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Witnesses forever changed by King's final days

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had won victories on desegregation and voting rights and had been planning his Poor People’s Campaign when he turned his attention to Memphis, the gritty city by the Mississippi River. That decision set in motion events that had a profound impact on his country, and on those who directly witnessed the subsequent tragedy.

It began Feb. 1, 1968, when two sanitation workers were crushed when a garbage truck compactor malfunctioned, sparking a strike by about 1,300 black sanitation workers weary of working conditions and racist treatment in the dirtiest of municipal jobs.

“We didn’t have a place to shower, wash our hands, nothing,” said Elmore Nickleberry, who at 86 still drives a truck for the department.

King tried to lead a march on March 28 that turned violent — storefront windows were smashed and police wielded clubs and tear gas.

King went back to Atlanta disheartened, but returned April 3, determined to show that nonviolent protest still worked.

Lawyer Mike Cody was among those working to persuade a judge to lift a ban against a new march. He met with King in his motel room.

“King felt strongly that unless he could get a success here in Memphis, with these workers using nonviolent, civil disobedience, then he would never get the Poor People’s March in Washington that summer,” said Cody, 82.

Cody was in the crowd later that evening at the Mason Temple. Though King was ill, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy asked him to address the thousands who turned out despite a thunderstorm.

“It’s a tin roof, so that’s banging. There’s rafters up there above us, and the rafters are blowing with the wind and hitting each other and hitting the walls from the fierceness of the wind and the rain,” said the Rev. James Lawson, a prominent civil rights activist.

With little preparation, King delivered a speech that, in retrospect, seemed to foretell his death: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

When he finished, King slumped into a chair. He looked to Cody like a “toy that had the air taken out of it.”

“Ministers, men were crying,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

Cody went to court the next day with King aide Andrew Young, then dropped Young back at the Lorraine Motel in the late afternoon.

King had spent most of the day in meetings. He asked Young where he’d been and then threw a pillow at him. “Then everybody picked up pillows and beat me up,” Young said. “All of us were in our 30s, and we were acting like 10, 12-year-olds. But it was the happiest I had seen him in a long time.”

As dinner approached, King and his friends moved to the motel balcony. King turned to a bandleader who was standing nearby and made a request: Later, could he play his favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”?

Then: “Pow! A bullet,” recalled Jackson, pointing to the right side of his own face.

It was 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968.

“At first I thought it was a firecracker or car backfiring,” Young said.

Jackson ran toward the balcony steps.

“Someone said, ‘Doc has been shot,’ and ‘Get low,’” Jackson said.

Earl Caldwell, a New York Times reporter who’d interviewed King on the balcony the previous day, ran out of his room in his boxer shorts. “I was thinking, ‘It was a bomb. It was a bomb.’ Because the noise was greater than a gun.”

Clara Ester, a college student who marched alongside the sanitation workers, had gone to the motel for dinner when she saw King chatting on the balcony and then heard the shot.

“He looked like he was lifted up and thrown back on the pavement. Next thing I remember, I was stepping over his body, and I’m noticing that he’s struggling for air,” she said.

Ester said she noticed King’s tie had blown off. His eyes were open, “almost a pleasant expression on his face,” she said.

King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where college student John Billings worked as a surgical assistant.

“Three doctors came over and walked to where I was standing. They said, ‘OK Billings, go find somebody in charge and tell them that Dr. King has expired,’” he said.

Billings was ordered to stay with King’s body until someone could come get him.

“I walked over, pulled the sheet back, and there he was,” Billings said. “His eyes were closed. I thought, ‘How strange this is.’”

Security was heavy when medical examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco arrived. Men holding shotguns stood inside and outside the room. After the 1½-hour autopsy, Francisco drove home with Memphis under curfew, for fear of rioting.

“The streets were just virtually empty. I was the only car moving,” he said.

Fifty years after King’s assassination, Ester has trouble talking about the months that followed. Haunted by memories, she left her hometown.

Billings became a private investigator; met James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to killing King; and explored the notion someone else had been involved.

Young became a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta’s mayor.

Jackson ran for president, then stood in Chicago’s Grant Park with tears streaming down his face after a black man was elected president in 2008.

Cody continued working in civil-rights law in Memphis, eventually serving as a U.S. attorney and Tennessee attorney general.

If King were alive today, “he’d be in people’s face” about race, poverty and inequality, Cody says.

“We’re not past all of that history.”

Tupper Lake resort gets underway after lawsuits, tax issues and stalled development

TUPPER LAKE — After years of stalled development, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, the Adirondack Club and Resort is making progress on the first two phases of the ambitious real estate, ski mountain and resort project.

Working out of view of the public eye, construction crews have been building roads to the 18 “Great Camp” luxury homes lots on 5,800 acres of land developers purchased from the Oval Wood Dish Corporation Liquidating Trust in May for $5.2 million. Permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, state Adirondack Park Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the past year allow construction of the houses to start when the lots are sold.

The 5.46-mile long Pond Road connects the lots to Lake Simond Road and will allow the project to bypass land owned by the Nature Conservancy. Currently, construction crews are using a right of way on the Conservancy’s land to access the construction areas, but this is a temporary route until the completion of the bypass road.

While touring the construction on Thursday, the project’s independent environmental inspector, Kurt Bedore, was on the scene, preparing a report for the APA, DEC and Army Corps on the environmental impact of the project. The engineer was on his 42nd trip and is paid out of pocket by developers.

He said the bypass road was “spot-on beautiful” but that four streams the road crosses were running dirty because parts of the road were washing into them, an easy fix.

Though there has been much skepticism about the environmental impact of the construction, Bedore said he “couldn’t be happier” with the way it has been handled.

Great Camp lots

ACR developer Tom Lawson said contracts have been entered to sell five of the lots and he plans to start closing on them in the coming weeks. The expansive project will be funded and carried out in phases. The selling of the Great Camp lots is phase one, which will fund phase two, the reopening of the Big Tupper Ski Area, as 7.25 percent of money from the sales will go toward ski lifts, lodge restoration and snowmaking at Big Tupper.

“The only way that golf courses and ski areas and things can be successful is they have to have a real estate element,” Lawson said. “No one can justify restoring this mountain without selling real estate to try to get their money.”

Lawson said up until now, he has not been seeking out buyers; everyone he has contracts with came to him. Later this spring he said he will start a sales program to find more buyers.

The larger lots can span 700 acres and cost between $2.5 million and $5 million each. Small lots, which start at 30 acres, cost between $750,000 and $1,750,000 a piece.

Surveyors have been marking the properties for luxury homes, and the septic fields have been “perced” — tested for how water moves through the soil. Lawson said the Great Camp lots will be self-contained and should not rely on municipal sewer lines.

Big Tupper Ski Area

The beloved Tupper Lake ski mountain, opened by the town in the 1960s but privatized in the 1980s, is going to open when the snow starts this fall, according to Lawson, allowing locals and visitors from around the country to again enjoy Big Tupper’s long, family-friendly trails.

While there are plans for five chairlifts eventually, Lift 2 and the kids Mitey Mite rope tow are the only ones scheduled to reopen in 2018. Lawson said he has hired landscape architect Hart Howerton to develop trails.

The ski lodge will also be renovated, and Lawson is currently making decisions about whether a larger one will be built around the current lodge, incorporating some of the historic building. It depends on the structural soundness of the existing foundation.

He said lift ticket prices may change over the years as the mountain sees more trails, amenities and workers, but he guaranteed a ticket that is 25 percent less than those at Whiteface and Gore mountains, adding that there will be discounts for local skiers.

Long history

Though the ACR project started in February 2004, it has not made much progress or money until recently. After a stop-and-start process resulted in APA approval in January 2012, the project was stuck in court for years as environmental groups Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club sued to keep the project from dividing forests into roughly 40-acre housing developments. The environmental groups said the project would have a negative impact on wildlife as large houses, long roads and other developments broke up their natural habitats.

The groups wanted more consolidated development to let wildlife roam freely in larger areas, but Lawson said he does not see how 18 houses on 5,800 acres of land would really hurt wildlife. Neither did the courts, which ruled in Lawson’s favor consistently.

“There’s such a thing as a frivolous lawsuit,” Lawson said. “When someone keeps filing and filing and they never win, that’s frivolous.”

After years of legal fees and a lack of income from the project, the developers racked up major debts, as did Lawson himself. He had extended himself by buying numerous properties in Tupper Lake and at one point owed more than $1.5 million back taxes alone, which further hindered progress.

He has since cut that debt in about half, paying back his delinquent taxes in $76,000 installments every month since last June. He is on the longest payment schedule available to any New York taxpayer, according to Franklin County Treasurer Frances Perry, with 24 months to pay back everything, a $100,000 down payment and a 12 percent annual interest rate.

Perry said Lawson is current on his payments, a requirement of the agreement, which also requires he not allow more delinquent taxes to accrue.

As construction of the Great Camp lots and the ski area enter their starting phases, the project has the potential to fulfill another one of its promises: supplying jobs to the Tupper Lake community. Contractors, ski area employees and landscapers should be in demand as houses and ski lifts are built, and Lawson said he wants those positions to be filled by Tupper Lakers.

“I don’t have any legal obligation to hire local, but I’ve always thought I wanted to do things local,” Lawson said. “There is a job for everybody that wants to work.”

If built as planned, the ACR would also include ski-in-ski-out townhouses, a 60-room hotel, an equestrian center and a marina on Big Tupper Lake.

Callie Ginter / Callie Ginter, 

Nick Johnson, 28, is the strength and conditioning coach at Adirondack Nautilus on Dix Avenue in Glens Falls. The gym is celebrating its 40th year.

PFOA contamination limited near industrial park, DEC says

KINGSBURY — Residents on Dean and Bardin roads are breathing a sigh of relief after tests found most of their wells are not contaminated with PFOA.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation went door to door last month and asked for permission to test every well near W. F. Lake Corp., a business in the Airport Industrial Park of Warren and Washington Counties.

The DEC had previously tested a few wells near the company because the company voluntarily reported that it used to use PFOA. One well, in Kingsbury, was contaminated with PFOA, so DEC focused on other wells nearby.

Only one other well was contaminated, officials said Tuesday.

Results are back for all 32 wells that have been tested.

The first contaminated well tested at a PFOA level of 96 parts per trillion. Another well tested at 68 parts per trillion.

PFOA is considered a danger to human health at 70 parts per trillion.

DEC installed filter systems on both wells, at no cost to the homeowners.

The other 30 wells in the area had traces of PFOA, but the levels were in the single digits, DEC officials said.

Officials are in the process of testing five more wells, but the results so far seem to indicate that there is not a widespread drinking water contamination problem, they said.

Now officials are focusing on W.F. Lake. The owners of the business have indicated that they are willing to let DEC sample the groundwater and soil around the company’s building.

If the company was unwilling, the state could still test the land, but the company is working with DEC, officials said.

W.F. Lake co-owner and secretary/treasurer John Hodgkins has maintained that the company is not the source of the contamination. He said the company never disposed of PFOA, which it used in the process of making Teflon.

PFOA is burned off during that process, and for a long time it was believed to be completely used up. But some plants that use PFOA have inadvertently contaminated the water supply.

Hodgkins voluntarily reported to the state that the company used PFOA for a few years. The company, like many others, switched to a safer chemical developed to avoid PFOA due to health concerns.

Hodgkins has questioned whether the source is the nearby Warren County airport, because the airport uses PFOA in its firefighting foam.

However, DEC tested wells near the airport. The wells were not contaminated, DEC officials said.

DEC visited more than 50 residences to ask permission to test the wells. The agency is still interested in testing wells. Those who want their well tested should call the Department of Health Bureau of Environmental Exposure hotline at 518-402-7880, or send an email to

PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a potentially cancer-causing chemical that contaminated the water supply of the village of Hoosick Falls. In that case, St. Gobain Performance Plastics is located close to the village’s wells. That plant used PFOA for decades. Regionally, PFOA has also been found in private wells in North Bennington, Vermont.

ORDA venues get boost from state budget

Early Saturday morning, New York lawmakers approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to invest $62.5 million investment into this Olympic host’s winter sports venues.

In his budget in January, Cuomo said the money would go to the state Olympic Regional Development Authority and include “$50 million for a strategic upgrade and modernization plan to support improvements to the Olympic facilities and ski resorts, $10 million for critical maintenance and energy efficiency upgrades and $2.5 million appropriated from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation budget as part of the New York Works initiative.”

Venues that could see improvements include the Olympic Center ice rinks, the ski jumping complex, the Mount Van Hoevenberg complex for biathlon, nordic skiing and sliding sports, the U.S. Olympic Training Center, all in Lake Placid; Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre ski centers in Wilmington, North Creek and Highmount, respectively; and possibly a future curling rink in Saranac Lake.

CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism Jim McKenna said this investment will modernize and help sustain the region’s economic drivers.

“People are well aware many of these facilities were built in the ’70s,” he said. “They’ve had a tremendous impact to the community for the past 40 years, but if we look at places like Vancouver and Salt Lake, it’s hard for us to compete without updates.”

McKenna is also one of the key players in the 2023 Winter World University Games, also known as the Winter Universiade. The International University Sports Federation, the organization that runs the games, named Lake Placid the host city in March. The games are supposed to attract more than 2,500 college athletes from 52 countries to compete in sports such as hockey, curling and snowboarding.

McKenna said this state money will make preparing for the games a little easier over the next five years.

“It takes pressure off, without a doubt,” he said, “and it solidifies that there’s an understanding of what these venues mean to the region. It’s good to have the state’s and the governor’s support.”

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi agreed with McKenna about the importance of updated venues.

“It’s an important step,” he said. “It’s imperative that Lake Placid sustain its competitiveness and appeal, not only to national but to international sports interests. It’s been long overdue. We went through the same thing between ’32 and ’80.”

Both 1932 and 1980 were years Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics.

“You need to update, or you get lost in the shuffle,” Politi continued. “Given what’s going on in Park City [Utah], we can’t afford to stay behind.”

Salt Lake City and Park City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, announced in February its intention to host the to 2030 Olympics as well.

In addition to the Universiade, Lake Placid has secured the 2019 International Children’s Games, an International Olympic Committee-sponsored competition for ages 12 to 15. Placidians are also working on a bid for the 2021 Special Olympics World Winter Games.