100 years of beauty at Thacher State Park
One hundred years ago Tuesday, on March 4, 1914, Emma Treadwell Thacher, the widow of Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher, donated to the state 350 acres of land surrounding the couple’s summer retreat in the Helderbergs in a historic area known as Indian Ladder because it was a popular path for Native Americans along the ancient limestone escarpment.
The land donation was a signal act of philanthropy that established Thacher State Park, a crown jewel among the Capital Region’s treasures of natural beauty and an attraction for hikers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts. It also marked a pre-dysfunctional era in which the state Legislature acted with uncharacteristic speed and a lack of acrimony.
Democratic Gov., who was also editor and publisher of the Times Union in 1914, accepted what he called “a splendid gift to the state” and urged the Legislature in a special message to move swiftly to make the donation a state park. Thacher’s husband, a former state senator, died in 1909 at age 62 following a polymath career that spanned business, politics and scholarship.
Senate Majority Leader John Murtaugh, a Democrat from Elmira, spoke eloquently a century ago about the property’s scenic beauty and on March 5, 1914, the Senate passed a bill creating Thacher State Park. The Assembly quickly followed suit, Glynn signed the legislation and the park was formally dedicated at a ceremony attended by more than 1,000 citizens on Sept. 14, 1914.
“Thacher Park is one of the most unique places in the entire state and it’s right in Albany’s back yard,” said park manager Chris Fallon. “We’re really excited about the centennial and we’re planning a big event to honor the memory of John Boyd Thacher.”
Meanwhile, Fallon and state officials are struggling to reverse declining attendance and to make Thacher State Park a popular destination again. Annual attendance has dipped to about 275,000 visitors a year, down from a peak of nearly 500,000 visitors a year in the 1970s and 1980s.
A large chunk of the drop was attributed to the closing of a swimming pool in 2006 because it leaked and required expensive restoration. It has been filled in with dirt, and grass grows where throngs of city residents once retreated during the summer swelter — before a proliferation of town swimming pools and private backyard pools diluted its drawing power.
A new initiative this summer will drop a $6 per vehicle entrance fee for the first time in the park’s recent history. Also, a final master plan for the park approved last November calls for construction of a $4 million visitor’s center, pending state funding. It would include a multi-use reception area and exhibits on the park’s history and geology.
Under consideration is a proposal from the Thacher Climbing Coalition to open up the park’s three miles of limestone cliffs year-round to rock and ice climbing. A climbing management plan is still in development and a review would be needed before approval, but state officials have indicated they are amenable to lifting the current ban. There is also an increased use of the 30 miles of trails — the park has grown through acquisitions to 2,400 acres — by mountain bikers and snowmobilers, in addition to hikers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. “We’re trying to respond to changing uses and shifting leisure activities,” said Fallon, who is in his 14th year as park manager.
“Thacher Park has remained so influential because it is so close to the capital of the state,” said Laura Ten Eyck, co-author with Timothy Albright of a 2011 pictorial history book, “John Boyd Thacher State Park and the Indian Ladder Region.” Ten Eyck grew up near the park as a fourth-generation member of the family-run apple orchard Indian Ladder Farm.
The book describes the lore of the area’s name, when a felled tree was leaned along the cliff face, which formed a rustic ladder and allowed Indian travelers to scale the cliff.
Later, in the early 1800s, farmers blasted and dug gaps through the cliff to create paths to allow horse-drawn carriages to carry their produce to markets in Albany.
The escarpment’s limestone cliffs were a powerful draw for 19th-century geologists, particularly from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and other local colleges, who studied the Devonian period sediments and fossils of 400 million years ago when the park was a prehistoric lake alive with mollusk-like trilobites and other marine creatures.
“It’s a unique land formation that drew renowned geologists from around the world,” Ten Eyck said.
The park was Ten Eyck’s backyard when she was a youth in the 1970s and walked its trails and studied flora and fauna in the summers with the Helderberg Workshop.
“It’s a great place for kids and they can learn so much,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think the rise of shopping malls contributed to declining attendance. Shopping became a popular form of recreation and people stopped going to Thacher Park.”
Ten Eyck interviewed Thacher family descendants, some of whom live in Delmar and maintain a family camp on Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks, and they have been invited to the September centennial park celebration.
In 1920, Emma Treadwell Thacher donated an additional 50 acres to the state along the west shore of Thompson’s Lake, which became the state-owned Thompson’s Lake State Campground and has since been incorporated into Thacher State Park.
Fees at the 140-site campground represent the main revenues for the park. The campground is also home to the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center, which runs year-round programs on geology and wildlife.
There are about 200 members of the Friends of Thacher Park who volunteer for trail maintenance and cleanup days.
In addition to his political career, Thacher ran the family’s Thacher Car Works, a major rail car wheel manufacturer. He was also a bibliophile and 5,000 items of his vast collections were donated to the Library of Congress. He published articles and books on Shakespeare and Christopher Columbus, including an exhaustive three-volume Columbus biography. He collected autographs, including all the signatures of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, a collection housed in the Indiana University Library.
Thacher and his wife, who died in 1927, were interred in a striking classical mausoleum amid Millionaires’ Row in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands.