this country. Ore from the pit in Lakeville was rated second only to Swedish iron in the whole world. Its iron was the mainstay of armament for George Washington's army, for the Greek's armament in its battle for freedom from Turkey, for the casting the anchor for the "Constitution" and for the chain across the Hudson to stop the British.
One of the most prosperous of the blast furnaces was at the outlet of Forge Pond (South Pond) in the Mt. Riga area north of Salisbury, Connecticut, where abundant water power was available to operate the bellows, and where iron ore, limestone and charcoal were close by. Around this furnace clustered a community of some 1200 persons enjoying the highest per capita income in the USA at the time, supporting the finest department store in Connecticut and having 71 children in the local school.
Exhaustion of the high grade ore, the denuding of the hillsides for charcoal supply, the advent of the Bessemer process (which requires coke rather than charcoal) spelled the doom of this local industry as it relocated in the coal producing sections of this country. When the Mt. Riga furnace finally went out of blast in 1847 it economically stranded some 40 families, some of whom became a town problem and acquired the name "Raggies". In the 1930's the school population had declined to zero.
The land holdings of the Salisbury Iron Company, comprising some 6000 acres, were subsequently acquired by three families. After three generations these interest had subdivided to a point where it was necessary for administrative purposes to form a closed family corporation, known as "Mount Riga, Incorporated".
To continue with the AMC part of the story, Harold Pierpont and John Ensor, investigating camp sites for the special ad hoc committee of the Connecticut Chapter, called at the McCabe Camp on Riga Lake on July 15, 1950 and were fortunate in finding a number of Mt. Riga Corporation people there. After defining our problem and emphasizing that AMC is interested in preserving and not despoiling the wilderness they were sympathetic at once. They knew of AMC through many pleasant contacts with Harold Peirpont and Seymour Smith both of whom had been active in maintaining the Appalachian Trail which crosses their land. Louise (Mrs. Robert) O'Brien was among those present, and, as treasurer of the Corporation, invited us to submit our request for a campsite in writing for presentation at their annual corporate meeting in October.
This was done, the Corporation looked favorably upon our request and a meeting of the delegates from the Corporation and the AMC Committee took place on November 11, 1950 on Mt. Riga. Mrs. O'Brien and Mrs. Gustav Schwab, together representing 2/3 of the Corporation stockholders, were present. After a short hike over possible camping terrain, the Mount Riga Project came closer to a reality as conditions and boundaries evolved.
To the 1950 annual meeting the special ad hoc committee brought an offer from Mount Riga Corporation to lease approximately 1500 acres to the AMC for a token rental of $5 per year. This large tract of forest and mountain land was bound on the north by the Massachusetts State Line; on the west by the Mount Washington and Bear Mountain roads and the Appalachian Trail; and on the east by land of the farmers of the valley and/or land acquired for the Mount Riga State Park. This area embraced practically all of Bear Mountain (the highest summit but not the highest point in Connecticut) and its approaches including also a mile and a half section of the Appalachian Trail. The very summit is state owned with a right of way thereto and on the summit stands a 20 foot high, 330 ton stone cairn built in 1885 by stone mason Owen Travis to mark the elevation as 2354 feet above sea level, and from which, on a clear day five states may be seen, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The Proposal was received enthusiastically at the [Connecticut Chapter's] annual meeting, and the incoming Chapter Chairman, John Ensor, was authorized to proceed with the "Mt. Riga Project" on a one year trial basis. Finalizing the lease as to the boundaries and conditions was completed by a task force consisting of John Herr and John Ensor for the Chapter and Attorney Donald Warner for the Corporation. At the Corporation's request, in-so-far as possible, use of the leasehold was to be restricted to the AMC's membership. Except from Mount Washington Road to campsites, entries were to be hidden and unmarked; all state and town laws must be obeyed and AMC must not sublease; and the lessor reserved the right to inspect at any time. The lessor agreed that the AMC could maintain campsites, erect semi-permanent shelters, clear woodlands, cut trails, undertake reforestation, dam streams within state law, dredge ponds, post property and would not be liable for the acts of vandalism by others or damage done by the elements. The lease was for one year, automatically renewable annually unless either party gave a 60 days notice prior to the termination date.
Because the Connecticut Chapter is legally incorporated only though its parent organization, the lease went to Boston where it was duly signed by AMC President Robert W, Morgan. The signed lease was lost in the return mail, duplicates had to be made, and not until April 9, 1951 was the document fully executed, signed on Mount Riga's behalf by Louise O'Brien, and the "Mount Riga Project" became real.
A "Mount Riga Committee" was quickly formed by John Herr with Donald Pratt heading camping, Seymour Smith, trails and Norman Wickstrand, conservation, with John Ensor as Chairman.
[In the spring of 1951] Don Pratt's committee selected a lovely spot in a hemlock grove above a stream in the extreme northwest corner of the tract [of property]. It immediately acquired the name "Northwest Camp" and has been known as such ever since. In the early spring a large construction type tool box was moved into the area, followed soon by a cook tent and a wood burning range donated by Horace Whittier, and served as a base of operation for the next planned step, a lean-to. The woods abound in chestnut trees fallen but leaning on the hemlocks and with wood as sound as ever. Under the leadership of Horace Whittier, who soon acquired the title of "woods superintendent", crews worked through the summer and fall weekends. The lean-to graduated into a full-fledge log cabin as the chestnut logs were brought in from the surrounding forest, shaped, and fitted into place. The unfinished cabin was just barely chinked and roofed as the snow began to fly. The architectural motif, which sort of developed like Topsy, was Swiss. The lower room was 11' by 12' and the loft was 14' by 12', overhanging at the front.
During the first year an outside fireplace was constructed, Undermountain Trail was cleared, a trail along the eastern escarpment was scouted, the water hole at "Northwest Camp" was dredged and the flora of the area was recorded. The major effort however was the building of the cabin which was to become a base of operations.
At the 1951 Annual Meeting it was voted to continue the project in 1952. Under Horace's continued guidance the cabin was made comfortable for sleeping eight in the loft and by year's end about 900 man hours were spent on the cabin and it was estimated to be worth $1200. The register showed approximately 300 signature days. "Bog Trail" from "Northwest" to Bear Mountain Road was improved and a new trail known as "Bee Line" was established from Northwest Road up the western slope of Bear Mountain bringing the summit within a mile of the camp. Walter Green wrote a comprehensive account of the botany of the area which was filed with the 1952 annual Chapter report. University of Connecticut foresters inspected the property for possible projects in conservation.
Fear of destruction of the wilderness by careless public was foremost in the minds of the [Mount Riga] Corporation people. In deference to this philosophy, publicity was limited to AMC circles in the form of periodic announcements in the monthly bulletin and an article written by Seymour Smith in the June 1952 issue of "Appalachia".
During 1953 and 1954 Frank Gray was Chapter Chairman, Horace Whittier was Mt. Riga Chairman, with Harold Pierpont, Seymour Smith and Marie Carden specializing on conservation, trails and camping respectively. With major construction on "Northwest" completed, the membership started to use its new environment. Outdoor grills were built at [the] camp, "Paradise Trail" was completed forming a loop around the eastern slope, and a nature trail was laid out near camp. Swimming rights were extended by the Corporation to Bold Anthony Rock on Riga Lake and to the town beach on Forge Pond. (We later withdrew voluntarily from Mt. Riga Lake when we learned that the opinion was not unanimous among the Corporation people.) The "Mt. Riga National Bank" (a glass jar in the cabin) was founded to receive voluntary contributions and has kept the project solvent down through the years.
A stone patio was constructed between the cabin and the fireplace during which "muleteam" tactics were employed to great advantage. The "mules" were any members who happened to be on the business end of the ropes attached to a wheelbarrow used to haul rock and gravel from the stream bed.
The record would not be complete without mention of the episode of the "squatter's cabin" which developed during the summer of 1953. Two men, acting on wrong information as to the location of the state line, erected a one room cabin in a clearing along Northwest Road between Riga Brook and the Bee Line Trail. This was first noticed by Tom and Beatrice Smith who were spending several days at the camp, and the discovery touched off a frantic series of meetings and consultations with Corporation people finally resulting in a formal notice to the "squatters" to vacate the premises. This they did, by moving the cabin downstream to a new location supposedly on their land, but unfortunately, its location is still in doubt and only a survey will settler the matter. The two men later sold the cabin to Spaulding McCabe who still later sold it to his brother in law, Frank McCabe, who is the owner at this writing.
The years 1955 and 1956 found Kornel Bailey as Chapter Chairman with Harold Pierpont Chairman of Mt. Riga Committee. Bob and Cynthia Ream headed camping; Bob (the Rev. Robert M.) Hatch conservation; Seymour Smith trails. Horace Whittier was "covering the water fronts" as conoe rights were established on Mt. Riga. The great hurricane of August 19, 1955 washed out all road approaches and "Northwest" was available only by hiking in three miles from any direction. In spite of this isolation, the camp continued to be used, a metal bird feeder installed and mammals of the area recorded. By late August 1956 the roads had been repaired to the better than ever condition. Rental to Mt. Riga Corporation increased from $5 to $25 per year, still only a token amount for such extensive privileges.
In 1956 and 1957, with Marie Carden as Chapter Chairman and Bob Ream as chairman at Riga, J.B.Gardner headed trails, Bishop Hatch headed conservation and the former duties of the camping committee were assumed by Bob Ream. A philosophy concerning use of the area emerged during that period. There was opposition to further expansion at the camp, to erect shelters and to cutting new trails, all in the interest of keeping the area wild. It was agreed to scout the "Escarpment Trail" but to keep it "Class B", and to retain the area between "Paradise" trail and the Appalachian Trail as wilderness.
During the 9th and 10th years (1959 and 1960) John Ensor was Chapter Chairman and John Blaiklock was chairman of Riga. A challenge developed to keep Northwest Road jeepable for the purpose of fire protection. This required the building of a 20 foot long bridge across Bee Brook, which was promptly dubbed Blaiklock's Bumpy Bridge". It is still there getting bumpier and bumpier.
So went the first decade of the Mount Riga Project.
The second decade under the successive Chapter Chairman Seymour Smith, Gardner Moulton, J. B. Garnder, Norman (Ned) Greist and Newell Morch, Norman Sills and Roger Frink moved forward with some exciting developments.
The 10th anniversary of the signing of the lease was celebrated on April 9, 1961 with a chicken stew and dumpling dinner topped with maple sugar on the snow (literally). Guest of honor were several members of the Mt. Riga Corporation.
In this same year a piece of land located across the state line in Massachusetts and contiguous of the 1500 acres leasehold, became available to AMC though Mt. Riga Corporation. This area comprising about 100 acres contained about ¾ mile of the Appalachian Trail and a large portion of Sages Ravine having Chittenden Brook and Sages Brook as its northern boundary and the state line as its southern boundary... This was donated to the Club by Margaret Ensor as a living memorial to her father, Edward H. Lorenz, who had been a charter member of the Connecticut Chapter (and the Mt. Riga Committee). The Lorenz Memorial Area is to be maintained in a forever wild state for the enjoyment of a discerning public.
Paralleling activity at Riga, an ad hoc committee known as the "Owned Camp Committee" had been working quietly since 1959 under the successive chairmanships of Roger Waite and John Ensor, Seymour Smith and Colin Tait. The purpose of this group was to find a suitable camp which could not be subject to an annual renewal of a lease. Many locations were investigated. Just as formal action was about to be considered on property in Colebrook, Mount Riga Corporation, through one of its directors, Frank Wells McCabe (also a member of Connecticut Chapter) offered to discuss the sale of a portion of our leasehold at Riga to AMC.
A negotiating team was set up consisting of Seymour Smith, John Ensor and
Colin Tail, who subsequently met with Frank McCabe, Donald Warner and Jonathan Warner for Mt. Riga Corporation to work out a suitable plan. A sizable plot surrounding the cabin and a narrower corridor along the state line to join with the Lorenz Memorial Area, comprising 72.3 acres, was agreed upon, with the term at six years at no interest. Two additional plots extending the area southward and eastward totaling 53.2 acres were optioned at the same unit price to be taken or rejected after the seventh year. A finical plan was approved by a special meeting of the Chapter membership called for the purpose in the Spring of 1967, and the purchase was authorized by the Club Council in Boston. On June 20, 1967 the deal was formally closed with the signing of the necessary papers and at last we owned our camp at Riga and all approaches to it and had linked it to the Lorenz Memorial Area.
This touched off a new wave of excitement and a desire to know the exact location of the state line. Bob Dean as chief surveyor and Seymour Smith organized surveying parties to establish the line through rough terrain between stone maker #198 at Mt. Washington Road and the next marker #197, 8185 feet to the east. This was started by running a random line which reached to within 1400 feet of objective before being abandoned.
Not until 1972, when the Chapter leased the land on which the so-called "Squatter's Cabin" stands to Frank Wells McCabe's daughter Martha for $1 dollar a year, did the survey take on a new life. Frank McCabe commissioned AMC member George Kiefer of Salisbury to survey the 18 acres which Frank owned in Massachusetts, and on which the "Squatter's Cabin" is supposed to stand. This will fix the state line location since it forms the boundary between Frank's land and AMC's property, and will settle finally on who's land the "Squatter's Cabin" really stands. It will also fix the western boundary of the Lorenz Memorial Area.
In 1972 a group of interested Salisbury people, not AMC, decided to cap the cairn on the summit of Bear Mountain to prevent its further destruction by vandals. This was done in an efficient manner using a helicopter to haul cement and pour the cap. The cairn was built by Robbins Battell of Norfolk, Connecticut in 1885 (stone mason Owen Travis of Salisbury) to mark [what] was thought to be the highest point in Connecticut, 2354 feet in elevation. Mr. Battell was State Senator and president of Connecticut Historical Society. (A point of Mt. Frisell's slope has since been determined to be the highest point, 2380 feet at the Connecticut - Massachusetts line, although Bear Mountain remains the highest summit).
The cairn actually stands on about six acres originally acquired by Mr. Battell, together with a right of way to the Mt. Washington Road on along term lease, consideration for which was the building of the cairn. About 1960 heirs of Mr. Battell gifted the area to the State of Connecticut.
Much to the dismay of AMC, Bear Mountain Road was bulldozed all the way to Mt.
Washington Road to the Appalachian Trail. This was done to facilitate the
transport of material and personnel for repair to the cairn. Hopefully,
vandalism will be discouraged at the cairn and the road will reestablish its
lovely roadside flora.
1973 was a year of decision, should we exercise the second option to buy, which would include the bog to the south of Northwest Camp, and the bog to the east of the Appalachian Trail along the state line, totaling 53.2 acres? Already over $3,000 had been accumulated toward the purchase price of $13,300. In anticipation of favorable action by the Connecticut Chapter the Club Council in Boston, at their meeting on February 28, 1973: "VOYED: That the Club purchase the tracts of land at Mt. Riga with funds of the Connecticut Chapter at such time when the funds available to complete the purchase. The Connecticut Chapter annual meeting on December 8, 1973 voted enthusiastically to take up the option.
Several other events of 1973 should be recorded. A bronze plaque was placed at the junction of Northwest Road and the trail to the camp in memory of Forrest Purinton, a past chairman of the Connecticut Chapter, by his family. Seymour Smith and Bob Dean completed the random survey of the Connecticut - Massachusetts state line which will permit the accurate location of the boundary in the future field trips, and settle whether or not the "Squatter's Cabin" is on AMC's land.
In early 1974 the careful groundwork laid by Chairman Bill Schmidt bore fruit as all the legal formalities were expertly handled to retire the mortgage of the first buy (Parcels A&B) and to contract for the purchase of the option parcels C&D. Club Officers and Council in Boston cooperated to the fullest extent in the necessary authorizations. It is interesting to note that $3600 had been voluntarily raised to exercise the option which lightened the payments to $1300 annually for seven years.
Also in 1974 the lease on the non-owned portion of 1500 acres to the south and
east of out Mt. Riga property was extended five years starting January 1, 1975
at $100 per year
(increased from $50).
In 1974 and 1975 Bob Deans and Seymour Smith continued their survey of the Sate Line westward to a point just beyond the Appalachian Trail Crossing; and determined that at least a portion of "Deer Ledge" is within the Lorenz Memorial Area. More field trips were necessary to settle the "Squatter's Cabin" problem, but in the interim, Frank Wells McCabe offered to buy the half acre on which the cabin stands for $500 and we countered with an offer to lease from him the land for $1 per year.
Unfortunately, the cairn on the summit, which had been expertly capped in 1972 fell prey to vandals who removed stones beneath it and created a dangerous situation. In November 1975 Boy Scout Troop#1 from New Canaan came to the rescue, erected temporary scaffolding, and carefully replaced the stones.
Bear Mountain Road, which had been bulldozed to expedite the 1972 repair, slowly regained its flora. Under the terms of our deed, ownership of this road, and hence its maintenance, remains with the Mt. Riga Corporation. Our five year lease names the road as one of our boundaries and, of course, carries with it the right to use it.
Vandalism became a problem at "Northwest" and, in Sages Ravine, finally resulted in experimenting with a resident caretaker during the busy season. The camping situation was further aggravated by the attitude of the abutting property owner to the north who "evicted" any camper north of the brook (which is our boundary).
The situation in Sages Ravine became critical when this owner claimed ownership of the entire Lorenz Memorial Area. This set off a flurry of title searching in the Great Barrington, Mass by Jean MacKesson, Chairman of the Connecticut Trail Committee, and Seymour Smith, the results of which were favorable to us. This information was turned over to Mt. Riga Corporation (who has real responsibility, having passed title to us free and clear).
At the Chapter's 1975 Annual Meeting, Chairman LeRoy Doar of the Mt. Riga Committee recommends continuing the caretaker experiment, and greater use of the property by the membership. Taxes are becoming a problem as higher appraisals prompt investigation into the possibility of tax free status in Connecticut. (We already have tax free status on Massachusetts for the Lorenz Memorial Area which must be requested annually. The Lorenz Memorial Area is endowed to yield money for a token payment to the town of Mt. Washington, Mass. Handled from Boston).
This ends his story with the purchase of the two parcels of land as told by Seymour Smith. The cabin has endured 52 years with very little wear and tear. The issues then are the same now but the cabin has not suffered for all its use.
Northwest Camp Chairman, 2006
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