Passage through Brown’s Tract occurs during the first day of the 90 Miler. I’m told it is a nightmare for those in guideboats. It is not only that it occurs later in a long day of racing when rowers and paddlers are near exhaustion. It is mainly due to its crazy geography that inflicts hardship on guideboaters. But more on that later.
Where did Brown’s Tract get is name? My friend Charlie at the Adirondack Museum has done extensive research on the history of the Central Adirondacks. The result of his research of the Brown’s Tract is found under Brown Tract: The Hamilton-Burr Duel Connection. Google it to get the full story. In a nutshell John Brown was a merchant in Rhode Island who had a warehouse full of tea he had to unload. This was in the late 1700’s when the wealthy were cash poor and often paid for things with land they owned. New York State fanned the interest in owning Adirondack property by encouraging “speedy sale” of vast tracts of land left over from Native Americans and the English Crown after the Revolution. One example of these sales was the purchase of over 3 million acres of land by Alexander Macomb who paid eight pence an acre for Adirondack land.
John Brown’s partner, John Francis went to New York city in the summer of 1795 to find a buyer for the 420,000 lbs of tea in the Rhode Island warehouse (Wow, that’s a lot of tea!). He found a willing buyer, James Greenleaf, who agreed to pay $157,500 in three equal installments over a period of one year for the tea. Perhaps suspicious of Greenleaf’s ability to honor the commitment, Francis took additional security in the form of mortgages on two properties.
Things went downhill from there. Greenleaf was a deadbeat but was smart enough to hire, and involve, Aaron Burr to negotiate with his debtors. After numerous ploys to defer payment by Greenleaf, Brown grew tired of the legal wrangling. While still waiting for payment for his tea, decided to buy the tract he held as security. He learned from Alexander Hamilton that the tract was being foreclosed. If he wanted the tract he was to bring $30,000 (in a brown paper bag?) to the Court of Chancery for the auction of the property scheduled for November, 1798. He went one better bringing $33,000 which gained him the deed to the tract.
John Brown’s travails were not yet over. As Charlie writes” John Brown died on September 20, 1803. In February 1804, Brown’s 1798 deed was finally recorded in the Lewis County Clerk’s Office as Alexander Hamilton succeeded in having the NY Assembly approve Brown’s petition perfecting the tract’s title regardless of alien ownership or prior sales. It was then truly the Brown’s Tract.
Reacting to Hamilton’s comments about him supposedly made at a social event, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804 resulting in Hamilton’s death one day later.”
So what is it about Brown’s Tract that makes it such a curse for guideboats. I haven’t traversed Brown’s Tract in a guideboat but I have canoed the Oswegatchie Wild River in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park. As rivers start into flow into flat areas they begin to follow a serpentine path. I am told this is due to the Coriollis effect which, because of the curvature of the earth, causes weather systems in the northern hemisphere to rotate counterclockwise. It also causes streams and rivers to try to deviate from a straight path. My guide book on the Oswegtchie said that I would see the same stand of virgin white pines seven times while moving upstream or down. Sure enough, the river was so serpentine that we indeed saw the same pines seven times.
There is a notable photo in the Adirondack Museum of 90 Milers in the Brown’s Tract. It looks down the marshy area of the Tract for perhaps a half mile. All that can be seen are the heads and shoulders of the racers, some going right to left, others going left to right.
Now throw some guideboats into Brown’s Tract serpentine and and add some eager kayakers and canoers to the mix. A guideboat has a wing span of about 13 to 14 feet when taking into account its oars and beam. Canoes and kayaks can squeeze though openings just slightly wider than their beam, about three feet. So I imagine there is some clatter and banging as all three vessels negotiate the Tract, especially as the kayaks and canoes come upon a guideboat bottleneck.
Here is John Homer in Brown’s tract negotiating a turn in the river and a beaver dam.
What a relief when river spills into Racquette Lake and the end of the first day of racing is now in sight.
Next time we return to guideboat building.