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Winter 2001

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Whose woods these were

Skidmore’s 350-acre North Woods is many things to many people: a place for academic research and mountain biking, for visiting scientists and local joggers, for quiet walks and occasional wild parties. All who use the woods share them with hundreds of species of plants and animals, some common, some rare. In that regard, the woods haven’t changed much in a long time; in other ways, they’ve been altered dramatically over the ages. In this two-part series, Scope presents the history (below) and the current state of affairs (next issue) of this precious, and pressured, campus resource.

by Kathryn Gallien

     It’s a hot, sunny August afternoon, and Dick Lindemann wants to go to the beach.

     “I hope we can still see it,” says the Skidmore geology professor, tromping into the North Woods at an entry point across the loop road from Jonsson Tower. “Yes, here it is. See, where the mulleins are growing.” He walks to a point just above the barest suggestion of a shelf. “Here’s where you’d put your beach blanket.” And turning around, looking back downhill at piles of modern-day construction debris, he leads a trip back in time to gaze upon glacial Lake Albany 12,500 years ago.

An early map of the Woodlawn estate

     That’s relatively recent history to a geologist. Most of the rock on the Skidmore campus and North Woods is actually 500 million years old, Gailor dolomite from early in the Ordovician period (just after the Cambrian, when the first invertebrates developed). The whole area was under a shallow sea back then—a lagoon-reef system inhabited by the ancestors of today’s marine fauna—which makes it a good place to study how marine life gets re-established after a mass extinction.

Skidmore geologist Dick Lindemann poses with a boulder left in the woods by a passing glacier many eons ago.

     The North Woods is a productive laboratory for Skidmore geology professors, a place to get students thinking. “Here’s a good puzzle for students,” says Lindemann, pointing out a large boulder of Adirondack crystalline rock. “It shouldn’t be here,” he says. “We ask students to come up with a theory of how it got here.”

     Elsewhere in the woods are sinkholes that developed over time due to the water solubility of the dolomite. While there aren’t many fossils to be found, there are flints and quartz crystals, so-called Herkimer diamonds. And there are the famous faults. Says Lindemann, Skidmore and Saratoga Springs owe their existence to an unusual geologic phenomenon: the mineral springs that emanate from the downdropped side of the MacGregor fault and its offshoots, the Saratoga and Woodlawn Park faults. The main part of the fault is easily visible to the west of State Route 9, running north all the way up to Lake George. Through the city and the Spa State Park, you can mark it by following the mineral springs. In Skidmore’s North Woods, the fault runs along the eastern boundary; the Surrey Williamson Inn and Eissner Admissions Center sit at its top.

     Roaming around in the North Woods, a geologist is bound to stumble on evidence usually studied in other disciplines—botany, ornithology, art, cultural history. It turns out that Lindemann knows where to find the last vestiges of the famed Woodlawn estate: stone foundations from the Grotto Stable, big enough to house fifty horses, that stood in the area behind Wilson Chapel a century ago. To talk of Woodlawn, though, requires first melting the glaciers and populating the North Woods.

Your land, my land

     There have been native people in the Hudson Valley for at least 10,000 years, following the retreat of the Wisconsin glaciation some 12,600 years ago and the subsequent draining of Lake Albany. Between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago deciduous forests established themselves. By 8000 BC, in the Archaic period, hunters and gatherers were exploiting the area’s seasonal resources. The predominant culture identified in the area of Skidmore’s present campus is the Northeast Woodland Indian culture, from 1400 BC to 1500 AD.

     “The land here yields evidence of Mohican cultural traditions back to 500 BC,” says professor of anthropology Susan Bender. Mohicans held the land at the time of first contact with Europeans, but in the mid-1600s, wearied and with diminishing ranks after fur-trade wars with the Dutch, they ceded their lands up and down the Hudson Valley to the Mohawks.

     Skidmore’s North Woods was in a large hunting and fishing region and was a key thoroughfare for native people. The Saratoga-Montreal Trail passed right through the North Woods on its northward course until it joined the major Schenectady-Montreal Trail just north of Saratoga Springs. Saratoga city historian and postmaster John Corey documented the Saratoga-Montreal Trail in 1924, mapping it through the woods on a track pretty much due north from State Street. His hand-drawn “memory map” also marked an “Indian Spring” and “Indian Mortar” along the trail. (Indeed in 1947 Louis Robinson, the last superintendent of Woodlawn Park, recalled discovering the conical “samp mortar” or grist mill while he was walking in 1895 at the woods’ edge near today’s Maple Avenue Middle School.)

Carriage rides in Woodlawn Park, 1889

     While there are no active archaeology research sites in the North Woods, Bender suggests that there could be artifacts along the trail—signs of a hearth, chipped stone, discarded bone. The middle school’s Glen Mitchell Archaeology Club has found several artifacts— including an Otter Creek spear point dating to the middle-late Archaic, about 5,000 years ago—in the area behind the school. “We haven’t found anything indicating settlements,” says site manager Scott Padeni. And he notes that the point was found in a disturbed area, mixed in with material from a later period, probably left during excavation for the foundations of the nineteenth-century Glen Mitchell Hotel. Project archaeologist Louise Basa says club members still hope to find something intact from that period, adding that they have identified a quarry area and chipped fragments that indicate native people were using the quarry. All the elements were present, she adds, to support seasonal encampments during the Archaic period: the quarry for making tools, a stream, a spring, wetland vegetation, fish, and game. At a much later time, Basa adds, early Europeans would record a similar pattern of seasonal camps by family groups moving through the region.

From woodland to Woodlawn

     Europeans moved quickly in the seventeenth century to acquire lands in this region from the Mohawks. In 1684 Peter Schuyler and six other Albany residents bought from the Mohawks the area called Saraghtoga (including what is now called Old Saratoga, in the Schuylerville area) with the Saratoga Patent. Then in 1708 the North Woods was part of the large Kayaderosseras Patent, granted by the Dutch Queen Anne to thirteen of her loyal subjects, including Johannes Beekman and Rip Van Dam. The patentees were slow to settle, not asking for a survey and boundary determination until 1732, and the Mohawks continued to hunt and fish the area. Not until the French and Indian Wars ended in 1764 did settlers start to move in. At first they were driven off by Mohawks, who were understandably unaware of the fifty-six-year-old agreement and appealed to Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs, who tried to have the patent nullified but failed. In 1768 the Mohawks ratified the patent and accepted $5,000 for the huge tract—more than 500,000 acres, according to several sources.

     In 1771 the Kayaderosseras Patent was finally divided into twenty-five allotments of thirteen lots each. Lot 12 of the 16th Allotment went to heirs of Rip Van Dam, who subdivided and sold one-third to Jacob Walton. Walton’s son, Judge Henry Walton, would name his property Woodlawn and build the first mansion there in 1820. After his death, the mansion and farm passed through several hands until they were finally sold under mortgage foreclosure.

     In 1879 Woodlawn was purchased by another judge named Henry: Henry Hilton, a rather unscrupulous associate of New York City’s notorious Boss Tweed. In the years that followed, Judge Hilton acquired more than 1,000 acres—including the land where the main Skidmore campus sits and, adjacent to it, what city historian Evelyn Barrett Britten’s Chronicles of Saratoga called an “extended forest tract with an old Indian Trail running through it.”

     Hilton’s new mansion, completed in 1880, was a three-story brick and frame extravaganza, with twenty-six apartments, seven bathrooms, and extensive porches. He set out to surround the mansion with a grand park-like setting of expansive lawns and picturesque woodlands. It was a Herculean feat of landscaping, according to the Troy Daily Times (June 3, 1881): “Depressions had to be filled in, rocks blasted and taken away, a hill cut away there, a clump of unsightly trees removed here, the underbrush in the woods removed ... Some of the roads are built upon foundations of stone many feet in depth, and the earth on either side filled up to correspond. These roads wind in and out of shady groves, up and down pretty glens and along smooth lawns decorated with many rare and costly marble statues.” More than half of the roadways wound through the North Woods, where they are still visible today.

     Through the 1880s and 1890s Hilton’s Woodlawn was the place to visit. There were several mansions, elaborately appointed with mahogany paneling, enormous fireplaces, finely carved furniture, Persian and Turkish carpets, Wedgwood vases, French beveled-glass mirrors, Chinese porcelain, silk wall coverings, and numerous art treasures. Hilton’s guests, and members of the public who held his special permits, could enjoy the extensive carriage trails that meandered through the estate and adjoining woods, some lit at night with kerosene lamps. Later, Hilton accommodated the public more openly. In 1884 he allowed a giant toboggan slide to be built on what is now the dirt road extension at the end of North Broadway. For its grand opening on January 1, 1885, Hilton brought guests up from New York City, including William H. Vanderbilt, who chartered an entire train car. In 1886 Hilton let the exclusive Saratoga Toboggan Club build an even grander slide near the Glen Mitchell Hotel. Word was that sliders could reach speeds upwards of 60 mph on the 3,000-foot run. The younger Hiltons hosted grand torch-lit sliding and skating parties in the woods.

     Townspeople were also welcome for skating on the Vly, a pond at the base of the hill that was later used by Skidmore students as a ski slope. The Vly—Dutch for a marsh or temporary lake—was a pond as far back as 1775, when Preston Denton settled by it, and it later figured prominently in Woodlawn Park entertainment. There were rumored to be gondolas plying the pond and huge model ships inside the nearby boathouse. Skidmore’s Dick Lindemann has seen fragments of clams and mussels near the site of the Vly’s boathouse. Saratoga’s public works commissioner Thomas McTygue warmly remembers swimming there in the 1950s: “All the kids swam in the ‘Fly.’ ” McTygue also remembers playing in the ruins of the last Woodlawn mansion, which hung on until the 1950s. “The kids would throw chestnuts and apples at each other,” he says. “And when we ran out of fruit, we had plaster fights.”

Skidmore students and friends enjoy the Woodlawn ski slope in 1932.

     Woodlawn’s fortunes had begun to turn soon after Judge Hilton died in 1899. His heirs took little interest in the mammoth estate. Soon the graceful and elaborate buildings stood vacant most of the time. Young people from town continued to visit the Vly, which in the early 1900s took on the moniker “Love (or sometimes “Lovers“) Lake.”

     In the days of the Skidmore School of Arts in the 1910s, founder Lucy Skidmore Scribner had considered purchasing the great estate that sat adjacent to her home at 791 North Broadway (today the Skidmore president’s home, Scribner House). And Skidmore’s first president Charles Henry Keyes, discouraged by the condition of the downtown campus buildings, was keenly interested in it too. Indeed “the idea of Woodlawn continued to circulate at Skidmore” for years, as professor of American studies Mary C. Lynn tells it in her history of the college, Make No Small Plans. But Woodlawn was not to become the college campus until fifty years later.

     In 1916 the old Hilton estate was sold at auction in eight parcels. The largest comprised 600 acres, sixteen buildings, countless sculptures and works of art, and some twenty-five miles of gravel roads and trails, many of them winding through the North Woods. The next several owners included a crooked ex-Congressman who cut down many old-growth trees to sell for lumber, a bootlegger, a millionaire candy maker, and a conglomerate of speculators who offered the final auction of furnishings in 1928. Through the 1930s and 1940s vandals and thieves picked over the remains.

     Meanwhile, the City of Saratoga Springs seized the literal high ground in 1934, annexing nearly four and a half acres on which it built a pair of underground water tanks to hold and distribute the city’s water supply. Located on a hill directly behind Falstaff’s, the Skidmore student pub, the reservoir still moves 4 to 6 million gallons of water daily, pumped up from the water treatment plant on Excelsior Avenue and fed by gravity back down into Saratoga’s sinks and bathtubs.

     As for the once-grand mansions of Woodlawn, grass fires took the final toll. All but one of the buildings fell to a fire in 1948; Wayside, the last mansion standing (on the residential end of today’s campus), was destroyed by fire in 1958.

A 1906 postcard of “Lovers Lake”

A new campus for Skidmore

     From the ashes another grand complex of buildings was to emerge. In 1960, with an extraordinary gift from J. Erik and Margaret Jonsson, the Texas parents of a Skidmore student, Skidmore College purchased much of the original Woodlawn property. At the time, Skidmore’s Fifty Acres athletics area on Union Avenue was about to be lost to construction of the Adirondack Northway segment of Interstate 87. In a memo to the faculty, Skidmore president Val Wilson noted that it was Jonsson’s wish that the Woodlawn tract be “utilized as replacement for Fifty Acres and that further study be made by the College for its long-range use.” It didn’t take long. When trustees saw the site, they undertook a year-long study to determine the feasibility of moving the entire campus there.

     In his Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History, professor emeritus of art history James Kettlewell, who served on the college committee that made the decision to move, remembered his first visit to Woodlawn in 1959: “All that remained standing were the rock-faced stone ruins of the ground floor of Wayside, with its great stone arch.” Betty Noyes McMath ’47 also has fond memories of that arch. In 1945, her science class worked on a water clarifying project on the Woodlawn grounds. After class, her boyfriend and future husband drove up, and the two of them walked around the ruins and in the woods. “It was so nice and peaceful up there,” she remembers. “I still have a hickory nut that I picked up.” She had suggested to President Wilson that the archway be saved and used in the entrance to the new campus, and Wilson liked the idea. But the archway crumbled when workmen tried to take it down, leaving only the keystone intact. Wilson kept the keystone in his office and, after he died, acting president Josephine Young Case invited McMath to collect it. She then kept it in her garden for many years before returning it to Skidmore upon her fiftieth reunion in 1997.

     By 1961 Skidmore’s board of trustees authorized construction of a new campus on the old estate. The North Woods area, a natural buffer to the outside world, figured prominently into the equation, with early site plans targeting the area for winter athletics and recreation. Indeed Skidmore had conducted ski classes in Woodlawn Park as early as 1932. In the winter of 1937-38, Lynn writes in her history, dean Margaret Bridgman and president Henry Moore each broke a leg skiing on the Woodlawn slope! As the new campus developed in the 1960s, the college would again open the Skidmore ski slope for classes and recreation.

     Of the woods as a whole, new-campus planning consultant Samuel Zisman wrote: “To the north, where the terrain is rugged and serves as a natural barrier, there abound wonderful possibilities for both winter and warm weather sports—ski trails, riding trails, lookout points, and arborways—a botanical setting for walks, a lodge in the woods, perhaps, at the edge of the pond.” Thus, a possible blueprint for the multiple uses of Skidmore’s North Woods.

Kathryn Gallien, who recently left her post as Skidmore’s director of publications, is now a part-time staff writer and freelancer. She’s a frequent North Woods walker.

Editor's note: In part two, a look at the woods today, including the synergies and tensions among the joggers, bikers, botanists, geologists, ornithologists, artists, city workers, middle school pupils, and others who share this multifaceted resource. Meanwhile, if you have a story to share about studying, exercising, or partying in the North Woods, please e-mail by February 26.


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