Wilmington Dam and Mill

Wilmington History

The Town of Wilmington's setting and location and its self-reliant population remain its most exploitable assets. The population has increased steadily and the town has experienced one of the highest growth rates in the county. Clean air and spectacular surroundings, Whiteface Mountain and the Au Sable River, are continuously referred to as the most desirable aspects of the hamlet.

The West Branch of the Au Sable River provided an optimum location for settlement by the first inhabitants of Wilmington. To some it offered fertile soils along its flood plains for farming. To others it presented the potential of producing hydro-power to sustain manufacturing and industry. Although Wilmington was not settled until the beginning of the 19th Century, it experienced a rapid and vital period of development and growth due to the combined resources of the Au Sable River, timber and iron ore, and the motivation of individual settlers and entrepreneurs. This period of growth extended until the last quarter of the 19th Century when the exhaustion of resources and the remoteness of the region shifted its function to a tourist-based recreation economy, a function it still serves today.

FARMING... The early development of Wilmington occurred as a farming community. Potash, a compound converted to a wide variety of salts used in fertilizers, ceramics and soaps, was an early product gained by burning the brush of trees felled to open the land and to provide lumber for constructing new buildings. Farmers also found profit in the growing of grain raised for spirits produced by the distilleries established along the Au Sable River. Wilmington's starch factory was amply supplied by the potatoes grown on Wilmington's soils.

TIMBER AND IRON ORE... The abundant forest and iron resources of the area provided the real base for Wilmington's early industrial boom. The mountains around Wilmington were alive with mining and lumbering activity which fed the forges and sawmills in the hamlet area, transforming them into usable and marketable products. Reuben Sanford, who settled in Wilmington in 1812, is credited with the founding of Wilmington's industry. Along the east and west banks of the river he located his ironworks and sawmill, distilleries, a potashery and starch factory. Fulfilling many duties as a community leader and financier, he contributed to the establishment of the Methodist Church and the establishment of schools, inns and stores, which made Wilmington an active early 19th Century settlement. *

By the mid-1800's the entire Adirondacks had been severely logged. Wilmington was an exception, for the slopes of Whiteface Mountain still abounded in timber. However, the rugged mountain terrain precluded reasonable shipment of manufactured lumber products. Furthermore, the dwindling supply of wood for fuel and the prohibitive cost of coal available only from Pennsylvania jeopardized the survival of Wilmington's industries. The remoteness of the area made it significantly difficult to compete with industries and goods located in other more easily accessible communities along the major travel routes and waterways. These combined circumstances led to Wilmington's rapid economic decline, which witnessed the closing down of the forge, saw, starch and grist mills by 1873.

Wilmington's unchanging attributes, its natural beauty, clean air, the Au Sable River and location at the base of Whiteface Mountain, offered the potential for encouraging visitors to vacation in the area.

Meet the Town, Lake Placid & Wilmington, NY, Upstate Broadcasting Corp., Saranac Lake, NY, 2004. pp:37-38. Used by permission of Jacques deMattos, Upstate Broadcasting Corp., Saranac Lake, NY 12983


* Another interesting resource on the early history of Wilmington and Reuben Sanfordís place in the development of the Town and a list of Supervisors from 1821-2013.


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