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 once integral to the once-thriving Adirondack tourism heyday of the mid 20th century.

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 comb 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 make 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 this is how Frontier Town becamer 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 and 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 the park 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 allow children to participate. Stagecoaches, trains, tracks 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 life long, 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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35 Comments on “Frontier Town

  1. Remember it well. The last trip I took there I got stung in the eye and my finger slammed in a car door. Still, I remember it pretty fondly. Much more so than other, similar, attractions in the area.

    Another most excellent story sir.

  2. So sad to see what has become of this place. I went there many times in the 60’s and 70’s as a child. So lucky to have been able to take my children to experience the old west before it closed for good. Brought back many fond memories watching through my kids eyes. An adventure in a day. The train ride through the park, getting held up by robbers (bad guys) on the stagecoach, getting attacked by indians, a shoot out on Main Street, having my kids become honary deputys to help the sherriff catch the bad guys, having them sent to jail , dunked in the pond or put in the gallows and have their picture put on a wanted poster if they were the bad guy. They got to ride the horses, watch the rodeo, watch the cowboys play poker in the saloon, they saw an indian show and live black bears. It was a great fun adventure for me and my kids. I wish they had more places like this now. Not to show the violence but the history of what once was.

  3. i used to work there as a young kid. most of my relatives worked there. my uncle andy was the pony express rider, my uncle jim was jim dalton, my uncle ross drove stagecoach my cousins russel , ronnie, steve and my aunt mary were all helpers in the stables duncking pool etc. and sometime played the train and stagecoach robbers. ill remember that place as long as i live. really fond memories.

  4. I was there many times as a child the schools would take the younger school grades there. This was a very nice place for family time also.

  5. wow I have passed by so many times and wondered about it… why had my parents not taken me there? what is going on with the place etc… That is tragic I would so love to take my kids to a place like that

  6. Great blog!!! I am a photographer and loved seeing the photos. I used to go there with my family. I would love to walk through and take some photos. Totally jealous! Lol.

  7. I loved “Frontier Town” back in the 60’s, especially the “jail” with the sign that read “Don’t Feed The Varmits”, and the stagecoach rides and being “held up” by the bad guys. So much fun! I have an old home movie (now on DVR) of a day spent there with some cousins. I too was lucky enough to take my own children there in the 80’s, although I doubt they would remember that. “Cowboys and Indians” wasn’t their thing like it was ours! Thanks for the memories I had forgotten.

  8. I have always wanted to bring my kids for a walk-through as we travel the Northway. I visited Frontier Town many times as a kid – it was amazing and these types of experiences are few and far between for today’s kids. (Looks like I won’t get in trouble, which I was afraid of.)

  9. We came when I was a kid. I remember the stage coach “hold up” and my mother makes sure to remind anyone that will listen that I pointed out to the robber that while I had no money, she did LOL

  10. I always remembered vaguely going to this place around age 4 or so. I loved cap pistols and remember the shootouts. I also remember there were beds of some sort, some kind of hostel. Am I wrong?

  11. Wonderful story and photos. So sad that it had to close, but thousands of us have some nice memories.

    • I went there as a young girl with my brother and sister on a family outing. It was a great time and exciting since we watched a lot of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, Lone Ranger, and I even went to Madison Square Garden and shook hands with Roy Rogers at a show where he was entertaining with the Dale Evans and the Sons of the Pioneers. So going to Frontier Town was exciting for us. Who owns the land now where Frontier Town’s buildings remain?

  12. We went every year, when I was young, One of my great memorys, was, my sister saw a horse she use to ride at our local riding stables. Next thing we’re being rob by the bandits, My Mom asked where my sister was, I didn’t know. I said she saw Bell, the horses. Lmbo, then we here the bandits got robbed, his horse was misssing, guess who stole the horse my sister. They were caught right away and thanked my sister.

  13. Our family went many times,but what I remember the most was the stage coach ride,when our mom told the robers that my brother knew where the money chest was.It was funny to see my brother John explaain his way out of that one. Many good memories.

  14. My grandmother ‘Joyce Donaldson’ was the seamstress/costume maker for Frontier Town. I grew up spending summers going to work with her and spending the day in the park. I fed the bears, helped with animals, was fascinated with the glass blowing and the grist mill. I remember once when I was staying at her house the Indian chief stopped by and I was horrified of him, I hid and wouldn’t come out until he left. I had many wonderful times there. In the 80’s Johnny Cash gave a show at Frontier Town.

  15. I loved frontier Town I took my kids there and was actually looking for it to take my grandchildren. It is so sad that they did not keep it up totally great experience. Loved it.

  16. Back in the 50’s my mother took us to Frontier Town. It seems to me it was below Saratoga, but this old memory is going south and has many holes like Frontier town has now. I remember the train holdup. That is about all.

  17. Hey Chad, a bunch of the images in this post appear to be missing? Just wanted you to know!

    • Oof. I had no idea. I’ll investigate this – thanks for letting me know!

      • Of course! I found a few typos while reading last night too, didn’t know if you wanted me to point them out though! I’d be happy to when I have time later…I literally read every post you’ve ever written, they’re great!!

      • Oh geez, thanks man! That really means a lot. I try my best to avoid typos, but I tend to get a bit verbose and lost in my work, and sometimes wordpress editor isn’t the most reliable tool to depend on haha. I’ll have to comb through.

      • I’ll send you a Facebook message with the ones I noticed so you don’t have a bunch of comments on here!

      • lol if you insist. Thanks for the help, man. It’s appreciated.

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