Official Apperson Biography written in 1963 by two friends and “associates”
…..Art Newkirk and Phil Ham
Forest Preserve, Lake George and ‘Conservation
Owe Great Debt to John S. Apperson
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Few men have had a greater influence on conservation in New York State than John S. Apperson, who died in Schenectady last week. To point up Mr. Apperson’s great service to conservation the Union-Star asked Dr. Arthur E. Newkirk and Philip W. Ham to write an estimate of it. Dr. Newkirk is a former president of the Adirondack Mountain Club and he is a director of the Lake George Protective Association and former president of the Lake George Protective Association. Mr. Ham, a director of the Forest Preserve Association and former president of the Schenectady County Conservation Council also is chairman of the conservation committee of the Adirondack Mountain Club.)
By DR. ARTHUR E. NEWKIRK and PHILIP W. HAM
Union Star – February 5, 1963
VISITORS TO THE BOLTON AREA and the Narrows of Lake George next summer will miss the familiar sight of a sporty Chris Craft named Article XIV, Section 1, and conservationists in the state and nation will miss the steadfast help and sound advice of its owner, John S. Apperson of Schenectady who died last week after a brief illness.
Mr. Apperson came to Schenectady in 1900, and shortly thereafter entered what many considered his true vocation, the support of the state’s Forest Preserve as protected by Article XIV, Section 1 of the state constitution. He earned his living at the General Electric Company starting as a test engineer. He held numerous positions and was at one time manager of the Power and Mining Department before his retirement in 1946. In his work as in his conservation activities he was persistent and exacting, and he was always looking ahead and planning for all contingencies, including the worst. As a result, he acquired among his friends somewhat of a reputation as a prophet. But no one, least of all Apperson himself, would have predicted in 1900 that the young country boy from Virginia would become a major influence for conservation in New York State.
Apperson’s concern about the Forest Preserve grew naturally from his interest in the out-of-doors and from his own observations. At first his outdoor excursions were local. He enjoyed canoeing and camping with friends on the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. A few trips to Lake George in the years 1900-1905 led to an increasing interest in that lake and after about 1907 he began visiting it the year round. He was impressed by the great natural beauty of the Narrows with its steep walled mountains and many islands. The presence of squatters on these state-owned lands disturbed him, as did the damage to the islands by high water. He heard of the Forest Preserve and, characteristically, read all he could find about it including the constitution and the law.
IT WAS DURING THESE EARLY YEARS THAT Apperson experimented with all kinds of outdoor gear and gained a reputation for stamina and a knowledge of wood lore. He took up skiing and ski-mountaineering using imported equipment, which he often modified and improved. About 1908 he climbed Mt. Marcy on skis in what may have been the first winter ascent. After meeting Dr. Irving Langmuir in 1910, the two men often led such climbing expeditions together. During a period of 30 years, Apperson skied over many of the High Peaks including very early if not first winter ascents of Whiteface Mountain and Haystack Mountain. He also demonstrated the sport at Lake Placid while a visiting Swiss expert lectured on the impossibility of ski sailing.
In all these sports he helped friends design and make equipment which could not be bought. One of his early purchases – a foot-powered sewing machine – is still in circulation today being used to make skate sails, knapsacks, and sleeping bags. Apperson also put his winter sports to good use, and many tons of rock were sledded and skate-sail-towed under his direction to riprap the Lake George Islands.
Apperson began his rip-rapping in 1909 at Dollar Island some eight years before the state, at his insistence, began using this technique of placing stone protective walls on the shores of the Lake George islands to reduce the damage caused by wave action and high water levels.
He taught campers on many different islands to work on protecting the shores in this way, and in 1916 he persuaded the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which operated a steamboat line on the lake, to contribute the efforts of a gang of men who completely riprapped the shores of several islands. Finally, in 1917, the state appropriated $10,000 to continue this work, and since then additional appropriations have been made. Apperson acted as an unofficial superintendent for these early operations and lent the state a boat and barge as well as contributing his own time and effort. In this way the effect of the state’s funds was extended and the accelerated erosion of most of the islands greatly slowed. As was revealed later in court testimony, Apperson personally rip-rapped parts of at least 50 islands, and persuaded many other people to contribute to this work essential to protecting the lake’s famous scenery.
APPERSON’S FIRST ACTIONS HAVING a major influence on the Forest Preserve were his activities during the Constitutional Convention of 1915. At that time there were over 900 known cases of illegal occupancy of state lands, often by well-known and prominent citizens. Attempts were made during the convention to modify the constitution to permit leasing of the state lands and thus legalize “the squatters.” After these attempts were defeated, Apperson aided the state by supplying evidence of illegal occupancy and under George D. Pratt, over 700 cases were disposed of in a few years.
The activities of conservationists during those years were often characterized by their opponents as an attempt to “lock up” the woods, but this was never Apperson’s view. He wanted the public land kept public, and wild so that it could be enjoyed in its natural state. He was always teaching the difference between a preservation forest and a production forest, and he urged the value of the former for wild forest recreation. Thus, when the Adirondack Mountain Club was formed in 1922 to promote preservation of the Adirondack forest and wild forest recreation therein, he became a charter member, one of about 200 prominent people in the state. Among them were – Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, Dr. Edward Hale, Frank C. Hooper, Dr. Irving Langmuir, Gifford Pinchot, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Raymond Torrey, and Dr. Francis B. Trudeau. He was active for many years as a member of the Club’s Conservation Committee, and in his later years acted as an informal advisor on conservation to the club and to its Schenectady Chapter.
Apperson’s activities in conservation brought him into contact with many public officials and in particular with Governors Smith, Roosevelt and Lehman. His efforts to keep the Tongue Mountain Road at Lake George from a route through the Narrows, “that would have blasted that natural shore through that very picturesque and beautiful part of Lake George,” led to a dramatic confrontation with the State Superintendent of Public Works before Governor Smith. Apperson’s thorough knowledge of the state’s proposal (aided, he said, by detailed notes on his shirt cuffs), and his persuasive appeal for an alternate route somewhat inland where it would serve “the people’s purpose as well…and not destroy the wild beauty,” won the governor’s approval. Apperson also worked effectively for the purchase of the Tongue Mountain peninsula so that the present existence of the magnificent wild scenery of the Northwest Bay and the preservation of its great wildlife swamp are direct results of his efforts.
CONSERVATION SOCIETIES ALSO received Apperson’s support, and he belonged to many of them, but he was more interested in action than in the intricacies of organization. This led him to form the Forest Preserve Association of New York State which was incorporated in 1934 with his coworkers in Schenectady, Dr. Irving Langmuir, Dr. E. McDonald Stanton, R. D. Moot, and Dr. A. W. Greene. This unusual organization had no committees, no dues, and no formalities other than the annual meeting required by law. Its first activity was nationwide in scope. When the association learned that Dr. Hugh H. Bennett, director of the soil erosion service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, had no funds to spread a message of the need for soil conservation so dramatically illustrated by the great dust storms of 1934, it issued a 20 page illustrated pamphlet written by Dr. Bennett entitled, “The Tragic Truth About Erosion.” In the next two years more than 23,000 copies of this booklet were distributed in the U.S. and in 25 foreign nations. It was the first publication of its kind and was sent to governors and public officials as well as to colleges and libraries in every state in the Union. Dr. Bennett gave it credit for “putting wheels” under the movement to establish soil erosion control practices in the United States.
The Association soon became active in state affairs and in 1935 it led 55 conservation organizations in urging before the Constitutional Convention the continued protection of the Forest Preserve under the constitution. Apperson prepared, and the Association issued, a series of leaflets commenting on the many proposals to change the Forest Preserve Article. In at least one instance, a printed statement of the objectionable features of a proposal was in the hands of delegates before the official printed text. Quick action at the crucial place and at the crucial time was characteristic of Apperson’s method of operating. In this instance it was effective, and the convention did not propose any alteration in the basic protection of the preserve.
LAKE GEORGE PROBLEMS CONTINUED to occupy Apperson’s attention. He became increasingly concerned about the accelerated damage to islands by high water. Others shared his concern. They tried to interest existing organizations, but when damage continued year after year they urged action by the people of the state of New York. This action was commenced by the attorney general in February 1942, and in November a group of citizens joined the state as parties plaintiff. This group consisted of Mssrs. Irving Langmuir, C. Everette Bacon, Kenneth G. Reynolds, John S. Apperson, J. Howard Melish, M. F. Witherell and Miss Katherine Starbuck. Much of the evidence in the case was furnished by Apperson who for many years had taken hundreds of photographs of the changes occurring as a result of sustained high water. He was also responsible for securing the services of qualified soil scientists to study the damage being done to lakeshores. His part of the case was typical of his thorough approach to conservation problems. Its success was in large part due to the careful studies he had made for 39 years, and to his photographs and other documenting evidence. Apperson was also interested in other problems at Lake George. In 1944 he became an incorporator of the Lake George Protective Association in company with Dr. Langmuir, Miss Starbuck, Kenneth Reynolds and Timothy Cohen. The primary purpose of the association was “to protect Lake George; its islands, watersheds and mainland shore, including the outlet of Lake George, and the purity of this water; and to aid in establishing and maintaining reasonable water levels in Lake George. The Association gave active support to the Trespass Case, but also concerned itself with pollution and other problems caused by increasing use of the lake. Its annual meetings, held at the summer home of Mrs. A. K. Christie at Bolton, were noted for the appearance of distinguished workers in the field of conservation and natural science, many of them being drawn by the opportunity to visit with “Appie.”
MANY PEOPLE DID NOT APPRECIATE Apperson’s deep concern with the preservation of natural beauty and were always searching for hidden motives for his actions. They were thus amazed when he placed riprap on Dome Island at his own expense because its owner was allowing high water to damage this beautiful “centerpiece of Lake George.” After, when he purchased the island with Dr. Langmuir’s help they wondered whether he was speculating in real estate. His true motives were revealed in 1956 when he gave the island to the Nature Conservancy, “to perpetuate the wild beauty of Dome Island, maintain the natural forest and soil conditions unimpaired, and to establish a sanctuary for all forms of native plant and animal life for scientific and educational purposes.” Through his foresight and generosity there thus exists at Lake George one island in nearly its natural state, to be enjoyed for its scenic value and used as a yardstick for comparison with those managed by man.
This story about Apperson and conservation is necessarily restricted Others will have to tell about his services to Governor Roosevelt, his service to Governor Lehman as a member of the Truck T rails Committee, his work with the Adirondack Moose River Committee and with the Schenectady County Council, and with many other organizations. We can only say as did Barnett Fowler, “He set the stage for Better Conservation.”
An Essay on Apperson by R.H. Doherty
Dollar Island, Lake George August 28, 1918
… He is a most hospitable fellow in his own camp, and has done much for the health and enjoyment of hundreds whom he has entertained there. Such visitors are looked after in a fatherly way, not only in the essential matters of food and comfort, but also in the trifling details of pastime. Whether one enjoys moving heavy rocks from one location to another, or throwing small stones with one’s toes, such activities are nevertheless frequently engaged in. Like taking a cold plunge in the morning, one may dread these activities; but when they are over, one is glad they have happened.
His love of adventure is unbounded. If he had lived in the sixth century, there is no doubt in my mind that King Arthur might have added immensely to the brilliant history of the Round Table by enlisting this man, whose fame as a knight would surely have surpassed that of Sir Lancelot himself. Unfortunately, however, his lot has fallen to the present century. But even in these times, he has won a peculiar sort of fame among civilized people, and, moreover, has awed the natives of the woods by his extraordinary skill, dash and fearlessness. With the fleetness of a deer, the keen instinct of an Indian and the abilities and courage of Don Quixote, he courts and wins encounters with the elements. The highest waves and the strongest winds of Lake George have complete respect for his canoe and double paddle, when manned by his skillful hand. Mt. Marcy, snow-covered, and shrouded in an atmosphere chilled to zero, makes a moderate climb and a warm bed for this human engine. Contemplate what this abundant energy and skill might have accomplished if they had been directed to the more thrilling adventures of knighthood!