North Elba is situated in the northwestern portion of the county and is best known as home to the 1932 and 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Until 1849, North Elba was a part of the town of Keene.
In 1868, in his History of Essex County, Watson described the North Elba plateau and plains as equal in fertility to those of the Mohawk Valley. Early settlers, Watson supposes, reached the area from the northeast by way of the Saranac River. The very first settler, Elijah Bennet, is thought to have come through Keene by way of the Old Mountain Road. Watson claims that vestiges of Indian occupation in North Elba prove that Indians once occupied the area in great numbers.
An early settlement grew up around the Elba Iron Works of Archibald McIntyre in 1810, but one landholder, Peter Smith, purchased most of the land in the area leading to a decrease in population. Early mining efforts were eventually abandoned. McIntyre went on to richer fields in Tahawus. In the early years, there was much lumbering in the town and the logs were floated down the Saranac to Plattsburgh.
In 1840, Peter Smith's son Gerrit, sold and gave away much of the land. Among the land he gave away was the property of "Timbuctoo", a settlement of free blacks who came to the area to farm and gain voting rights. In 1849, John Brown, the abolitionist, moved to the area to assist them in their farming, and though Watson describes the soil as fertile, the farming community founded by Gerrit Smith on the "Plains of Abraham" floundered. The first supervisor of North Elba was John Thompson. His family was intimately connected to John Brown as two of Thompson's brothers were killed at Harper's Ferry.
Despite early raves of the fertility of the soil, not much farming is done in North Elba today other than the experimental Cornell farm on Bear Cub Road, some potato farms and maple sugaring. Today, 75 percent of the land in the town is Forest Preserve.
In 1849, Father Comstock came from Lewis to organize the Congregational Church. The Methodists, who had already arrived, had begun their service in 1847.
The beauty of the setting quickly attracted tourists to the area, as boarding houses and hotels appeared. By 1880 there were six large hostelries in the village. The area was a summer resort and families could come by train from Plattsburgh or by steamer from Albany.
There were a variety of accommodations to choose from. The most famous of these was the Lake Placid Club founded on the shores of Mirror Lake by Melvil Dewey of library fame. In its heyday the club was a complete world for its visitors, with daycare and camp for children, family activities, riding, golf and tennis. It is also remembered for Dewey's attempts to simplify spelling.
The beauty of the area has continued to attract tourists. It's setting amid the high peaks, so reminiscent of alpine villages, helped it to win two winter Olympics to Lake Placid. The facilities from the 1932 Olympics contributed to its continuing strength as a winter resort during the wartime era. As the years went by, the community continued to bid for international events, finally winning the right to stage the 1980 Olympics. Recently, some of the older athletic facilities have been rebuilt. The 1980 luge run was torn down in the winter of 1999. Ownership has passed to the state so that the burden of maintaining these facilities is carried on by the state wide population. In the summer of 1999 Lake Placid hosted its first full-scale triathlon. The magnificent physical setting of North Elba, as well as its enduring sports heritage, continues to attract a growing stream of visitors. An overview of its past is available at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Museum and at the Winter Olympic Museum.
Area: 155 square miles
High point: Algonquin Mountain 5,114 feet
Principle waterways: AuSable River, Chubb River
Settled: 1800, Elijah Bennett
Town Hall: 301 Main St., Lake Placid, NY 12946 (518)523-9516
Population: 1850: 210, 2000: 8,661
Major industry: mining, lumber, tourism, sports
Named for: The Mediterranean Isle of Elba