Adirondack Portraits: The Photography of Osmond D. Putnam The Adirondacks in the 19th Century


The communities in which Putnam took photographs were not the great camps and high peaks of the seasonal tourist. Rather, they were the remote valleys where settlers labored as lumberjacks and farmers. The pioneering families understood that managing the harsh weather and thin soil would be a hard life, and the starkness of these images attest to that struggle.

The Logging Industry

By 1850, New York led the country in lumber production. Demand for wood in the northeast pushed loggers into the eastern and central Adirondacks. White pine was sought for lumber, hemlock bark was used for tanning leather, and red spruce was used for paper pulp.

Driving logs to mill towns on Adirondack rivers took planning, ruggedness and determination. Facing unstable weather and other hardships along the way, there were often accidents and loss of life among the teams.

Lumberjacks who harvested timber during the fall and winter months often found work on the upper and lower Hudson River log drives. They worked in gangs and were supervised by river bosses. The Hudson River drive began at Rist’s Landing, about 3 miles upstream from North Creek. As the years progressed, the starting points for the drives moved farther upstream and included smaller rivers.

Johnsburg, NY

Johnsburg is the largest town in Warren County by area. It was partitioned from the original Town of Thurman in 1805. It is located in the northwest corner of the county, and within its boundaries are six hamlets: Bakers Mills, Johnsburg, North Creek, North River, Riparius and Wevertown. Other neighborhoods include Sodom, The Glen, and Garnet Lake.


At the time of the photographs, the economy was primarily based around logging, tanneries, and mills. With the arrival of the railroad at North Creek in 1871, transportation was revolutionized, and North Creek developed into a growing hub for business. The runaway destruction of the environment was not to last forever though.

New York’s Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park

Lumbering reached its peak in the latter part of the 19th century where an estimated two-thirds of the softwood forests in the Adirondacks had been felled. After trees were cut, stripped for bark, and sent down river, leftover brushwood on the forest floor provided ideal conditions for forest fires. Nearly 700,000 acres of land that had been used for its natural resources reverted to New York State for unpaid taxes. This was the beginning of the New York State Forest Preserve.

Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920), wrote a report arguing that if the Adirondack watershed was allowed to deteriorate, it would threaten the viability of the Erie Canal and by extension all of New York’s economy. The entire Adirondack region should therefore be protected by the creation of a state forest preserve. He was subsequently appointed Superintendent of the New York State Land Survey, which led to the creation of the Forest Preserve in 1885. Colvin dreamed of even greater protection and the Adirondack Park was created in 1892. In 1894, the Forest Preserve was given constitutional protection with the Forever Wild covenant.


Things have certainly changed since the 1800s, but the people featured in this exhibit continue to live on through the ongoing preservation of these images. We hope that you enjoy this exhibit and appreciate the struggles of the average person living and working in the Adirondacks past and present.