In describing the settlement of Keene, historian H.P. Smith writes "Pioneers penetrated its primitive forests and scaled the natural barriers formed by its precipices as early as 1797." Most came by way of a rough, almost impassable road linking Keene with Jay and Lewis. Benjamin Payne was the first of those pioneers to put down roots in Keene. He emigrated from Keene, NH, by way of a marked tree trail from Westport. His daughter, Betsy Payne, is the first pioneer child known to be born in Keene.
Lumber and iron trade were the backbone of business here, as in much of Essex County. The enclosed nature of the valley and the lack of transportation meant that most of the lumber produced was difficult to export and was used locally. But business boomed and by 1820 the town boasted several forges, gristmills and sawmills. The riverbed area of Keene was the first area to be settled. By 1840 Keene Flats developed as a community. The township is full of water, from mountain ponds and lakes, to freshets, runoffs, streams and rivers. The melting snowcap of the high peaks contributes to the danger of spring flooding. In 1855 and 1856 floods broke the state dam at the lower end of AuSable Lake after days of continuous rain. Fields were covered with gravel and boulders deposited by the raging waters.
Despite these recurring setbacks, farms developed in the enclosed valley of Keene Flats and the lower reaches of the mountains were cleared for pasture. In 1860, the Beede Boarding House opened for business and welcomed T.S. Perkins, the first of many artists to arrive at this North Country wilderness and the beginning of a wave of summer visitors. During the latter half of the 19th century, Keene Flats became known as the "Yosemite of the East". In 1872 more than 500 guests vacationed here. The first Adirondack Bicycle Club was formed here in 1897. It developed a riding trail between Keene Valley and St. Huberts. When it folded in 1920, the bike path became a hiking trail. In this same decade, Crawford opened his sawmill, Dr. Potter began his medical practice and Phineas Beede opened a Tavern. In 1883 Keene Flats became Keene Valley with its own post office.
Hiking, health, capturing nature on canvas and waxing philosophical in the mountain air turned Keene and Keene Valley into a summer resort. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve was incorporated in 1892 and the road to the lower AuSable Lake was built. A toll gate was installed and the money collected was used to maintain the road. Guides and caretakers led visitors hiking, hunting and fishing. The tourism industry was established.
At the end of the century the town was filled with guest houses, general stores, vegetable gardens, meat markets and all of the commercial facilities needed to run a tourist community. Dentists, taxidermists, car dealerships and insurance agents opened their doors as the 20th century began. Schools moved toward centralization, churches were built and sidewalks laid. But the economic backbone of the town remained the influx of summer people. They stayed around the town at the AuSable Club, at Putnam Camp, on East Hill at Glenmore and Summerhill. They stayed in town at Tahawus and Interbrook.
Keene continues to thrive as a tourist and summer community. The Cascade House is gone, as the forest preserve acreage has expanded to 69 percent of the town. Development is concentrated primarily along the narrow ribbon of road that winds it way through the mountain passes from the Northway.
Area: 160 square miles
High point: Mt. Marcy 5,344 feet (highest peak in NY State)
Principle waterways: AuSable River, Boquet River
Settled: 1797, Benjamin Payne
Boundary changes: 1848
Town Hall: P.O. Box 89, Keene NY, 12942 (518)576-4444
Population: 1850: 798, 2000: 1,063
Major industry: lumber, farming, tourism
Named for: Keene, NH which was named for Sir Benjamin Keene, British Consul to Madrid and later diplomat to Portugal.