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Harper falls at Downerville
Have you heard of Downerville? How about Donnerville? Well, it’s the same place. As a youth in the 70’s & 80’s the place was referred to as “Donnerville” on many signs and maps. My father always called it “Downerville”. After doing some digging around, sure enough it is Downerville. The archivist at the St. Lawrence county Historic Association was able to show me a map from the 1860’s with that name being used. The name came from Norman & Tarsius Downer, the first settlers there. After a lifetime of calling it Donnerville, the correct name is going to take some getting used to. On several New York D.E.C. web pages, they still list both names.
From the records that I can find, it appears it was settled in the 1860’s by the above-mentioned Downer families, which were joined there after by the Demmon, Westcott, Layton, McKinn, McCauslin, Crawford, and Mandego Families. These names also appear on the 1865 map, which show the landowners properties. This settlement was on a road off of the Russell turnpike (a military road connecting Sackets Harbor and Plattsburg during the War of 1812 era). The Downerville road ran all the way to what is now Clare, though maps show that was in the Pierrepont township at that time. The destination of our hike was to Harper falls, the sight of a sawmill that served Downerville’s building needs. (The road is seasonal maintained and can be travel much of the year). About 1.25 miles in on the north, or your left side of the road (coming from The Russell turnpike/ county rt. 24 direction) you will see a small cemetery. There is not much left there, and most of what is, is in pretty rough shape. Many of the stones are broken, and likely some are missing completely. There is a sign marking the place, and efforts have been made in recent years to clear some of the brush and trees around the stones. Estimates place the cemetery at between 15 and 20 burials. My father told me of two young girls of the Coon family that were buried outside the fence in unmarked graves. The girls both died one winter. There are records of the entire Bartholomew family (except for one hardy soul) being buried here, including five children. Scarlet fever is noted as the cause of death. I have also seen mention of the school house being in close proximity to the cemetery. The original school house was of logs, but it burned and was replaced by a wooden framed building. There is a hunting camp nearby. This could possibly be the schoolhouse site, or maybe even part of the schoolhouse itself. As was common for the era, most homes were engaged in farming- even if only for their own subsistence. You can still find traces of fencing grown into the trees along the road. Much of the property is now state land and has been reforested with softwoods, along with letting native hardwoods reclaim the idle farmland.
Around the turn of the century (20th) a survey was conducted with plans to dam the river at Harper Falls to create a lake. It was calculated that the lake would be 8 miles long, and three miles wide. This would have necessitated razing the residential section of Clare and also the store and town hall, as they would be under water. The idea was serious enough that the St. Lawrence County Utilities inc. purchased and insured five acres near the falls at the time. *The Republican-journal., July 12, 1929
My father hunted here in the 50’s and 60’s. He showed me where they had rigged two steel cables across the north branch of the Grasse river. One cable was about five feet above the other. You crossed with your feet on the lower one, while holding onto the upper. These were still there until sometime in the 1990’s when the state removed them. These were sketchy in the summer, one can imagine how treacherous they would have been in October and November. Today you can find quite a few hunting camps, and many mountain bike trails have been constructed. The state land is still used for logging, and has been managed well.
You can get there by turning onto the Downerville road off of county route 24 (heading North towards Canton), about 1.5 miles from Russell. The road is located at the county highway department’s sand pile. The other option is to turn left onto the Downerville road from county route 27 in Clare (heading north from DeGrasse). Follow this seasonally maintained dirt road about a ½ mile until you see a yellow gate and parking area on your left. There appears to have been a trailhead sign there until someone decided to steal it. Shame on anyone who does this stuff. When you leave the parking area, following the road you came in on will take you through the rest of Downerville and end up on county route 24.
On the trail
Leaving the parking are, walk around the gate and follow the trail southwest. The trail is wide and well maintained. You will be following blue trail markers, but I doubt you’ll need them. There are several rustic but well-made foot bridges over the stream crossings. It appears that the beaver flow near the start of the trail let loose at some point not too long ago. There must have been quite a wave of water to cause the erosion evident in the stream banks. It is 6/10 of a mile to the North branch of the Grasse river and the falls. The grades are not too steep, and it takes you through some small, scrubby hardwoods. As you near the water you’ll start to see more hemlock. The first views are OK, but climbing the bank in the upstream direction, will give you some better views. Looking downstream, the river widens and becomes the lazy & relaxed river that is the norm for the Grasse river.
As you start uphill, you will notice the stone foundation of the sawmill that was here in the 1860’s. I can find nothing on when it ceased operations. Looking at the stonework leaves you amazed at the amount of work this would have required, in days well before any earth moving machinery. Looking uphill with the foundation to your left, you can see the flume that was blasted out of the rock ledge. This was to divert water from the main flow of the river to the water wheel that ran the sawmill. It is a very substantial gorge and would have provided great water power. Logs would have been mostly delivered here by way of the river, though some may have been drawn in by teams of horses as well. A newspaper article dated April 20th, 1897 ( the Norwood News) tells the story of George Foster, of Potsdam, being killed clearing a log jam at the falls. The life of a log driver was a very dangerous way to earn a living.
There is a designated camp site at the river marked with a yellow tag. This is in the Grasse River wild forest, while the rest of Downerville is in the Downerville State forest. The Downerville State forest is around 1400 acres- depending on what you look at for reference. The sign says 1395, the web site claims 1443 acres. [The Grass River Wild Forest is comprised of several parcels of Forest Preserve located in the Towns of Clare, Clifton, Colton and Fine in St. Lawrence County. Together along with two conservation easements–Grass River and Tooley Pond–these Forest Preserve and conservation easement lands add up to approximately 54,000 acres. The unit is bounded on the west and north by the Adirondack Park Blue Line, on the north and east by State Route 56, and on the south by State Route 3 and the Oswegatchie River.*] Either way, it offers plenty of wilderness to stretch out in. *http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/22575.html
Back to the parking area, if you head towards county route 24, you will see many hunting camps along the way. You will cross a beaver meadow and there is usually plenty of signs of wildlife to be seen here. The last time we came through, otter tracks were plainly seen on the ice, and a beaver lodge sat out in the flow. Just ahead you will see a Downerville State forest sign. Turning left here will take you back to the North branch of the Grasse river a few miles downstream from Harper falls. This flow into the main branch a short way downstream from here. This is also where the river fording was and also the cable crossing. Back at the sign – continuing towards county route 24, the cemetery will be ahead on your right. It is pretty well marked, so you should have no issues finding it. From there it is a straight shot to C.R.24. I hope you enjoyed this, and if so please share with a friend so they may enjoy it as well. Please feel free to leave a question or comment. Enjoy!!
If you are looking for other activities in the area, these may be of interest to you.
Tooley Pond Road Waterfalls
Reference, acknowledgments and bibliography
A HUGE thanks to JeanMarie Martello at the St. Lawrence county historical association’s archives. She was able to provide me with some great information on this area and many others.
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
St. Lawrence county historical association (SLCHA)
The History of Clare excerpt by Charlotte Popp
The History of Downerville by F.F.E. Walrath
( both provided courtesy of SLCHA)
Northern New York Waterfalls
NYS Historic Newspapers