Amid a hundred mountains and a thousand lakes, a fascinating institution tells the story of America’s engagement with its Eastern wilderness
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.
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.”
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.
To evoke the modern driver’s experience of the Adirondacks, curators mounted a car’s steering wheel on a wall and, to its right, four buttons for visitors to push. The first three played peppy advertisements for nearby attractions, Ausable Chasm, Santa’s Workshop, and Frontier Town; the fourth blared “Indian Lake” by the Cowsills, a mind-numbing 1960s song about a neighboring town “where the air is FINE with sweet-smelling PINE .” While I was trying to read about Earl Covey, the man from Big Moose Lake who first patented the snow tire, an intractable child was pushing button number four over and over, racing around the room, and rolling on the carpet. When I tried to slip into the next gallery, he shouted, “Mom!” and I had to claim ownership. “Macadam and Mountains” will be replaced this summer with a more sedate display of some of the museum’s extensive collection of paintings of the Adirondacks.
The man responsible for assembling this extraordinary picture of life in the region was Harold K. Hochschild, an American Metal Company executive who began coming to Blue Mountain Lake as a boy in 1904. Two years later he was a passenger in the first car to drive to the lake. He and two friends used a U.S. Geological Survey map to plot their route. Hochschild’s family owned Eagle Nest, a camp first built as a golf club for the millionaires who acquired land here in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1952 Hochschild privately published an illustrated history of his corner of the Adirondacks, Township 34 , an undertaking that led him to interview miners and lumbermen, guides and steamboat hands, on how they went about their work. Those interviews, and the documents and artifacts he collected in the course of his research, formed the basis for some of the first exhibits at the museum, which he and other members of the Adirondack Historical Society founded in 1955.
Not long ago Hochschild’s son Adam published a memoir of his father, whose obdurate will—so useful in the boardroom—made him a harsh and difficult parent. The locals called him Mr. Harold, Adam writes in Half the Way Home . “Bizarrely, it must have seemed to these villagers, it was this Jewish industrialist from the big city who had made himself the leading expert on central Adirondack history.” Why? the son wonders. “Not introspective, he never speculated; the rest of us never really knew.” Harold Hochschild may simply have felt more at home here than anywhere else, here where the wealthy found sport in a peculiarly American fashion—in elaborately casual, enormously expensive houses surrounded by their own piece of the frontier.
In 1969 Nelson Rockefeller appointed Hochschild to the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, a group organized to reconcile the competing interests of park residents, real estate developers, recreation groups, and conservationists. Most people, possibly even Rockefeller, had low expectations for the commission. But in 1971 Hochschild and his colleagues presented a land-use plan to protect the forest and discourage large developments of vacation houses. Their most significant proposal was the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), an independent, bipartisan authority to oversee planning for both public and privately owned land. Without such oversight, the commissioners feared, private lands would be developed in ways that would destroy the public ones.
Furious lobbying by developers postponed any action on the bill until 2:00 A.M. on the last night of the year’s legislative session, but finally (and with last-minute arm-twisting by Hochschild) the state assembly voted the commission’s recommendations into law.
Some of the Adirondack Park Agency’s early rulings struck landowners as capricious. But today, with most state residents more determined than ever to preserve what’s left of the natural environment, park dwellers, developers, and the APA are trying harder to find common cause. “We’ve learned a lot in twenty-five years,” explained Karyn Richards, deputy director of the APA. “We’re still here to carry out our responsibilities. But we want to do it in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the people who live in the park.” The APA is working with communities to help them develop their own land-use plans, balancing the requirements of local economies with those of the environment. Once a plan has been approved, the APA will largely get out of the way, letting communities make their own decisions about what permits to grant.
For now, the central Adirondacks have escaped the over-development of Lake George, and much of the region seems, if not pristine, at least unspoiled. My carload of backpackers climbed Castle Rock, following a trail that seemed ten times longer than the three-quarters of a mile advertised on our map but that led—after a final near-vertical stretch over twisted roots and pine needles—to a soul-satisfying overlook high above Blue Mountain Lake. One day we drove to Long Lake, an attractive village with a timeworn nineteenth-century hotel, a bark-embellished general store, a sloping sandy beach, and a seaplane service should you and your party want transportation to campsites unreachable by car.
Another day we headed west to Raquette Lake. Rain kept us from taking the mail boat for a cruise around the shoreline (tickets are eight dollars for adults, four dollars for children), but we visited Sagamore Lodge, the camp constructed in 1897 by W. W. Durant, son of the Durant who built the transcontinental railroad. Here and at two earlier camps, the younger Durant artfully combined the Swiss chalet with local log construction techniques, adorning his creations with bark and branch in the spirit of his surroundings. Sagamore Lodge survives today as a conference center, and it is open to the public for weeklong stays or hour-long tours. The interior of the main house is so massively built that it may not appeal to everyone, but the tour of the grounds is well worth taking for its glimpse into the almost feudal society that flourished here during the Gilded Age. After Durant had gone spectacularly broke creating his wooded retreat, Alfred G. Vanderbilt bought the place and kept anywhere from forty to two hundred locals employed year-round running a house he might inhabit for a month in the summer and a week at Christmas.
Throughout the Adirondacks, summer camps needed winter caretakers, and in the off-season the caretakers sometimes built rustic chairs or dressers to complement the hunting trophies adorning the fireplaces. The Adirondack Museum has a collection of handsome bark furniture made by Ernest Stowe, a craftsman who brought great skill and wit to his work. Stowe earned enough money from his specialized talent that in 1911 he left Adirondack winters for Florida. He never came back.
The rustic style originated not here but in China, I learned at the museum. Rustic shelters were going up in New York City’s Central Park before the fashion made its way to the north woods. But Adirondack craftsmen may have brought the style to its highest form. Alas, there’s no evidence that the simple, slatted piece of furniture universally called the Adirondack chair originated here either. Nevertheless I happily sat in one on the beach at Potter’s, watching the kids teach themselves to paddle a canoe. Two families of ducks stopped by, a fish splashed, the sun set, and the scent of pine filled the air, just as Murray promised.
The Adirondack Park is larger than Massachusetts. You can spend your visit driving from one end of it to the other, stopping at every lake and hamlet. Or you can, as Murray suggested, pick your spot.
Pick a spot near the museum.