Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps (1816-1905) was the Adirondack guide who made guides famous.
He attracted disciples more than clients, bursting into national acclaim through Charles Dudley Warner’s tribute in The Atlantic. “Old Mountain” Phelps became the consummate denizen of the wild, with the disheveled appearance and primitive education requisite in the philosopher sprung from nature. While other entrepreneurs mined the early tourist trade for the sport of hunting and fishing, and today’s pilgrims are drawn to test their grit against the mountain, Phelps was in the wilderness to hear the voices of God.
Born in Vermont, he was the son of a surveyor and worked at the Adirondack Iron Works in Tahawus in his youth before becoming a professional guide. Like most other guides of the time, he fished, hunted, and trapped. He also collected wildflowers and harvested the materials he used to craft durable pack baskets. Alfred Donaldson observed that “One does not think of Old Mountain Phelps so much as a lover of nature…as a part of nature itself.”
Unsurprising for a man who spent much time alone in the woods, Phelps was considered unique and even eccentric in his perspective. He was as deeply religious as any man of his century, but his sporadic church attendance never overshadowed the God he met in meadow flower and mountaintop. A storehouse of information about natural lore, combined with a trove of knowledge of scenic hideaways, were his attractions as a guide.
His dislike of bathing was well attested, but he was in fact a village dweller with a large family. He was famous for quaint backwoods phrases (“Random Scoot,” “Heaven Up-h’isted-ness,”) but he was also a voracious reader and the quality of his published field studies led dedicated scholars to lament his loss to the natural sciences.
He cut the Bartlett Ridge Trail and the trail to Mount Marcy from Lower Ausable Lake. Phelps had a special affinity for Marcy, to which he led the first two women in 1858, and claimed to have summited more than one hundred times. Phelps Mountain and Phelps Brook were named for him.
(Contributed by Hearth Rising.)