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Birth of the Blue Line in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks

In the late 19th century, the public became concerned about protection of the Adirondacks. Forest lands were being logged and abandoned, with taxes left unpaid. Erosion of denuded lands was muddying formerly pristine streams and lowering canal water levels.

In 1884, continuing impoverishment of the Adirondack's resources for private gain led the Legislature to appoint a four-member Commission, often referred to as the Sargent Commission, headed by Harvard University botanist Charles Sprague Sargent. The Legislature authorized the Sargent Commission to investigate the need for forest preservation in New York State. They submitted a list of recommendations in January 1885 which recommended preserving and protecting state wild lands in the Adirondacks and the creation of a state forestry agency. At the time, no such agencies existed.

Colvin's notebook
Verplanck Colvin and his field crews generated hundreds of field books
and other notes as they recorded level, traverse, and triangulation data
to complete a survey of the Adirondack wilderness beginning in
the late 1800's. These pages show the area of Indian Lake,
Hamilton County, New York in 1885.

The Sargent Commission's work led to a series of maps based on surveys headed by legendary surveyor Verplanck Colvin. An 1884 map shows the remaining forest resources.

Largely following the Commission's recommendation, and partly due to the quick actions of Ulster County Assemblyman Cornelius Hardenburgh adding the Catskills to the legislation, Governor David B. Hill signed the law, on May 15, 1885, creating the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves. The law required that all state lands in eleven Adirondack and three Catskill counties "be forever kept as wild forest lands." This law also authorized the creation of a new Forest Commission to administer the law.

The Forest Commission created two more historically significant maps of the Great Forest of Northern New York (the Adirondacks). The first (1890) shows forest preserve areas outlined in red, and the proposed park outlined in blue. The second (1891) shows a slightly different park proposal outlined in blue.

Use of a "blue line" to depict the proposed park boundary was the genesis of the term "blue line." Today, "blue line" means the actual boundaries of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. More than a century later, the blue ink on the original maps has darkened, appearing almost black.

In a special report to the Legislature, dated January 1891, the Forest Commission recommended obtaining a state park in the Adirondacks of from 50 to 70 square miles. They recommended buying land instead of taking it by eminent domain. They wrote, "Nobody imagines that this commission, or any other representative of the State, can call an Adirondack Park into existence by the wave of a magic wand. Its formation must necessarily be progressive and the acquisition of lands gradual."

On May 20, 1892, NYS Governor Roswell P. Flower signed the law creating a 2.8 million-acre Adirondack Park. The 1891 "blue line" was intended to delineate the boundary within which future forest preserve acquisitions should be focused.

Representatives at the 1894 Constitutional Convention, and voters in the general election that year, approved the "forever wild" clause, preventing timber cutting on state lands in the forest preserve.

The law establishing the Catskill Park was signed by Governor Benjamin B. Odell on April 15, 1904.

Over the years, the state has expanded both the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Today, they encompass more than six million acres, larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountain national parks combined.

New York State continues the practice of purchasing land to protect natural resources and provide public recreation to this day.

Original Maps

original map of adirondacks
1891 map of proposed Adirondack "blue line"

original map of Catskills showing blue line
1911 map of Catskills showing "blue line"

Survey Equipment Used

compass from 1880
Pocket rail road compass with
telescopic sight attachment,
circa 1884-1916, W.&L.E. Gurley,
Troy, New York.
Vernier pocket compass, circa 1900, W.&L.E. Gurley, Troy, New York
Vernier pocket compass, circa 1900, W.&L.E. Gurley,
Troy, New York
Reconnaissance transit, 1914, W.&L.E. Gurley, Troy, New York.
Reconnaissance transit, 1914, W.&L.E. Gurley, Troy, New York.

Past Conservationist Articles

Suggested Off-site Contacts for Further Research:

Blue Line Maps Brochure (PDF)