Although several names emerge repeatedly in early Essex history (Gilliland, Ross, Noble, Gould, van Ormand, Eggleston, etc.) there is another legendary figure who infiltrates virtually any conversation about Essex since 1899, and that is John Bird Burnham (1869-1939).
Born at the Amstel House in Newcastle, Delaware, Burnham quickly matured into an opinionated and adventurous naturalist. Though his most enduring legacy for Essex, New York, residents and visitors was founding and developing The Crater Club on Whallons Bay in 1899, Burnham’s accomplishments as a determined, outspoken (and often controversial) conservationist offer the best introduction.
John Bird Burnham: Conservationist
He discovered the Adirondacks as a frequent house guest at the St. Huberts’ camp of the Reverend George Dubois. Whether it was Dubois’ Adirondacks or his daughter Henrietta that transformed him, Burnham dedicated much of his life to both. In 1891 he married Henrietta Dubois and set out on a career trajectory that would significantly impact the Adirondacks in general and the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain in particular.
Burnham joined the staff of Forest and Stream which merged with Field and Stream in 1930. This influential publication was “an early proponent of environmentalism… dedicated to wildlife conservation… [which], helped to launch the National Audubon Society,” and it published articles by Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Gordon, George Bird Grinnell (editor for 35 years), and George W. Sears whose articles “in the 1880s helped to popularize canoeing, the Adirondack lakes, [and] self-guided canoe camping tours.” Burnham authored many articles about game protection and soon rose to associate editor and business manager.
John Bird Burnham: Adventurer
In 1897 he resigned from Forest and Stream and travelled to join the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska.
“John Bird Burnham, a potent mixture of daredevil and genius, became an outstanding riverman in the Whitehorse Rapids section of the Yukon River where he mastered the principles of emergency navigation […] He continuously tested his will and survival ability in a notorious stretch of rapids that claimed over 300 lives in a single year.” (A Review of DeSormo’s’ John Bird Burnham)
Despite the siren call of exotic adventures Burnham returned to the Adirondacks in 1898 to purchase a farm in Willsboro.
Adirondacks and Beyond
“In 1898, he purchased a home in Willsboro, New York, which he operated as the Highlands Game Preserve. He served as a member of the three-man commission that codified the state’s fish and games laws, and as the first President of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, Burnham was instrumental in the effort to ban hunting deer with dogs in the Adirondack Park.” (Adirondack Almanac)
He campaigned for federal protection of migratory birds resulting in the Weeks-McLean Law (March 4, 1913) and “led the campaign to obtain the ratification of the Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain for Canada.” (James B. Trefethen, Leaders in American Conservation, National Resources Council of America, Ronald Press Co., NY, 1971, page 51.)
Burnham served on several national committees overseeing sustainable forestry and game harvesting practices, and he led a Siberian expedition to collect specimens of the unclassified Marco Polo sheep in 1921 as recounted in The Rim of Mystery (James B. Trefethen).
Burnham’s influence as an articulate if controversial conservationist widened. His energy and enterprise, trumped only by his conviction and determination, drove him to advocate for protection and prudent, healthy harvesting of wildlife resources as two integral halves of a balanced conservation policy.
“Burnham’s heated and often bitter rivalry with renowned biologist, Dr. William Hornaday, a purist in the protectionist ranks made world headlines. Burnham supported the annual harvest of game and strong protection of seed stock as the key to continued healthy game populations. (A Review of DeSormo’s’ John Bird Burnham)
To learn more about Burnham’s wilderness and wildlife adventures, seek out a copy of Maitland C. De Sormo’s John Bird Burnham: Klondiker, Adirondacker and Eminent Conservationist. And stay tuned to the Essex on Lake Champlain blog where we will be be featuring posts on John Bird Burnham as visionary developer of The Crater Club and enterprising Essex, NY, candy maker!