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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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There are no physical memorials to Murray in the Adirondacks, so as a final pilgrimage, I sought out his favorite spot. Today, a vintage-style ferry, the W.W. Durant, plies the sparkling waters of Raquette Lake, past strings of forested islands, including one named Osprey, which has a small jetty and a residence shrouded by trees. At the height of his celebrity in the early 1870s, Murray returned to this islet for weeks every summer to pitch his tent and entertain a multitude of friends and admirers. One enthusiastic guest, sportswriter Charles Hallock, was particularly taken by the author’s “comely wife,” who could be seen around the campsite wearing a hunting cap and a “mountain suit of red and crimson plaid. How jaunty she looked!” Another described the islet as “a scene from fairy land,” with Murray “perfectly aglow with enthusiasm over the wilderness and its attendant sports.” He was also enchanted by Murray’s wife, whom he described as ‘The Lady of the Lake.’”

William H.H. Murray’s subsequent descent into obscurity was as sudden as his rise to celebrity. Tensions with his conservative Boston church led to his resignation in 1874. (He thought more should be done for the city’s poor.) Five years later, after investing too deeply in horse breeding and spreading his assets thinly, his finances and his marriage both collapsed, and Murray left New England for the anonymity of rural Texas. He failed in several business ventures, started an oyster restaurant in Montreal, and made a cameo appearance in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1886, he revived his skills as an orator, narrating for New England audiences a heartwarming series of short stories about the Adirondacks that featured a heroic trapper named John Norton. (They are little read today, since he “mired himself in a kind of nostalgia and sentimentality,” one critic notes.) He made enough to repurchase his family home in Guilford, Connecticut, where he died in 1904 at age 64.

Murray’s writings were slowly forgotten except among specialist historians. For a few years, his beloved Osprey Island was commonly referred to as Murray’s Island, but it eventually returned to its original name. Privately owned, it remains off-limits to the public today. His best memorial is, of course, the Adirondack Park—which, with its complex system of ownership and regulation, is rather like Murray the man, eccentric and imperfect. Despite his midlife wanderings, Murray remained a tireless advocate for the park, insisting on the value of public access. In 1902, two years before he died, he wrote in the outdoor magazine Field and Stream that even New York State was only holding the wild lands of the Adirondack in trust for future generations. “God made them and made them to stand for what money cannot buy,” he declared.

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