Friday, December 13, 2019

In Tom Tyler’s backyard: Arctic City Film Studios

Tom Tyler, aged 21
Back in the mid-1910’s to early 1920’s, Port Henry, New York – the hamlet where Tom Tyler was born in 1903 – had its own movie studio, Arctic City Film Studios. Having a movie studio in his backyard while growing up, then-named Vincent Markowski must have been enamored with big name actors and actresses filming there.

Built in 1915 with its concept of origin dating to at least 1914, Arctic City became the location for movies with the following settings: the west, Klondike, Yukon, Siberia, Lapland, Russia, and Eskimo. With the beautiful Adirondacks as the backdrop, it was not long before producers took advantage of the new studio and started filming there. The brainchild of “Caribou Bill” Cooper, Arctic City was quickly built, and with the earliest days of movie making being on the east coast, primarily New York City, and New Jersey, it seemed only natural to have a studio that emulated the western and northwestern frontier in exciting films. The end result of Arctic City wound up being different than what Caribou Bill originally envisioned yet it was still magnificent and up to film production standards as to what the little western town should look like. Some of the most popular film production companies made silent films at Arctic City: Solax, Vitagraph, Equitable, Edison, Peerless, Metro, Famous Players, Fox, and many others. By 1919, independent producers were able to film at Arctic City.

From Picture Play, August 1921
It seems like the good people of Port Henry were excited at the idea of having a movie studio in town, and some of the wealthy townspeople helped back the project financially. Caribou Bill had an experienced background in Alaska and out west, even had connections with Dawson City in Yukon, where 533 reels of silent film from the 1910’s and 1920’s were discovered in 1978. In 1909, Caribou Bill returned to the states and attended the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in Seattle. While at this Expo, he spoke to the men representing Vitagraph, wound up signing a contract with them, and headed straight for New York as a technical advisor for a movie set in the northwest. Even though Caribou Bill died in 1933 at the age of 61, he got to see his Arctic City studio idea come to fruition – and put Port Henry on the map. Being located only seven hours away from New York City meant that Port Henry was ideal for the many actors and actresses who worked out of the city.

From The Capital Times, Madison, WI, May 2, 1930
Even to the citizens of Port Henry who toured the Arctic City to see where their favorite stars filmed movies were impressed: a single street lined with buildings on either side, reminiscent of a late 1800's western town. Offices for mining engineers, a bank, a Ritz hotel, doctor's office, a small church, and a saloon aptly named “Aurora Borealis” made up the town. The stage at Arctic City was 80 by 100 feet in size, with full film facilities and properties that permitted the creation of a silent film from start to finish. Arctic City even had its own zoo of trained animal actors. Wild animals included Russian bears, Russian timber wolves, as well as domesticated dogs and horses for the stunts. Michael Schliesser was in charge of handling the animal stunts. These animals were very well trained and would listen to and follow commands on demand. However, the dogs always seemed to be fighting, perhaps due to the different breeds: Malemutes, or Alaskan Huskie sled dogs, and Hudson Bay dogs. Located so far north near the Canadian border, Arctic City could get very cold during the winter months – as low as 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Even Lake Champlain, the Great Lake upon which Port Henry sits, often developed a sheet of ice near the shoreline. More often than not, the movie studio shot on location in the Adirondacks: Sometimes directly on Lake Champlain, or Plattsburgh, where the famous actress Jean Arthur was born.

What must have really been exciting for the citizens of Port Henry was this: many times a movie being filmed at Arctic City would require extras to appear in the movie. It remains unknown if Vincent Markowski appeared as an extra, or if any of his immediate family members did, although the mere thought is in fact exciting and would reasonably influence his desire to become an actor when he was in his teens. One name that does pop up repeatedly in the extras is Ezra Horsefall, who resided at the local senior home in Port Henry at the time. It is probable that young Vincent, only a boy at the time before his family moved to Hamtramck, Michigan, did know at least one neighbor who was an extra at a film production in Arctic City.

Appropriately enough, in 2009, The Moriah Historical Society hosted its first Silent Film Festival. Moriah is right next to Port Henry, and also showcased films related to the area – one being “Adventures of Captain Marvel”. One chapter from this critically acclaimed film serial was exhibited, to honor Tom Tyler, who was born in Port Henry. Several chapters from “The Perils of Pauline”  were shown too. No doubt Port Henry has much to be proud of, with its Hollywood connections, and Tom Tyler.

A partial list of silent films made at Arctic City:

“The Perils of Pauline” (1914) – Directors: Louis J. Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie. Writers: Charles W. Goddard and Basil Dickey. Stars: Pearl White and Crane Wilbur. (Note: filmed at Ausable Chasm, Ithaca, and Saranac Lake for New York locations. Saranac Lake was the first location of Caribou Bill’s movie studio before its location moved to Port Henry a year later.)

“Hearts in Exile” (1915) – Director: James Young. Writers: John Oxenham, Owen Davis. Stars: Clara Kimball Young, Montagu Love.

“The Destroyers” (1916) – Director: Ralph Ince. Writer: James Oliver Curwood and Edward J. Monagne. Stars: Lucille Lee Stewart and Huntley Gordon.

“The Long Trail” (1917) – Director: Howell Hansel. Writer: Eve Unsell. Stars: Lou Telligan and Mary Fuller.

“The Great White Trail” (1917) – Directors: Leopold Wharton, Theodore Wharton. Writers: Gardner Hunting and Leopold Wharton. Stars: Doris Kenyon and Paul Gordon.

“Vengeance Is Mine” (1917) – Director: Frank Hall Crane. Writer: John A. Moroso. Stars: Irene Castle and Frank Sheriden.

“The Tiger’s Cub” (1920) – Director: Charles Giblyn. Writers: George Goodchild, George Potter. Stars: Pearl White and  Thomas Carrigan.

“Northwind’s Malice” (1920) – Directors: Paul Bern, Carl Harbaugh. Writer: Rex Beach. Stars: Tom Santschi and Jane Thomas.

“Idol of the North” (1921) – Director: Roy William Neill. Writers: Frank S. Beresford, Tom McNamara. Stars: Dorothy Dalton and Edwin August. Lost silent film.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1927) – Director: Harry A. Pollard. Writer: Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stars: Margarita Fischer and James B. Lowe.


“Arctic City – At Twenty Below” by Leonie Nathan and Jules Cowles, Picture Play, August 1921
“Arctic Productions” Wid’s Daily, December 21, 1918
“Hero of Alaska Gold Rush is now a Movie Executive in Hollywood”, NEA Service, The Capital Times, Madison, WI, May 2, 1930.
“Caribou Bill Cooper of Old-Time Alaska Dies” The Fresno Bee, Fresno, CA, November 2, 1933.
William F. Cooper,
“Moriah and Port Henry in the Adirondacks” By Jacqueline Ann Viestenz, Frank Edgerton Martin,

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