Cross over the Hamilton County line and you leave behind the America of shopping centers, franchised fast food and traffic jams.
One of the most sparsely populated regions in the continental United States, Hamilton County is a place where the local general store is still the place to buy what you need, a telephone call still costs a dime, and sons follow in their father’s footsteps.
There is not a single McDonald’s or shopping mall, and only one crossroads in the entire 1,806 square miles of Hamilton County, a remote expanse larger than the state of Rhode Island that is punctuated by a hundred glacial lakes, Adirondack Mountains and clean, fast-moving streams.
Although in the same state as Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the 5,034 people around here have more in common with the folks in stretches of Nevada and New Mexico.
Hamilton County’s isolation is protected by the Adirondack forest preserve that completely covers the territory.
Larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Olympic national parks combined, the Adirondacks are being kept “forever wild” by mandate of the New York state constitution.
Manhattan, just a four-hour drive to the south, is the nation’s most densely populated county, with 64,395 people per square mile. Hamilton, with less than three people per square mile, is the least densely populated county east of the Mississippi River, according to census records.
The closest thing to a city is where 1,410 people live around the junction of routes 28 and 30 to form a hamlet called Indian Lake. Metropolitan Indian Lake includes a small car lot, a tiny bank branch office, a supermarket, general store, bar, liquor store, bakery and several rafting companies.
Slow Pace Frustrates Some
“Some people who come up here get frustrated because the pace is slower,” says Sheriff Doug Parker. “If you want a carpenter you might get him to come over in the next six weeks or six months. The attitude around here is that if not today, there’s always tomorrow.”
This summer, Hamilton County residents are getting a brief taste of big city hassles as bridges over Big Brook and Cedar River are strengthened. Until the bridge work is completed, temporary stoplights restrict traffic to one lane over each bridge. More often than not, motorists sit patiently through a red light without another car passing by. By the end of summer, the signals will be down and people can drive throughout the entire county without the inconvenience of a traffic light.
The only place where two roads even cross in the whole county is some 30 miles to the south of Indian Lake in Speculator, a village of 408 people.
There are no hospitals, no doctors, no colleges and no factories. There are only two relatively small supermarkets, and two main roads in the whole county.
“We don’t have many of anything in this county,” says Ernest Lorenzen, who doubles as the county official responsible for promoting tourism and economic development and holds court as a town justice.
Low Crime Rate
They don’t have many crimes, either. It has been more than four years since the last murder.
But even though Hamilton County is sparsely populated, it is no haven for fugitives. “If you come up here to hide, you stand out,” says the sheriff. “There are not enough people up here to hide among.”
Bill Abrams, the Piseco Lake fire chief, recalls a stretch of nearly three years without having to fight a fire. During an average year, the Piseco Fire Department may be called out three or four times, Abrams says.
But Hamilton County also has the least commercial development of any county in New York state. Consequently, jobs are hard to find.
The fast-moving rivers, clear lakes, dense pine forests and Adirondack Mountains, along with the lake trout, northern pike, bass, black bear and white-tailed deer all attract tourists, providing the locals with much of their economy. Nearly 55,000 city dwellers keep summer homes along the shores of the nearly 100 lakes in the area.
But in the off-season, Hamilton County reports some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
“We have a terrible depression every year,” Lorenzen says.
In January, Hamilton’s unemployment rate hit 15.8%, more than double the national rate, while just 80 miles to the southeast Albany had a 4.4% jobless rate.
“The spring is the slowest time for us,” says Neil McGovern, who operates an inn in Speculator. “Between the bugs and the mud we have a lot of trouble convincing anyone to come up here in the spring, partly because we don’t believe it ourselves.”
Summer eases the job pinch. By the Fourth of July, Hamilton County has virtually full employment.
When the tourists are not around, everything stops. The two modest movie theaters shut down. Restaurants and hotels close. And highway workers stop maintaining the back roads where no one lives.
Miles of Snowmobile Trails
To lure winter visitors to the area, which usually gets about 150 inches of snow, the local people created 750 miles of trails for snowmobiles.
“The snowmobiler is the largest contributor to our wintertime economy. Usually they come in at least overnight and often stay a Friday and Saturday night while the skiers and ice fishermen are day-trippers,” Lorenzen said.
A furniture maker employs about 20 people in Indian Lake, a lumbering operation over in Long Lake keeps about 30 people working and the county has a work force of about 40 people.
The lack of economic opportunity forces the children to leave home when they grow up.
“They can make a living here, but if they want a career, to be a doctor or a lawyer, they have to move away,” says Loretta Bancroft, who has had five of her children leave the county as they grew up.
Follow in Footsteps
About the only way young people can afford to stay in Hamilton County is to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Sheriff Parker followed his father into law enforcement, and he can rattle off several examples of sons who took their father’s place at garages, contracting and other jobs around the county.
While the forces of nature provide local residents with what economic base they have, it also works to isolate them. Officials have been forced to shut down one-third of the runway at the county’s only airport because the tops of pine trees in the dense forest are intruding into the flight path. State officials have said it would take an amendment to the state constitution to cut the trees to allow full use of the runway.
There has been talk of town house and condominium developments going up in Speculator and Inlet. Those proposals can generate heated arguments between people who resent the zoning restrictions for holding back the local economy and folks who worry about preserving the wilderness.
Neil McGovern, who moved his family to Speculator nine years ago from Long Island, says he is not worried about development turning Speculator into the kind of suburban sprawl common to so many other communities.
“I moved here from Long Island so I would not have to hear somebody else’s john flush,” says McGovern. “We are so far away from any saturation point.”