The Adirondacks

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Lumbering, the only industry extensively developed in the Adirondacks before the tourist and resort business, had toppled millions of white pine by 1840; by 1850 New York was the nation’s leading producer of lumber. The Adirondack woods, however, were still abundant: spruce, balsam, hemlock, ash, cedar, birch, and many other species crowded the plateaus and mountain slopes. In the lakes and streams of the interior, trout and bass were eager, it seemed, to be caught, and deer were so plentiful along the shores that it was not hard to keep a large hunting camp furnished with enough venison for meat three times a day. Quite obviously, the region was a potential Eden for sportsmen, campers, and—given an appropriate number of lodges and hotels—vacationists in general, including women and children.

Lake George had a hotel, the Lake House, before 1800. The Rural Resort opened at Trenton Falls, just outside the modern Blue Line, in 1822. In 1836 Lake Pleasant, thirty miles inside the southern perimeter, was “a favorite resort” for sportsmen. Soon thereafter began what was bound to happen to a fine wilderness area reasonably accessible from New York and Boston: the promotion of its attractions by literary gentlemen who had been there and wanted to share their enthusiasm. Charles Fenno Hoffman, editor of the New York Mirror (in that day an elegant weekly devoted largely to literature and the arts), journeyed into the mountains shortly after Mount Marcy was first scaled and described what he saw in eloquent columns dispatched to his journal. The Reverend John Todd’s Long Lake (1845) hinted vividly at the beauties of the central Adirondacks, although his attitude was antipodal to that of the sportsman: “When the day shall arrive in which these forests shall be cut down, and along the lakes and valleys and around the base of these glorious mountains there shall be a virtuous, industrious and Christian population, I have no doubt it will easily support a million of people.”

Such appraisals undoubtedly attracted a good many visitors to the Adirondacks, but they did not quite belong to the literary genre that a few years later was to start the really large-scale trek to “the north woods.” Essentially, that genre was the fish story—in both its literal and figurative senses. In The Adirondack; or, Life in the Woods (1849), an ex-preacher and popular journalist named Joel T. Headley gave some descriptions of trout fishing that must have driven many an angler into spasms of anticipation: “The very first cast I made, I took one and kept taking them till at the end of two hours I had fifty fine fellows. … My friend … did not fish over an hour and yet in that short time, took a hundred and twenty pounds of trout and left them biting as sharp and fast as when he began.”

Headley and several other writers on the charms of the Adirondacks had made it clear that even ladies could enjoy the wilderness without great discomfort, and in 1855 the Honorable Amelia Murray, doughty maid of honor to Queen Victoria, traversed the region under the guidance of Governor Horatio Seymour of New York. Her report detailed various hardships encountered and overcome, but made it clear that the amenities of empire could be maintained to a tolerable degree even in this outlandish corner of the globe: ”… M—— selected a sheltered rocky nook a little way back for our dressing room; there we bathed and adjusted our toilet with brushes, combs, toothbrushes, a luxury of towels, and even a tiny mirror hung upon the lowest branch of a fine hemlock spruce. …”

Three years later Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and eight other intellectuals “shantied out” for several weeks at what came to be called the Philosophers’ Camp, on a pond not far from the Saranac lakes; Emerson later wrote a poem about it that read like bad Wordsworth but indicated high approval of the natural surroundings. About the same time, at a less lofty level, Currier and Ives were selling lithographs glorifying the Adirondacks in colored “scenes” that made thousands of people think they would like to go there if they got the chance.

The Civil War came and went, and left the victorious North prosperous. More people than ever before could afford to take extended vacations. Dexterity with guns and techniques of living off the land had long been a grim survival formula for many men; now, if they chose, they could apply these skills to outdoor pleasures. At the same time the wilderness, while still moderately wild, was in various ways more attractive to travellers than it had been earlier. All “ports of entry” afforded good accommodation, and hotels now existed and were expanding at Adirondack settlements like St. Régis Falls, Saranac Lake, Schroon Lake, and Old Forge. The area was closely ringed by rail and steamboat lines, and there were stagecoaches running to several of the hotels in the interior. What was lacking to turn a steadily but slowly increasing parade of summer visitors into an invasion was a Pied Piper with a suitably alluring tune.