- Historic Sites
Out Of The Woods
Amid a hundred mountains and a thousand lakes, a fascinating institution tells the story of America’s engagement with its Eastern wilderness
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Blue Mountain Lake didn’t appear that far away on the map—straight up the New York State Thruway and then west. Route 28 meandered a little, but I figured the drive from New York City to the Adirondacks would take three, four hours at most. Seven hours later we pulled up beside the cottage we had rented at Potter’s Resort. It was raining, and the mosquitoes were out in force. “You might want to bring your own meat,” one of the owners had suggested when I called to confirm our reservation.
Blue Mountain Lake didn’t appear that far away on the map—straight up the New York State Thruway and then west. Route 28 meandered a little, but I figured the drive from New York City to the Adirondacks would take three, four hours at most. Seven hours later we pulled up beside the cottage we had rented at Potter’s Resort. It was raining, and the mosquitoes were out in force. “You might want to bring your own meat,” one of the owners had suggested when I called to confirm our reservation. “It’s expensive here, because everything has to be trucked in.” So the two boys unpacked our hot dogs and hamburgers, my sister Abby her organic pasta sauce and decaffeinated coffee, and we wondered silently what we would do for a week if the weather didn’t improve.
BY CANOE OR GUIDE BOAT, visitors could travel a chain of lakes for miles in scenic splendor rivaling Switzerland’s.
The next morning we asked directions to the shortest trail around and went for a hike. In the Adirondack woods a silvery green patina of moss and lichen covers rocks and tree trunks and fills the spaces between roots on the forest floor. When a tree falls, a great circle of soil and root and moss rises perpendicular to the corpse, a bright mandala of surviving green. “See the great moss?” I said to the kids, who were swatting flies and demanding to be carried. After twenty minutes we came to our senses and took them to the Adirondack Museum.
Sprawling across a hillside overlooking Blue Mountain Lake, on the site of an old resort hotel, the Adirondack Museum has twenty-two buildings filled with exactly the kinds of artifacts you feel like looking at when you’re on vacation. There are serious things, like the lovely Adirondack guide boats that evolved to transport people around and between lakes, and the private railroad car that brought August Belmont to the region. There are also unexpected things, like the tiny gas station moved lock, stock, and postcard rack from Raquette Lake (“Postcards not for sale on Sunday”) and the Jiffy Bungalow tent with double-decker bunks that housed a New York Central signal-station operator and his family on their vacations at Lake Eaton. Everything is imaginatively displayed; the tent, for example, is pitched in a grove of birch trees near some cooking pans, a skiff, and an old Johnson outboard motor.
Around the museum grounds, shrubs and perennials bloom. Wonder about one and you’ll find “Viper’s Bug Loss” on a little metal tag, just as if you were in a botanical garden. Admire the ferns on a shady hill, and you’ll find a sign explaining that many of the plants are descendants of ones that came in hanging baskets brought by tourists to the hotel here a century ago, when people stayed for as long as three months and kept gardens. The labels here seem to have been written with an unusual feel for language. A sign marking some lichen-covered cement steps tells us that they once led to a cottage built in 1904 for Hannah Warner, of New Haven, Connecticut. “Though not as vulnerable as the wood cottage which they served,” it reads, “these steps too have no defense against the slow, patient forces of rain, ice, and root.”
On the hill overlooking the lake, one of the original buildings of the Blue Mountain House still stands, a small, unprepossessing log hotel furnished in the dawn of Adirondack style: antlers over the check-in desk, a rustic hatstand featuring carved cavorting bears. Ann Carroll, who works at the museum and showed me around, pointed out a photograph of the hotel the year it opened. “You can see there weren’t any lawns or gardens at that time,” she said. “The hotels were literally carved out of the wilderness, and they looked it.” With sinking heart I imagined arriving, after what would have been a twenty-six-hour trip by train, steamer, and stagecoach, at that desolate scene.
It was a Boston clergyman named William H. H. Murray who started the fashion for vacationing in the Adirondacks. In the spring of 1869 he published Adventures in the Wilderness , in which he argued that a vacation was healthful and therefore virtuous and that the best place for one was the remote interconnected lake district of the Adirondacks. The scenic splendor, he claimed, equaled that of Switzerland. “You choose the locality which best suits your eye” and build yourself a shelter “away from all the business and cares of civilized life.” A guide will paddle you wherever you need to go, so that “you have all the excitement of sporting, without any attending physical weariness.”