Tug Hill Region

The Tug Hill Region lies between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks. Larger than Delaware or Rhode Island, its 2,100 square miles comprise one of the most rural and remote sections of New York State and the Northeast. A scattering of public lands covers a tenth of the region, with most of that land used extensively for timber production, hunting, and recreation. The rest is privately owned forest, farms, and homes, all of it working land that supports the region’s way of life.

Tug Hill’s total population is just over 100,000, with two-thirds of those people concentrated in villages around its edge. Its densely forested core of about 800 square miles is among New York’s most remote areas, with a population of just a few thousand and few public roads.

The specialness of the Tug Hill region and its natural resources were recognized by New York State in 1972 when it created the Tug Hill Commission, a non-regulatory state agency charged with helping local governments, organizations, and citizens shape the future of the region, especially its environment and economy. In 1992, the state legislature passed the Tug Hill Reserve Act, further recognizing the statewide importance of the region’s natural resources. Congress has recognized the region as an integral part of the Northern Forest Lands area.

In 1998, new state legislative authorization for the Tug Hill Commission (establishing the Commission within New York State’s Executive Law, Article 37, Section 847) noted Tug Hill’s “lands and waters are important to the State of New York as municipal water supply, as wildlife habitat, as key resources supporting forest industry, farming, recreation and tourism and traditional land uses such as hunting and fishing.” Other legislation in 1998 (Chapter 419, Laws of 1998) supported State purchase of conservation easements in the Tug Hill region adding it to similar provisions that apply in New York’s Adirondack Park, Catskill Park and watershed of the City of Rochester.

The rocks that underlie Tug Hill (mostly shales and sandstones) help define the region. They gently rise from 250 feet at the western edge near Lake Ontario to 2,100 feet on the eastern edge where bold escarpments overlook the Black River Valley and the western foothills of the Adirondacks.

Tug Hill Snow
Tug Hill is noted for its heavy snowfalls, usually described as the heaviest east of the Rockies, though Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont rival Tug Hill.

The combination of winter winds blowing over some 150 miles of Lake Ontario waters and the 2,000-foot rise of Tug Hill creates these heavy snows. But “lake effect” snows can be very local, so snowfall amounts around the Tug Hill Region vary considerably. There is no “average” snowfall for the entire region, except to say it is heavy everywhere in the 2,100 square mile region.

Snowfall information from the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University and snowpack measurements by the Hudson River – Black River Regulationg District indicates that the Tug Hill’s heaviest snows occur in its central areas, where west winds have crossed the greatest expanse of Lake Ontraio. Lighter snowfall occurs at the northern and southern edges of the region.

According to data from Northeast Regional Climate Center Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University the highest recorded monthly snowfall for the Boonville area was 156.4 inches in January of 1978. The highest recorded yearly snowfall for that area was 346.1 inches in 1976-1977. The highest recorded monthly snowfall for the Montague area was 182 inches in January of 1978, the highest recorded yearly snowfall for Montague was 466.9 inches in the winter of 1976-1977. For Highmarket the highest recorded monthly snowfall was 114.3 inches of snow in January of 1997, this year also had the highest recorded yearly total with a total of 296.2 inches of snow received for the year 1996-1997. In Lowville the highest month was January of ’78 when the recorded amount of snow was 75.9 inches and the highest recorded year was 251.0 for the winter of 1970-1971. For Lyons Falls the highest month was January of 1978 with 76.5 inches and the highest year was the winter of 1970 – 1971 with 181.4 inches of snow received.

For real time information on Tug Hill weather, including Doppler radar on lake effect snowstorms, check out Intellicast.

Tug Hill’s elevation and position with respect to Lake Ontario results in annual snowfall in excess of 200 inches–the heaviest snowfall east of the Rockies. In January 1997, the Tug Hill town of Montague set a national record for the most snowfall in a 24 hr. period (77 inches), and a New York state record for the most snowfall in a single storm (95 inches). This high precipitation supplies an abundance of wetlands, streams, and rivers, noted for their pristine character.

Another notable characteristic of the Tug Hill landscape is the abundance of gorges, known locally as “gulfs,” that were carved by rapidly flowing water from the melt of glaciers. Most of the region’s 17 gulfs contain sections up to 200 feet deep. In some cases, the streams have cut gorges almost 300 feet deep.

A best guess on the origin of the name for the Tug Hill region is that “Tug Hill” was a frequently used name in the 18th and 19th centuries for many areas reached by horses or oxen “tugging” a wagon up a long road to get to a high area. H.E. Krueger in his article “The Lesser Wilderness – Tug Hill” in a 1966-1967 article in The Conservationist was named Tug Hill by two early settlers, Isaac Perry and a Mr. Buell when traveling up the hill west of Turin. Krueger claims that prior to this christening, the Iroquois referred to Tug Hill as the Lesser Wilderness, and the Adirondacks “the Iroquois term, meaning “barkeater,” a pejorative applied to the Algonquins, reputedly for their eating of the cambium of willow trees in time of scarce food” as the Greater Wilderness.

Some people do say “Tug Hill Plateau,” suggesting that once you “tug” to the top of the hill you are on a relatively flat place rather than a hilltop. “Plateau” is also close to geologically correct since Tug Hill is flat on top. Technically, geologists would probably call Tug Hill a “cuesta” since it is actually comprised of sedimentary rocks that tip up on one side (rising from about 350 feet on the west to over 2,000 feet in the east).