Brief History of Wilmington
The Town of Wilmington was founded nearly 200 years ago by hardy pioneers from New England, searching for land and a self-sufficient way of life. Over the years, it has been transformed from an obscure agricultural/industrial town on the banks of the AuSable River to a popular four-season tourist resort.
The first residents of Wilmington arrived after the Revolutionary War circa 1800. Like most Americans at the time, many were farmers. Forests provided resources for building the first log homes and furnishings as well as for food, clothing, and items for trade commodities. Grist mills, saw mills, and distilleries sprang up along the West Branch of the AuSable River. During the War of 1812, Wilmington supplied the militia with some of the best local whiskey. Reuben Sanford, arriving in 1803, and constructing a home in the center of the hamlet in 1812, was the first industrialist in Wilmington. Among other pursuits, he built a potash factory to make lye for soap and other products, buying ashes from local farmers as they cleared their land. A starch factory used potatoes from local farmers in its manufacturing process. From the 1820s to the 1880s lumbering operations in Wilmington and the surrounding area provided charcoal to supply iron mining and forge operations. Among the first ironworks in the area was the Sable Ironworks established by Reuben Sanford. Other ironworks followed, but by the 1890s the iron industry shifted westward and the immediate focus turned to lumbering as a resource for the area’s pulp and paper-making industry. In 1901, the Haselton Lumber Company opened to provide wood products to the local area and beyond. As Wilmington was settled, supporting community buildings were constructed, including churches, schools, post offices, and a town hall. Over the last century and a half, all of the public structures endured numerous changes , with many of them changing physical locations.
The West Branch of the AuSable River and other local ponds and streams provided fish for sustenance of the early settlers, later becoming sport for tourists who wanted to be guided to the best places to hunt and fish. Many Adirondack hunting and fishing guides plied their trade in the Wilmington area. Hoteliers also supported guides to lead visitors on local mountain trails, including the trails to the peak of Whiteface Mountain. The famous “Adirondack hermit,” Noah John Rondeau, made Wilmington his last place of residence in the 1960s when he retired from his Cold River home. By the 1960s, the West Branch of the AuSable River was touted as a world–class fishing stream. Spring still brings anglers from across the country, thanks in large part to Wilmington’s fly-fishing author and promoter, Fran Betters.
Surrounded by natural beauty, the West Branch of the AuSable River, and Whiteface Mountain, the area gradually gained a reputation as a scenic resort. As the nineteenth century drew to an end, the iron forges closed due to easier access to ore in the mid-west. Emphasis began to shift from traditional industry and farming to the relatively new business of tourism. Photographers, like the famous Seneca Ray Stoddard, introduced the scenic attractiveness of the area to the rest of the world with photographs of Whiteface Mountain, High Falls Gorge, and Wilmington Notch. Wilmington entered the golden age of hotels, tourist cottages and Adirondack-style camps. Private entrepreneurs such as Frank Everest of the Whiteface Mountain House, Ed and Oscar Olney of the Olney Hotel, and Lewis Bliss of the Bliss House operated their hotels and gradually the town’s reputation grew. In addition, many people from nearby cities built summer camps and spent their time here relaxing and participating in recreational activities. Wilmington, home of Whiteface Mountain, was on the map. In the early 1930s, construction of the Whiteface Mountain Veteran’s Memorial Highway was begun. It was dedicated in 1935 to the veterans of the world war by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The highway has since become one of New York State’s most popular attractions.
By the 1940s, downhill skiing became a significant new winter sport in America and the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center was inaugurated, first at Marble Mountain, then in 1958 at the current site. With this development, tourism in Wilmington was expanded to the winter season. Ski legends, including Otto Schniebs, Walter Prager and “Jack Rabbit” Johannsen, came to Wilmington to make trails and develop the sport of downhill skiing. With the advent of the 1980 Winter Olympics, Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington became the center of the alpine events, and the world watched. Since then World Cup and other ski and snowboard competitions come to Wilmington on a regular basis.
In the late 1940’s, Julian Reiss created Santa’s Workshop, along with his partners, artist and designer Arto Monaco and builder and promoter Harold Fortune. Upon its opening, the park made national and international news, creating a phenomenon. A photograph story hit the newspaper wires on July 5, 1949 and ran in over 700 newspapers across the country, resulting in even more stories, news, and magazine articles. The attendance figure on Labor Day, 1951 was estimated at about 14,000 people. Santa’s Workshop is still in operation today. Due in large part to the introduction of Santa’s Workshop and the new ski area at Whiteface Mountain, as well as the increased mobility brought about by America’s new love of the automobile, motels sprang up all over town.
Wilmington continues to host visitors and tourists, taking the “cottages” idea of the 1920s-1950s and refreshing it with Airbnb and other vacation rental options. The 1950s motels are now considered inns and suites. A more recent venue is Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehab Center, opened in the year 2000 by Wendy & Steve Hall. Mountain biking and has been added to the sports offered with multiple trail options throughout the town.
There is no longer evidence of the mills, forge, or factories that once dominated the West Branch of the AuSable River, nor is there much evidence of farming, except for a few stone walls hidden in the woods. In addition, the historic hotels have disappeared, and summer tourist cottages have turned into year-round homes. Forests once again cover most of the area outside of the hamlet portion of the Town of Wilmington. The original wooden bridge and dam are now a stone bridge and a larger dam is located further downstream. From its rural roots, Wilmington has evolved into an outdoor recreation, science, and education destination featuring its natural attributes. The unique blend of natural resources, a touch of wilderness, entrepreneurship, and personal enterprise has created a small rural town of national and international acclaim.”