Thacher hosts walk on National Trails Day

The Enterprise — Lisa Nicole Viers

Summer foliage cascades over a creek in John Boyd Thacher State Park. The creek, where a dog is playing in the water next to two women, becomes a waterfall at the edge of the cliff.

NEW SCOTLAND — A group of about 20 visitors to Thacher Park hiked along the Helderberg escarpment last Saturday, with hundreds of years of local history beneath their feet.

Tim Albright, who grew up playing on the escarpment and co-authored a book about it, led the walk, which lasted about two hours, winding along the edge of the escarpment. (View the image gallery)

Beginning at an overlook, Albright gave a brief geological history of the area. The shale, sandstone, and limestone that make up the escarpment were deposited by ocean waters covering the land mass during the Devonian period, about 420 million years ago.

Albright also explained how the region was originally much further south, a tropical area, but was moved north through plate tectonics over millions of years.

“But the human history of this area began with Henry Hudson,” Albright said. Hudson arrived in 1609, tasked by the Dutch East India Company with finding a new route to the Orient.

While here, Hudson traded with Native Americans, and then eventually went back to the Netherlands. After hearing of his fruitful venture, the Dutch East India Company created a second branch, the Dutch West India Company. Soon after, the Dutch came in droves to colonize modern-day Albany County and surrounding land.

What is now a heavily wooded area on the escarpment was treeless during the 1700s, as early settlers engaged in livestock farming due to the soil being rocky and bad for crops. In many areas, animals grazed right to the edge of the escarpment, Albright said.

The park was re-forested by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Albright led the group of hikers along the escarpment trail, and then down stone stairs to the Indian Ladder Trail. The stairs were placed in the 1950s, when millions of dollars in updates were spread throughout the park.

“The park was growing by leaps and bounds,” Albright said, “The need was there, so they kept building.”

The stairs cover up some of the terrain that was the Indian Ladder Trail, originally a rocky foot path. European settlers blasted and cut through the rock and craggy boulders now covered in moss, which Albright explained were most likely chipped away at with hand tools.

Bordering the stairs lengthwise is the terrain that early settlers of the area had to traverse to get up onto the relatively flat top of the escarpment.

Rocks, tree roots, and foliage cover the ground in uneven spurts and jut up haphazardly, making what must have been a difficult trek, said some of the score of hikers on Albright’s tour.

Travelers got over the cliff leading to the trail by felling a tree against it, leaving tree branches or notches in the trunk to use as hand and foot holds.

“That was the original Indian Ladder,” Albright said, “nothing but a tree.”

While the trail was in use, many travelers went up and down it with horses toting carts full of goods. To make the route down the steep trail somewhat easier, ruts were put in the road every so often, so the cart wheels could rest in them and the horses wouldn’t have the full weight of the cart pushing against them.

These ruts were called “thank you ma’ams,” Albright said.

Additionally, it was common to chain the back wheels of the cart so they couldn’t roll, which also helped make the journey a bit easier on the horses, and most likely steadier for the travelers.

The addition of the stairs over 60 years ago certainly made hiking through the park easier for visitors, and within the next few years more updates will be made in Thacher Park.

“We’re very happy to hear about it,” Albright said of the new visitor’s center, the construction of which will incorporate local stone and wood. The groundbreaking for the new center is set for later this year, with a possible opening date of late 2015.

“Thacher Park has the appeal for the common man,” said Albright, adding that he enjoys promoting the park and having people enjoy it.

“But, I’m probably going to regret that someday,” he said, with a laugh, “because I like coming here and being alone.”

This fall, Albright certainly won’t be alone in the park, as events celebrating the park’s centennial are occurring all year, coming to a peak in September with the centennial celebration.

About one to two thousand people were at the original dedication of the park in 1914, including then-Governor Martin H. Glynn, Albright said.

Albright is passionate about wanting the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, to attend the Sept. 13 centennial celebration, and also has strong feelings about preserving the land around the park for public use, so future generations can enjoy it, rather than having housing developments pop up in the valleys below the escarpment.

“The greater good,” Albright said, “is to preserve it for all of us.”

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