Frontier Town

Most people my age aren’t likely to recall Frontier Town, a once prominent destination turned ghost town in the woods of tiny North Hudson, New York, but there are plenty of people who will tell you that it used to be great,  and integral to the once-thriving Adirondack tourism heyday of the mid 20th century.

The Adirondacks are the rugged mountain range that makes up upstate New York, and most of those mountains are within the 6 million acre Adirondack Park, an area about the size of my home state of Vermont and is the largest park within the lower 48.

I’ve mentioned Frontier Town before in an earlier blog entry, but never truly got around to exploring it until recently.

Frontier Town is a massive place, it’s kitschy-cool ruins stretch unassumingly from the roadsides of Routes 9 and 84, and far back out of sight on the sprawling property at the bottom of shady hollows and a myriad of cold swamps that pulse with mosquitoes in the summers. Because the property is so large, it’s very difficult to get a good idea of just how much there is to see, until you start exploring for yourself. It’s taken me 3 trips to see a good deal of it, and I still feel like I’ve been unprepared with every visit.

My trips started back in 2012, which were focused on the assortment of abandoned motels and cabins lining Route 9 that once served the motel, and slowly, I would explore my way inwards.

The story of these curious ruins are actually pretty extraordinary. It’s one of those anecdotes that awkwardly stumbles its way onto the altar of the American Dream, and can be filed away in the “anything’s possible” camp of things that makes my cynicism do a double take.

In 1951, Arthur Bensen, a Staten Island entrepreneur who installed telephones for a living, toured the northeast with $40,000, to find a location suitable for building his dream project which would be far more ambitious than his current profession; an amusement park.

267 wooded acres in North Hudson would seal the deal, and despite having no construction skills, no idea how to run an amusement park and no real income after purchasing the property, he went to work.

He was known for his amiable personality, someone who was convincing and charismatic, so much so that he got many North Hudson-ites and locals from neighboring Adirondack towns to help him build the park and eventually be employed there, despite some thinking he was out of his mind. But impressively, his tenaciousness and optimism paid off, as his dream began to take shape. Using his 1951 Chevy, he would drag timber behind his car to build many of the log cabins around the site that still stand today.

Bensen was also known to be a quick thinker and good at improvisation – and it was these skills that ultimately would shape the park so many would come to love. Maybe the greatest example of that previous sentence is how Frontier Town became Frontier Town. His original vision was to build a Pioneer Village, but shortly before opening, the appropriate costumes for his employees never arrived. So, Bensen made a trip down to New York City to purchase some, but returned with Cowboy and Indian costumes instead, because apparently, those were the only costumes he could buy in such a short notice. So instead, he made some alterations to his blueprints, and Frontier Town was born, officially opening on July 4, 1952 and would continue to expand in the intervening years.

He soon constructed Prairie Junction to keep with his new theme, which was modeled after your stereotypical Main Street of a dirty wild west town. The low rise wooden buildings were all connected by a broad wooden porch, consisting of a saloon, music hall and a shop selling Western-themed clothing. A rodeo area was built nearby, which held two of them a day would and allowed children to participate. Stagecoaches, replica era steam trains and covered wagons would all transport visitors around the park, and outlaws on horseback would rob the trains and engage in shoot-outs.

Frontier Town wasn’t just loved by the tourists and generations of wide-eyed kids who made memories there, it was also loved by the locals. The park employed many Adirondack area teens, who spent their paychecks on college tuition. Many friendships and romances were also forged here, some which would last lifelong, and would later be recalled wistfully on Frontier Town message boards and fansites that pop up on Google searches about the place.

Employees wore period garb and would teach bemused onlookers how to do thematic daily tasks that our frontier predecessors did back in the day to survive. Stuff like churning butter, demonstrating how yarn was spun, or cook pea soup in an iron kettle over a fireplace, which was said to be a favorite of loggers in the Adirondacks.

The park would come to its peak popularity in the 1960s and 70s and then would enter an inevitable period of decline. The times were changing. The construction of the Adirondack Northway would lure traffic to bypass North Hudson and cut travel time dramatically. Now, travelers no longer needed to depend on Route 9 to get to the Adirondacks from New York City. Some speculate that the park really declined when a new transgressive era ushered in parents becoming uneasy with their kids playing with guns, which was more acceptable when Westerns were all the craze on TV and the silver screen. As one Frontier Town enthusiast wrote on a comment thread; “Cowboys and Indians were big time. Every kid had a gun and a cowboy hat”. Others blame broader travel opportunities that came with the construction of interstate highways and air travel, making places like Frontier Town obsolete.

In 1983, Art Benson sold Frontier Town to another development firm, and would pass away 5 years later. The park was closed until 1989, re-opening with additions, such as a miniature golf course. In 1998, Frontier Town closed for good due to failing finances and weak attendance. The property was seized in August 2004 by the county for past-due property taxes. The stagecoaches, trains, buggies and the tracks were all ripped out and sold, as well as other paraphernalia. Collectors can still find mementos at Gokey’s Trading Post just down the road, which is where a lot of Frontier Town relics ended up during the massive auction after the park’s closing.

Today, awkward and fantastical ruins falling apart in silence underneath the Pines are all that remains of Frontier Town. A walk around the property reveals the tragic process of decay and entropy which is sad and breathtaking to behold, as you reflect on society’s impermanence.

I visited during the dark wintery cold of January, and returned during a far more pleasant 50 degree April Sunday, so my photos are a mixture of winter and early spring shots.

When I took my research to the internet, I found a cool Facebook page, Frontier Town Abandoned Theme Park Now And Then, with tons of great old photos to gaze at. It’s incredible what the transformative power of nature can do to a place in a short time.

Frontier Town in its Postcard Prime

via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com

Frontier Town, 2015

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Joining me for my adventure was my friend Bill Alexander, creator of Vermonter.com, who filmed our walk around the grounds. Check out his write up and video below!

Return, Summer 2015

As much as I openly complain about Facebook, and how I find social media more unnourishing and exhausting for me, I have to admit that it’s also been a huge boon in terms of networking and keeping this blog’s momentum in a direction that’s not backwards. Making friends when your an adult is a hard gig. Thankfully, I was able to network with and befriend other explorers over Facebook who dwell all over the east coast. Eventually, we started to organize meet ups with willing participants. In June, 2015, I would meet two cars worth of previously virtual photographer and explorer friends, and Frontier Town was one of our stops on a full day excursion. But, a day of exploring before we arrived in North Hudson had drained my camera batteries, so I only was able to get a few pictures under the coolness of a soft summer evening.

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