Joel Tyler Headley is remembered in the annals of Adirondack history, and by book collectors and aficionados, as one of the first writers, if not the first, to draw true, widespread attention to the region. The Adirondack; or Life in the Woods, written after a pair of trips north in the 1840’s, sold well and promoted interest in the Adirondacks as an unspoiled wilderness and a potential health and recreational retreat. Headley’s long career, though, was hardly defined by the book. He went on to work in the New York City newspaper business, he was elected to the assembly, and he served as New York’s Secretary of State for a brief term.
His trips, enforced vacations taken soon after his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, were dictated by what was apparently over-work, a mental breakdown, or some similar situation. In his words, an “attack on the brain first drove me from the haunts of men to seek mental repose and physical strength in the woods.” Whatever the reason, the book is seminal. He paints the mountains and the journey in the light of similar European tours historically taken to the Scottish Highlands or the Alps, and helps set the tone for the archetypal Adirondack tours and vacations that would follow. The routes he describe would be familiar to any later tourist, from the grand hotel vacationers of the 1890’s to the hikers of the current day. A lot of history has been made, and this is a great volume to help frame the very beginning of the era.
Chapters are written primarily in the form of letters, or a diary purporting to be sent to an acquaintance back home. In truth, much was written as dispatches to be published serially in the newspaper, and the book was put together later. Chapters detail the various settlements and regions he traverses, and he comments on everything from the life of the loggers to the imminent local extinction of the beaver (which was, indeed, destined to become extinct in the region only to be reintroduced 50 years later or so).
The book had a second edition in about 1854. The following review from the New York times is illustrative of the impact the book had almost immediately following its publication.
The Adirondack; or Life n the Woods, New and Enlarged Edition.
By J. T. Headley
Fifteen years ago Mr. Headley, in search of mental repose and physical strength, made his pioneer exploration of the then little known and less regarded region of the Adirondack. Since then the circulation of ten thousand copies of his vivid and spirited sketches of wild life has drawn general attention to the vast untrodden wilderness of New-York State, until what was then an enterprise to be undertaken with toil and labor, is now within the reach of every summer traveler. Ladies now visit the Adirondack country in considerable numbers, “and the white tents of their pleasant camps by the lake shore tend to enliven very much the solitude of the wilderness.” In this new edition are embodied the results of a recent tour rendered necessary by new explorations, which have opened new lakes and laid out new routes. Other than these, the actual changes wrought by time have been slight, and it still remains one of the wildest and most romantic regions on this continent. How long it will retain this character is impossible to say. Railroads are being pushed onward to its borders, speculators have their eye on its iron mines, lumbermen covet its forests. All, therefore, who would see the region in its pristine state of nature should hasten to visit it before advancing civilization had obliterated its peculiar features, and Mr. Headley’s volume will furnish everything that everything that is needful for a guide.
– The New York Times, August 15 1854.
There are eight very nice plates. Many copies have the plates missing, but I show here the (sometimes spotted and stained) plates from a copy of the 1849 Baker and Scribner first edition which I scanned. The book is available as a reprint, and both the first and second editions have been digitized by Google or various library collections.
Title: The Adirondack, of Life in the Woods
Author: J. T. Headley
Artist: “Inghan” and “Burt”
Publisher: Baker and Scribner
Date Published: 1849