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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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Sadly, his favorite guesthouses have vanished, including Mother Johnson’s inn, where “you find such pancakes as are rarely met with.” But the general message of the guidebook could not be more valid today. Within a day’s drive for 60 million people lie vast swaths of wilderness, including some 3,000 lakes, that are now protected as part of the Adirondack Park—a sprawling 6.1 million acre reserve that is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier national parks combined. The park was created in 1892, as conservationists became concerned at the effects of logging and other industry in the area. The state legislature set aside an initial 680,000 acres to be “forever kept wild” and began purchasing private land as it became available. Today, the Adirondack Park contains a complex mixture of state and private property, with nine different categories of protection. But despite its scale, the park has lost its iconic status. When it comes to wilderness, most of us think first of the Western parks.

With a photocopy of Murray’s book in my pack, I decided to leave the big city and see how much of the Victorian solitude could be found via Highway 81. Even in 1869, Murray recommended that travelers venture into the genuinely pristine corners—a principle that is rarely observed today. Of the over seven million visitors who enter the park every year, only a small fraction stray from their cars. “This area is still pretty rugged compared to the rest of the Northeast,” says Hallie Bond, former curator at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. “Instead of agricultural farmland, you’re suddenly in dark and forbidding woods, which can be quite daunting. We get some people who arrive in Lake Placid or Lake George”—two crowded tourist centers, their streets lined with clothing chains and fast-food stores—“and think they’ve seen the Adirondacks.”

So I quickly turned off the main roads into Murray’s favorite part of the region, which boasted scenery, he wrote, “to rival Switzerland.”

***

As dawn broke the next morning, I was in a kayak on the mirror-still waters of Sagamore Lake and already spotting loons. The sudden emptiness was startling: Not a single structure could be seen in the forest, except for the distant form of Great Camp Sagamore, whose wooden facade blended soothingly into the surrounding trees. Dipping my paddle through the rising condensation felt like rowing through the clouds.

For travelers today, the most direct link to the genteel past is by staying in one of the surviving “great camps.” These vernacular follies began to sprout across the remotest lakefronts in the 1880s, designed along a uniquely American style pioneered by William West Durant, whose intention it was to literally bring the outdoors inside. They were built from tree trunks with the bark left intact, and their interiors were decorated with local stones, furniture crafted from branches, animal skins and hunting trophies. After the Great Depression, many of the camps fell into disrepair when their owners’ fortunes dwindled. Some burned, others were leveled or imploded with neglect. Today, only about 35 survive, and most are in private hands. But in a democratic process that Murray would have applauded, several of the finest have become available to the public.

Built in 1897, Sagamore was originally one of the many Vanderbilt family estates. Guests arrived by horse-drawn carriage and were welcomed by bonfires and fireworks before adjourning to the rustic chic of their cabins. Descendant Alfred Vanderbilt III fondly likened Sagamore to the fantasy village Brigadoon that magically appeared from the mists. (“As the horses came to rest, the weary travelers knew they had reached heaven.”) The decades of social merriment lured guests from Hollywood, including Gary Cooper, Howard Hughes and Gene Tierney, often to enjoy the luxurious gambling room. The Vanderbilts left in 1954, and the camp was in danger of collapse when it was taken over in 1983 by the not-for-profit Sagamore Institute. Today, its 27 surviving structures have been stabilized and guests can still enjoy the porch of the Wigwam Building, for example, with its railing of bark-covered logs, or the open-air bowling alley made entirely from polished timber.

Farther north, by Lake Osgood, White Pine Camp was rescued in the 1990s by a group of history-loving investors. Built in 1907 for the New York banker Archibald S. White, it became “the summer White House” when President Calvin Coolidge moved in for three months in 1926, spending most of his days fishing, often in the company of Herbert Hoover. Today, the olive green cabins have been refitted with period furnishings, and a slender 300-foot wooden promenade still stretches across the lake to an islet crowned by a Japanese teahouse, an iconic image of the Adirondacks today.

But perhaps the most symbolic restoration story is Great Camp Santanoni, built in 1892 for a prominent Albany banker, Robert Pruyn, and his wife, Anna, whose devotion to nature verged on the mystical. It’s the only camp free and open to the public year-round—that is, if you can get there. Cars are forbidden on the grounds, so after I parked at the imposing riverside gatehouse in the town of Newcomb, I set off on a mountain bike along five miles of rough dirt road, passing the remains of the Pruyns’ private farm. At last, an enormous log structure loomed from the pine forest, in the final stages of renovation. A lone volunteer caretaker took me through vast empty chambers constructed from enormous logs, as Lake Newcomb shimmered below in the afternoon sun.

When Great Camp Santanoni became part of the state park in 1973, historic structures were simply allowed to decay, or were even deliberately destroyed, to keep the land “forever wild.” “They were seen as interfering with the purity of the wilderness,” Engelhart explains. In 1979, Great Camp Nehasane, a magnificent edifice by Lila Lake, was obtained by the state and burned by park rangers, at the request of the owners. The loss of such a nostalgic treasure helped galvanize preservationists, and Adirondack Architectural Heritage was formed in 1990 in part to save Santanoni. Visitors began to trickle to the site after it was acquired by the state. “People had no idea,” Engelhart recalls. “They would say, ‘Oh my God, look what’s here!’” In 1983, a new state law was created to help preserve historic sites and granted permission for building repairs. “It was real pitiful at first,” recalls local craftsman Michael Frenette, who has worked on Santanoni every summer since 1997. “There was nothing but porcupine scat and rotten lumber.” The boathouse had collapsed and was restored from about 30 percent of the surviving structure. Today, visitors can camp, hike and take free rowboats and canoes out onto the lake.

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