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Author's Latest Work Details Stories Behind The Names Along NY's Oldest Long Trail

From Northville To Lake Placid.jpg
Jim Levulis
From Northville to Placid by Erik Schlimmer

Have you ever wondered how the names of streets or landmarks came to be? Well, Erik Schlimmer certainly has. The latest work from the author and avid hiker – From Northville To Placid – uncovers how the creeks, ponds and dams along New York’s Northville-Placid Trail came to be called what they are. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Schlimmer about his work exploring the names dotting the roughly 140-mile trail in the Adirondacks.

Schlimmer: Well, I've been kind of chipping away at the Adirondack place names for the last few years. And so I tackled the High Peaks, a very popular area with a couple hundred name features, and I took on the Trans-Adirondack Route and that has about another 125. And I just needed another good, popular destination. I could have done a specific land management unit, but they're kind of obscure, but everybody's really heard of the Northville-Placid Trail. And that was the first trail I ever hiked in my life, way back in 1995. So it's got a little special place in my heart, and I knew a lot of people hiked it. So there you go.

Levulis: And do you find that knowing the history and the stories behind the trails or the wild places that you explore, make it more fulfilling? Perhaps another type of adventure, in a sense?

Schlimmer: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So place names, so the names of cities and streets and towns and such. And then we have toponyms, which is my specialty, which is the name of natural features, such as bridges, mountains, ponds, lakes, etc. For all them, I call them obvious history. So this might be the street that you grew up, the town you live in, the mountain you live at the base of, the pond that you to fish in. And nobody gives these names a second thought. And that's my specialty is going in and saying, ‘Hey, did you know that it's named for this person? Do you know it's named after this event?’ And people get hooked on it because they come back with ‘Wow, I've never thought of that.’ And so it's kind of funny. Some people said that I've ruined hiking for them because now instead of just enjoying the hike, they're always looking at a mountain or looking at a pond or looking at a river and say,’ I really wonder how that thing got its name.’ So yeah, in addition to just hiking the trail, now they're taking this 140-mile historical tour, and people find it pretty interesting what they learned about it.

Levulis: And at least those people who said that you ruined hiking for, at least they read the book, right?

Schlimmer: I believe they did. And it sounds like they want more. And that's what happened to me when I got into researching place names and toponyms. Now, everywhere I go, and it's my main passion of course. But everywhere I go, I'm always thinking how did this thing get its name? And the story is usually a good one.

Levulis: Do you have a favorite name on the Northville-Placid trail?

Schlimmer: Well, I do and I don't really pick my favorites by the story behind them. I like a good mystery. So at the beginning of the trail, there is Woods Lake. And then near the northern terminus of the trail there's Wanika Falls. And I haven't been able to figure out either one. So Woods Lake could be named for a family name Wood, because generally when you see an ‘s’ on the end of a name, it notes possession, sight? So it could have been Mr. Woods lake or the Woods family lake. Or who knows it could be named for just the trees around the lake. Wanika Falls is a very interesting case. Wanika is the Hawaiian name for Juanita. Now, how on earth a Hawaiian name ends up in the Adirondacks, I'm not exactly sure. So I like the place names and the toponyms were I think I'm pretty close to solving it, but I can't definitively say its named for this specific reason. I think with the invention of the internet, the beauty of a mystery has been lost. And I'm a fan of a good mystery.

Levulis: And to that point about mysteries, I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I was very impressed with your research regarding the place names and relating them even to other areas of the country with the same names or other areas of New York, this creek, this pond. But when you're exploring a place name, and you can't dig up much on it, how and when do you decide to sort of call it quits and say that's all I'm going to find out about it?

Schlimmer: Right, good question. And that's a question I get often. So you know, we'll look at Wanika Falls, I've probably spent maybe 15-20 hours trying to figure out. And I just kind of threw my hands up at the end and said, ‘You know, I don't know. And that's okay.’ I have no hard fast rule. It's really the resources that dictate when I'm just going to say I don't think anyone will be able to solve this name. So I look at old newspapers, maps, and source works like surveyors, journals, explorers’ journals. And once I expend all my sources, I really have nothing left to look at. So I'll dedicate all the time I can to any resource I have. But again, some of these just can't be solved and that's okay.

Levulis: And you've written books on names in Albany and inside the 6 million acre Adirondack Park, what's your next project?

Schlimmer: Well, I've got two. I'm a binge writer. So I can never stop writing. Apparently, we're going to have a two-volume history of Adirondack towns published. So the Adirondack Park is divided into 92 towns. And this book will say, you know, who got there first, and who built the first sawmill and the dam and the grist mill and who felled the trees and built the cabins and the churches? You know, where do you find the oldest cemetery so it's kind of who got to each town first. And then I'm going back to toponyms. And that will be decoding all 389 toponyms of Lake Champlain. So every island, every bay, every harbor, again, how did these things get their name?

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org