October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
They went to the woods with rod and gun—and gloves, servants, caviar, and champagne
A strange word suddenly appeared in the American vernacular after the Civil War. The word was “sportsman.” It served to define a certain kind of gentleman who took his leisure with rod and gun. And that was the curiosity of it, for the pursuit of fish and game on this continent had seldom before been associated with leisure. One hunted or fished in order to eat. The rod and the gun rested next to the ploughshare. Men who went afield for amusement were regarded as scalawags undoubtedly cursed with addiction to liquor, cards, and cockfights as well. But the war, and the onrushing force of the industrial revolution, had somehow rolled part of the Puritan ethic aside. Now, rod and gun could be perceived not only as tools of subsistence but as accouterments of a new aristocracy. Now, more often than not, the fellow with burrs on his cuffs would be hailed as a pillar of the community.
By most hindsight accounts, the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade or two of the twentieth fall within a period that might fairly be called the gilded age of field sports. In the cities of the East, thousands of well-to-do gentlemen turned toward the out-of-doors with a passion and a purpose that would have shocked the sensibilities of their pragmatic forefathers. Bankers and lawyers, doctors and professors, merchants and ministers donned their heavy tweeds and streamed into the countryside in quest of woodcock and quail and mallard and deer and trout. From Baltimore they sallied forth to Chesapeake Bay, from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to the Poconos, from New York to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, from Boston to the wildwood of Maine. Some ventured even into the sylvan reaches of Canada, while in the South elaborate expeditions sought game birds of various kinds. And always the sportsmen went in the company of their peers, for the common workingman had neither the time nor the means to participate. To be properly afield in the gilded age, one necessarily had to be affluent, and preferably to the manner born.
There was a measure of incongruity about this new American sporting breed. It seemed to be influenced by something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Old was its admiration for the crisp, efficient style of British aristocrats who had been dropping grouse on the tamed Scottish moors, or dredging trout from the chalk streams of Devon, for more than a century. New was the Americans’ fascination with wilderness; Britons had not experienced that on native ground for one thousand years. Borrowed was the Old World’s proper code of sporting conduct, which would soon crimp the style of stateside poachers and market hunters. And blue was the blood of the gentry; or possibly, in later years, the melancholy understanding that one might well outlive the end of the game.
Inevitably, the growing popularity of the field sports inspired a number of specialized journals. The first with a continentwide circulation was American Sportsman , appearing in 1871. Two years later, Forest and Stream made its debut, followed by Field and Stream (1874) and American Angler (1881). Each more or less subscribed to the philosophy advanced by American Sportsman in an early issue. Sportsmanship, an editorial asserted, was not “in the killing of numbers,” but rather in “the vigor, science, and manhood displayed—in the difficulties to be overcome … and lastly in the true spirit, the style, the dash, the handsome way of doing what is to be done, and above all, in the unalterable love of fair play.…”
The most influential of these journals was Forest and Stream , a weekly devoted to “Field and Aquatic Sports, Practical Natural History, Fish Culture, The Protection of Game, Preservation of Forests, and the Inculcation in Men and Women of a Healthy Interest in Outdoor Recreation and Study.” Charles Hallock of New York was its first editor, and he quickly defined the weekly’s constituency. Forest and Stream , he promised, was not for “the fish hog, the night hunter, the pseudo-sportsman”; it would “pander to no depraved tastes, nor pervert the legitimate sports of land and water to those base uses which always tend to make them unpopular with the virtuous and good.”
In addition to editing the journal, Hallock traveled extensively afield. In 1878 he shared his knowledge of the out-of-doors in a remarkable volume entitled The Sportsman’s Gazetteer and General Guide . It soon became the sportsman’s bible, for it was packed with detailed information on the natural history of fish and game species, the care and training of sporting dogs, the proper selection of rifles and shotguns, the uses of decoys and blinds, and the dressing of artificial trout flies. The Gazetteer also provided basic training in the art of “woodcraft.”
Comfort in camp, Hallock advised, should be every hunter’s “main business.” In sleeping, “No more cover should be used than will keep the body at natural heat.… Keep your feet to the fire, but don’t let them burn.” Coffee grounds, said Hallock, are “very useful to keep fish fresh.… [Sprinkle] thickly into the belly and mouth … the more grounds used to each fish the better.” In walking, he urged the sportsman always to run his eye along the trail “at least a rod in advance.” And he favored the use of one’s felt hat in drinking from forest pools, for if one sipped the water while lying flat on the stomach, there was “a real danger of swallowing living creatures that may possibly cause serious difficulty afterwards.”
Hallock’s bible also provided what may well have been the first comprehensive directory of “principal resorts for fish and game” in North America. Not surprisingly, it found little to recommend in the West. Of New Mexico, for example, Hallock reported that “The greater portions of the entire territory … are occupied by vast sterile plains [and]… are subject to the incursions of the Apaches.… for the sportsman, New Mexico has few attractions.”
Hallock’s Atlantic seaboard constituents, in any event, were not much attracted to any part of the West. A few, such as George Bird Grinnell, Hallock’s successor as editor of Forest and Stream , did cross the Plains to the Rockies and beyond in quest of big game; and later, Theodore Roosevelt would write glowing reports of sporting under the big sky. But for the most part, the Eastern gentry looked to its own backyard. And with good reason. The Dakotas were infested with ruffians and louts, but only gentlemen went afield in the Adirondacks.
Of all the popular fish and game “resorts,” the Adirondack region of New York surely reigned as number one during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Though its woods were no wilder than northern Maine’s, they possessed a singular physiographic advantage found nowhere else in the East (with the sole exception, on a smaller scale, of Maine’s Rangeley Lakes district). The advantage was a vast network of interconnected lakes and streams navigable by pirogue and guideboat. One could travel for miles without soiling the collar or blistering the feet. The gentry then was not much enamored of tramping.
For the first generation of sportsmen, it might be said that the Adirondacks were discovered in 1869 by William Henry Harrison Murray, a Boston clergyman with strong faith in the recuperative power of balsam-scented air and a certain flair for fact mixed with fiction. In the spring of that year—on or about April Fool’s Day, according to one chronicler—there appeared in the bookstalls of Boston and New York a thin volume by Murray entitled Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks . By whatever standard best sellers were measured in those days, Murray’s opus was soon among them. By June, the stampede was on as readers rushed from their city homes and offices to book passage to Murray’s “Sportsmen’s Paradise.”
There was much sensible information in Murray’s book. He emphasized simplicity of dress: stout pantaloons, a felt hat, and buckskin gloves were de rigueur , and for the ladies, a “net of fine Swiss mull … to slip over the head … and you can laugh defiance at the mosquitoes.…” He listed as necessary provisions only coffee, tea, sugar, pepper, potatoes, pork, and condensed milk, for the staples would be venison and trout. He urged caution in the selection of guides: “With an ignorant guide you will starve; with a lazy one you will lose your temper.” He described the alternate routes of access; one was by rail to Lake Champlain, by steamer to Port Kent, by coach to Keeseville, whence, by whatever mode available, one traveled fifty miles over a plank road to Martin’s Hotel on the Lower Saranac. And all manner of sporting, wrote Murray, was “easy and romantic.” A mixture of sweet oil and tar would fend off biting insects. As for other troublesome critters, there were none to fear: “Now, fortunately, the panther is almost wholly unknown in this region.”
Murray, however, was not content with guidebook prose. Fiction began to overtake fact. There were incredible waterfalls which Murray and his trusty guide had shot in their boat; there were “a thousand lakes, many yet unvisited”; there was a “Nameless Creek” where pairs of two-pound trout leapt to the cast of every fly. Readers who hastened to the mountains found no undiscovered lakes or nameless creeks; nor did they find the sporting that easy and romantic. But the disenchanted, dubbed “Murray’s Fools” by a mocking press, in short time were replaced in the woods by a sizable cadre of sophisticated sportsmen who could wink at the author’s tall tales and still be grateful for the rest of it. In fact, Murray had been far more accurate about the Adirondacks than most of the writers of his day. One J. T. Headley, for example, claimed in 1849 that Tahawus (Mt. Marcy) was the second highest mountain “in the Union”; it actually measures 5,344 feet.
As the sportsmen and their families became acclimated to Adirondack summers in such hostels as Martin’s and Bartlett’s on the Saranacs and Paul Smith’s at St. Regis Lake, some began to think of settling into places of their very own. Soon there were private camps and clubs and preserves in the mountains, where the wealthy could be assured of compatible company, unencumbered by the likes of Murray’s Fools.
There have been endless unresolved arguments over the years as to whether the first “camps” were established in the Adirondacks or the Maine woods. It matters little. In all likelihood the camp phenomenon developed simultaneously in both regions with the same results—the presence, deep in the woods but invariably with a view of blue water, of structures designed for roughing it with most of the comforts of home.
In Maine, wealthy sportsmen from Boston’s Beacon Hill and Brookline staked their claims on the island of Penobscot Bay, at Mt. Desert, at Moosehead, Sebago, Kennebago, and the Rangeley Lakes. The inland camps tended to be more rustic than the ones along the coast, where ease of access by steamer encouraged the transformation of early modest camps into elegant estates. But none of the gentry referred to his place in such lofty terms. Be it ever so elegant, there was no place like “camp.” And no other word for it, either.
The authentic Maine or Adirondack camp was the height of luxury transplanted to the wilderness. Generally there was a main lodge with four or five outbuildings. The windows and doors were trimmed in green paint. Meats and produce were kept fresh in the icehouse. For lunch the guest had a choice of squab or filet mignon . Often, lunch was taken far afield from the camp; a guide was required to carry provisions for every two family members or guests. Tablecloths were spread on the spruce needles. Wine was chilled in the brook. Some camp owners imported tutors and nannies for their children. While the men of the camp were off hunting or fishing, womenfolk sat in the shade by the shore. They played at cards and read the latest novels. They inhaled the salubrious air. They were grateful to be far from the malodorous city, where malaria and typhoid were taking their ghastly toll.
By the 1880’s, some camp owners in the Adirondacks were incorporating as shareholders in private clubs. The clubs began to purchase large tracts of the forest as hunting and fishing preserves. In some areas, fences went up—and no-trespass signs. In 1892, the New York State Forest Commission estimated, a full quarter of the Adirondacks was held as preserve by clubs, associations, and individuals. Morgans, Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers presided over vast woodland retreats. Near Old Forge, the Adirondack League Club purchased a hundred thousand acres. To the east, the Ausable club held some thirty thousand acres along one flank of the High Peaks.
Old “Adirondack” Murray saw what was happening, and he didn’t like it. Two years before his death in 1904, in an article for Field and Stream , he denounced the posting of large properties in his beloved mountains. “There are on the earth,” he wrote, “certain creations too precious to man; too essential to his welfare to pass under private ownership.” But the landowning gentry did not see it as Murray did. If they were to prolong the sport, in the face of increasing pressures on fish and game, the gentry reasoned that private ownership was the only way left for them to go.
By the turn of the century, another part of New York had attained a certain ogue among sportsmen, especially those whose bias ran in favor of trout and the art of angling for them with the artificial fly. The brooks of the Catskills were teeming with trout. There seemed to be something special about the chemistry of such streams as the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, and Neversink—a mineral in the water, perhaps; or possibly some entomological gift from the gods—that gave them surpassing excellence as habitat not only for the native brook trout, but for the transplanted Western rainbow and the wily, imported European brown as well.
About this time, a Pennsylvania angler named Theodore Gordon returned to America from a visit to England. There, from the banks of the old country’s trout streams, he had watched English anglers manipulating a new kind of fly. Unlike the wet flies then in vogue in America, this one—properly dressed—floated on the surface of the water.
Gordon hastened home to anoint the dry fly in American waters at Junction Pool, where the Willowemoc joins the Beaverkill near Roscoe in Sullivan County. To a large extent, it was a baptism for the region as well as the fly. Without benefit of a best-selling book or even a mocking press, Gordon and his floating flies opened the Catskills to a rush of anglers as surely as Murray had piped them into the Adirondacks a generation before. Up the long grade from the Hudson they came in the parlor cars of the New York, Ontario & Western, to Frank Keener’s Antrim Lodge and other inns catering to the fly-fishing trade; and later, as the pressure mounted in numbers of anglers and streamside space, to the private clubs and preserves at Balsam Lake and Debruce. Already the experience of the North Woods was repeating itself in the Catskills. But time at last was running short for the gentle sportsmen of the Eastern seaboard.
The breed itself was not without blame. It had preached a rigid code of conduct—that the hunter or angler should never take more than his table might need. But the sporting class was not unlike any other: there were always a few who would rub against the grain. One early visitor to the Adirondacks boasted in a hotel register that in only a few weeks time he had taken 350 brook trout, 39 partridge and woodcocks, and 2 deer. And just six years after publication of his controversial book, Preacher Murray was moved to lament that “stupid greed” had already diminished the trout and deer of the Adirondacks. He did not explain that a certain amount of pragmatic greed was needed then just to feed the camps and inns his book had inspired; or that in one summer month he had slaughtered five deer with his own rifle. Despite tighter game laws over the years, similar excesses continued into the twentieth century.
The gilded age of the field sports had begun at a time when the population of the United States stood at 30,000,000. By 1900 it had grown to 76,000,000; by 1920 to 106,000,000. By 1920, too, the old plank roads into the mountains had been paved with hardtop, and the wealthy (and even some of the not-so-wealthy) were out upon them in their Model T Fords. The length of the work week had dwindled. Factories and offices were beginning to buzz with the prospect of paid vacations. The number of licensed hunters had doubled in ten years, and mass-production techniques were turning out rifles and shotguns at half the prewar cost. On opening day of the trout season, anglers stood elbow to elbow at Junction Pool. Campers thought twice before drinking from forest pools; in time they’d have halazone tablets.
To be sure, the good life in the deep woods has not vanished altogether. Even today there are still a few elegant camps in Maine, clubs in the Poconos and Catskills, preserves in the Adirondacks where the wealthy may yet pursue the pleasures of forest and stream—when they are not otherwise engaged on the golf course, the tennis court, or the ski slope. New words and phrases are being bandied about on the summer porches of the lingering woodland retreats. The word “sportsman” is not often among them.