- 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
The problem of black flies, a word nearly synonymous with summer in these parts, Murray dismissed as the invention of journalists “getting up a good article.” As for mosquitoes, he advised, simply “take a pair of common buckskin gloves and sew on at the wrists a gauntlet or armlet of chamois-skin, reaching to the elbow, and tightly buttoned around. Do not leave any opening, however small, at the wrist, else the gnats may creep up the arm. For the face, take a yard and a half of Swiss mull [a kind of muslin], and gather it with an elastic band into the form of a sack or bag,” and fasten it inside your collar. Thousands of city dwellers finished this passage, packed their suitcases, and headed for the woods.
“It gives you an idea of what the cities must have been like,” said Jerold Pepper, the museum’s librarian, when I asked him about the phenomenon. “The thing about Murray’s book is that he didn’t just describe the wilderness. He told you how to get there, what to bring, where to stay, where to get a guide, how much it cost. He created this huge rush among people who knew nothing about the outdoors. And there were no Winnebagos or Gore-Tex tents back then.”
Some travelers apparently left deeply disappointed, but others kept arriving to take their place. By the 1880s large wood-frame hotels with long porches went up around many of the lakes. Photographs displayed at the museum show happy groups canoeing and gathering around campfires at night. But nothing in the photographs painted as vivid a picture of what it was like to vacation here as the Excelsior menu printer on display beside some vellum badminton rackets and a wooden bowling ball. It had never occurred to me to wonder how menus got printed anywhere, much less at a hotel a day’s ride from civilization, but here was the answer. About the size and shape of a waffle iron and hinged like one, the printer was exhibited with its type drawer slightly ajar, offering this glimpse of the chef’s artistic palette: “Tongue Tripe Truffles Turnovers Tutti Frutti.”
One of the pleasures of this museum is that it serves up its holdings in manageable portions, in buildings that have multiplied in the manner of the great Adirondack camps. (Around here, maybe because the construction season was so short, summer houses weren’t particularly large. Instead they sprouted offspring: a separate kitchen, or a guest cottage, or a boathouse.) I asked Ann Carroll which of the museum exhibits the locals liked best, and she said the one devoted to logging, because so many of their families worked in the industry. On the walls behind the specialized tools on display, photomurals show river drivers shepherding vast pileups down waterways to voracious mills. It was partly in response to the industry excesses pictured here that in 1892 the New York State legislature created the 2.8-million-acre Adirondack Park, an area that has increased to six million acres today. Of that, however, only 38 percent is state-owned. The remainder, which includes houses, villages, small businesses, and even some industry, is privately held but subject to regulation by an independent state authority.
In 1958 august belmont’s private railroad car came to the museum and sat outside in a temporary shelter until the trustees had the funds to put up a building around it. Today automobile-weary travelers can walk through the car and imagine arriving in the mountains after a night’s sleep in one of its full-size beds. Nearby sit the conveyances of less wealthy folk: the stagecoaches that jolted tourists over poor roads in summer, an elegant hearse on runners that carried the dead in winter. Also here is the coach that brought Theodore Roosevelt down from Mount Marcy when word reached him that President McKinley had died. (A chance remark by a year-round Adirondack resident gave me new insight into why Roosevelt happened to be climbing Mount Marcy when the news came. “There are all these mountains around, but everybody just climbs Mount Marcy,” David Train said. “Because it’s the highest.”)
A recent exhibit, “Macadam and Mountains,” explored the automobile’s impact on tourism in the region. “Why should not this Enchanted Land—which is within a 24-hour trip of 20,000,000 people, about one fifth of all the people in the United States—not be opened up for all?” state officials asked in a 1917 pamphlet. They were seeking support for a highway to the top of Whiteface Mountain. But of course now we know why not. The road brought more and more of us for shorter and shorter stays, the old hotels were driven out of business by cheaper roadside cabins, tourist attractions and billboards hawking them sprang up, and the wilderness we were coming to see inevitably changed.