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Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, New York, was once a retreat for the Vanderbilt family. (Bridget Besaw / Novus Select)

Where Was the Birthplace of the American Vacation?

First in rustic tents and later in elaborate resorts, city dwellers took to the Adirondacks to explore the joys of the wilderness

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One of the little-known turning points in the history of American travel occurred in the spring of 1869, when a handsome young preacher from Boston named William H.H. Murray published one of the first guidebooks to a wilderness area. In describing the Adirondack Mountains—a 9,000-square-mile expanse of lakes, forests and rivers in upstate New York—Murray broached the then-outrageous idea that an excursion into raw nature could actually be pleasurable. Before that date, most Americans considered the country’s primeval landscapes only as obstacles to be conquered. But Murray’s self-help opus, Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, suggested that hiking, canoeing and fishing in unsullied nature were the ultimate health tonic for harried city dwellers whose constitutions were weakened by the demands of civilized life.

This radical notion had gained currency among Europeans since the Romantic age, but America was still building its leisured classes and the idea had not yet caught on with the general public. In 1869, after the horrors of the Civil War and amid the country’s rapid industrialization, Murray’s book became a surprise best seller. Readers were enthralled by his vision of a pure, Edenic world in the Adirondacks, where hundreds of forest-swathed lakes were gleaming “like gems...amid the folds of emerald-colored velvet.” Murray argued that American cities were disease-ridden and filled with pressures that created “an intense, unnatural and often fatal tension” in their unhappy denizens. The wilderness, by contrast, restored both the spirit and body. “No axe has sounded along its mountainsides, or echoed across its peaceful waters,” Murray enthused, so “the spruce, hemlock, balsam and pine...yield upon the air, and especially at night, all their curative qualities.” What’s more, Murray pointed out, a new train line that had opened the year before meant this magical world was only 36 hours’ travel from New York City or Boston. The vision struck a deep chord, and his book ran into ten editions within four months.

That first summer of ’69, the Adirondacks were inundated with would-be adventurers, each clutching a copy of Murray’s volume (including a tourist’s edition in waterproof yellow binding, with foldout train schedules and a map)—an influx that was dubbed “Murray’s Rush” by the press. It was a “human stampede,” wrote one modern historian with a florid turn of phrase that Murray would have appreciated—“like hungry trout on a mayfly-feeding frenzy.” Unfortunately, it was also one of the wettest and coldest summers in Adirondack history, ensuring that the region was not quite the Arcadian idyll Murray had depicted. Many of his followers arrived woefully unprepared, and as nervous in the wild as Woody Allen characters today. These Gilded Age city slickers got lost only a few yards from their camps, overturned their canoes and became terrified by deer or bear tracks. A late winter meant that black flies—a biting scourge in the Adirondacks every June—persisted well into August, and clouds of mosquitoes turned many campers into raw-skinned wretches. The few rustic inns in the area, which had previously only catered to a few gentlemen hunters, were overwhelmed. One hotel became so crowded that the rapacious owner charged by the hour for guests to sleep on the pool table. Locals with no experience hired themselves out as guides to the city rubes, adding to the chaos by leading their groups astray and camping in dismal swamps.

These pioneer nature lovers were soon derided in the press as “Murray’s Fools” (the book had come out around April Fool’s Day), and the author was denounced by angry readers for grossly exaggerating the charm of the outdoors. Meanwhile, gentlemen hunters complained that Murray was too democratic, flooding the forests with hoi polloi, including, shockingly, women. The young preacher had even taken his own wife on extended camping trips. “Let the ladies keep out of the woods,” fumed one critic.

Murray was forced to publicly defend himself in the New York Tribune. In a long “Reply to His Calumniators,” he pointed out that he could hardly be held responsible for the dreary weather, including rains that were “ten fold thicker than was ever known.” Many first-time campers had failed to heed his tips, he noted, arriving in the wilderness “dressed as for a promenade along Broadway, or a day’s picnic.” And he predicted that the Adirondacks would become America’s “great Summer resort”: “Hotels will multiply, cottages will be built along the shores of its lakes, white tents will gleam amid the pines which cover its islands, and hundreds of weary and overworked men will penetrate the Wildness to its innermost recesses, and find amid its solitude health and repose.”

Of course, Murray was right, and the outrage over that first summer did not dent the growing popularity of the Adirondacks. When the season of 1870 arrived balmy and clear, the region surged ahead as the country’s democratic playground, with Murray as its chief promoter. Now a wealthy celebrity author, he mixed his religious duties with lecture tours around the Northeast, making more than 500 appearances to an estimated half a million Americans in the next three years. His soaring oratory, rugged good looks and powerful physique made him a huge success, as did his rags-to-riches life story. Raised as a poor farm boy in Guilford, Connecticut, he had started at Yale College wearing handmade clothes and with $4.68 in his pocket. He spent his first summers in the Adirondacks at the suggestion of a friend, and began writing stories about it for a local newspaper. His passion for the outdoors often raised eyebrows among New England congregations: On one occasion, he arrived to give a sermon while still wearing his shooting jacket and hunting breeches, and leaned his rifle against the pulpit.

“Murray was the right person, in the right place, with the right words, at the right time,” says Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage in Keeseville, New York. Although enlightened American writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson had argued for the spiritual value of nature as far back as the 1840s and ’50s—Emerson even slept out with erudite friends in the Adirondacks, in the so-called Philosophers’ Camp on Follensby Pond—their work reached only a relatively small, elite group of readers. But Murray’s book, with its direct, straightforward “how-to” tips, mixed with a series of humorous short stories about wilderness camping, truly seized the public’s imagination.

The Adirondacks were soon booming. By 1875, some 200 hotels and camps were operating in the mountains, with new stagecoach services rattling from the train stations and steamboats plying the lakes. By 1900, the Adirondacks’ summer population had risen to around 25,000 from 3,000 in 1869. Attracted by the fishing and hunting but appalled by the crowds, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Huntingtons and other fabulously wealthy industrialists built their own spectacular “great camps,” where they could disport with their families in private luxury. The American vacation was born—quite literally. The scions of New York City took to declaring that they would “vacate” their city homes for their lakeside summer retreats, and the term “vacation” replaced the British “holiday” in common parlance. As fellow Bostonian Wendell Phillips put it, Murray’s book had “kindled a thousand campfires and taught a thousand pens how to write of nature.”

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Today, New Yorkers have no doubt about the pleasures of escaping the city in summer. Last season, as the canyons of Manhattan began to radiate heat like a pizza oven, I found an original 1869 edition of Murray’s guidebook in the archives of the New York Public Library. Its brown leather binding was beaten and cracked, as if it had itself been on a few canoe trips around the St. Regis lakes, but the pages were still intact, and were illustrated with engravings of out- door life. The abundance of practical advice (“The Wilderness: Why I Go There,—How I Get There,—What I Do There,—And What It Costs”) offered a wealth of detail on Gilded Age travel. Murray advised his readers how much to pay a guide ($2.50 a day), how to budget for food ($2 a week) and what to pack. (“One pair pliable buckskin gloves, with chamois-skin gauntlets tied or buttoned at the elbow,” and, as an insect repellent, “a bottle of sweet oil and a vial of tar.”)

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