When there's rich there's famous...
During the late 1800s the Gilded Ages brought some of America's wealthiest to the Adirondacks where they built lavish summer homes on the shores of our lakes and ponds. It was during this time that the Great Camp Style of Architecture was born as wealthy tycoons such as Alfred Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, Andrew Carnegie, Robert Collier, and so many others started to build their summer retreats on the banks of Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake. And while these names stand to be impressive on their own, it's the names of those they entertained here -and the extravagant lengths at which they went to create luxurious estates in the Adirondacks - that is even more intriguing.
The great camps and hotels that began to pop up in the Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake region of the Adirondacks were a marriage of wilderness and luxury. The Prospect House in Blue Mountain Lake was not only the first hotel in the world to have electricity in every room, it also had its own bowling alley, billiard room, shooting gallery, resident orchestra, telegraph office, library, barber shop, physician's office, pharmacy, restaurant, and more.
As additional hotels were being built, it was really the great camps that took extravagance to a whole new level. Rather than simply building what one would picture when they think of an elegant "lake house," they instead built in a campus-style that was designed for entertaining. Each building was constructed with its own purpose - the main lodge, guest quarters, dining hall, game room, etc. were each stand-alone buildings connected by beautiful pathways. The buildings themselves were constructed of massive beam supports that stood up against the even more impressive stone fireplaces.
But the extravagance didn't end there! They were building their own private bowling alleys. They constructed the Marion Carey Railroad (the world's shortest standard gauge railroad at only 3/4 of a mile) with the intent of bringing their luxurious sleeper cars to their residences on Raquette Lake. Once to the lake they would load guests on their private steamboats. Magazine publisher Robert J. Collier even with to the lengths of having his Curtiss-Wright biplane shipped to Raquette Lake via rail car in 1912.
Once built, the entertaining began. The great camps welcomed everyone from famed Broadway and Hollywood stars to inventors, politicians, and beyond. There is footage of Gary Cooper playing croquette on the great lawn of Great Camp Sagamore. Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Jerome Kern, General George C. Marshall, and Ulysses S. Grant are just some of the names that are reported to have spent time in the region. Even Madame Chaing Kai-Shek visited Camp Uncus with her entourage.
When I think of what their time must have been like in the Adirondacks, I imaging them enjoying the solitude in the way that Madame Chaing Kai-Shek describes in this letter to General Marshall:
"I think of you and Mrs. Marshall often and the lovely leisurely life at Raquette Lake, the soft lapping waves on the side of the row-boat, and oh, so nostalgically of the cool evenings in front of the roaring fires in the lounge, and best of all, the absences of 'Musts,'" she wrote recalling their trip to the Adirondacks a year earlier. "No must to see people, no must to make speeches, no must to smile when my facial muscles ache, no must to race against time." *
Today, Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake continue to be a vacation destination for those looking to escape the hustle of everyday life. While the majority of the families have sold off their Adirondack estates and no longer spend their summers here, the legacy they left behind is still evident today. During the warmer season, there are a variety of amazing tours you can take to connect you with the rich and famous of the Adirondack's Gilded Age.
Cruise & Dine Aboard Raquette Lake Navigation's W.W. Durant - This replica steam boat (named after the Gilded Age developer who not only owned a million acres of land in the Central Adirondacks but also developed the Great Camp Style of Architecture) provides fascinating narration of Raquette Lake's history as you enjoy fine dining.
Great Camp Sagamore - Offering both walking day-tour to weekend packages and retreats, Great Camp Sagamore provides the opportunity to experience the Adirondacks just as the Gilded Age's wealthy once had.
Adirondack Museum - In Blue Mountain Lake, the Adirondack Museum is packed full of artifacts, photos and other memorabilia that tell the story of the Adirondack's Gilded Ages and beyond. Don't forget to check out the Marion Carry Pavilion at the campus center to see the 1901 H.K. Porter Company steam engine that powered the Marion Carry Railroad.
Blue Mountain Lake Boat Livery History Boat Tours - Climb aboard a historic wooden boat for charismatic tour with "Crabby Bob." The stories and photos that are told as you travel through Blue Mountain Lake, Eagle Lake, and Utawana Lake are memorable to say the least.
Bicentennial Events - In 2016, Hamilton County will celebrate its bicentennial. During this celebration, you will find a variety of historical lectures, events and more that capture not only the Gilded Ages in the Adirondacks but the 200-year journey that has shaped our region of the Adirondacks.
* Laura, Tyson. (2006) Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Eternal First Lady. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
** Historic photos are part of the Adirondack Museum Collection
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