Adirondacks: Great Camps and Outdoor Recreationalists

Located a short train ride from New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, the upstate Adirondack region became a romanticized wilderness destination for the urban upper class in the nineteenth century. Numerous private residence compounds were constructed by these wealthy businessmen, politicians, and socialites. The Adirondack Camp era occurred between 1877 and 1949, starting with the development of Camp Pine Knot at Raquette Lake and concluding with Camp Minnowbrook on Blue Mountain Lake. Tourism in the area became more democratized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the growth of resort hotels and alpine ski resorts. The Adirondack region received international attention when it hosted the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980.

Upstate New York was one of the first major tourism draws in the United States. Spas and bathhouses at Ballston and Saratoga Springs, located about thirty miles north of Albany, began development before the Revolutionary War. Ballston would not become a major tourist attraction until 1792, when Nicholas Low constructed an inn and bathhouse to rival the existing facilities in the village. Saratoga Springs gained in popularity the following decade. Travelers were attracted to mineral springs for two reasons: health and leisure. As noted by historian Richard H. Gassan, “Although the social aspects of spa life were prominent, health drew, and would continue to draw, thousands to the springs.” By 1820 Saratoga Springs and the renamed village of Ballston Spa were drawing tourists from not only New York and other northern cities but also all corners of the young nation.

By the mid-nineteenth century, urban areas were considered dirty, polluted places from which citizens needed a healthful escape to a more natural setting. Architect William S. Wicks, designer of many of the early Great Camps in the Adirondack region, described this yearning:

The modern representative of city life must not dream of going to the woods and living like a savage in "caves and dens of the earth"... They lived in caves and dens, hunted and fished, because of necessity and inability to live any other way. We migrate to the woods, hunt and fish from choice; we go for change, recuperation, pleasure and health. We aim to treasure up energies in order to better sustain the tensions of civilization. Health is imperative and demands a dwelling in the woods in many points resembling a civilized one.

The beginnings of Adirondack wilderness tourism may be traced to literature romanticizing the rugged terrain. The 1869 publication of William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, or Camp Life in the Adirondacks, which advertised the region as invigorating to health and spirit, drew tourists to the resort hotels which grew from the primitive guide camps. Historian Melissa Otis describes the early experience of these wilderness tourists:

Early wilderness tourism within the Adirondacks was rudimentary: it took weeks to get there and return home and the accommodations were rough for Sports used to an urban environment. The early wilderness tourist was almost always male and he often traveled as, or became part of, a party of three or four. These tourists traveled by steamer, railroad, or a combination of both to a small border city such as Saratoga Springs, Utica, Plattsburgh, or Watertown where they ‘jumped off’ into the Adirondacks. The Sport(s) then continued by stage coach or wagon to a small settlement where he or his party hired a group of local men to guide them into the interior wildlands.

Tourism in the Adirondack region was also a continuation of the health spa boom of the early nineteenth century. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau visited the Adirondacks as the “change of climate” treatment for his tuberculosis. In 1876, he moved to Saranac Lake to establish a medical practice. He opened the Adirondack College Sanitarium in February 1885. The popularity of convalescence in the mountains and increase in patrons to Saranac Lake made the construction of “cure cottages” necessary. Today, many of these cure cottages are part of the National Register of Historic Places, including Ames Cottage, Baird Cottage, Bogie Cottage, Denny Cottage, and the College Row Historic District.

While literature and medicine attracted a number of visitors to the area, two factors made possible the opening of the Adirondack region as a major tourist destination: access through improved transportation options and development of vacation properties. After the Civil War, tourism diversified along economic lines as recreational travel among the middle class increased. This demographic was targeted for Adirondack tourism through guidebooks. Hotels offered the services of local guides as well as activities for women and children. The wealthy urbanites who popularized tourism in the area sought to separate themselves from the masses that now flooded the region. They constructed large private camp estates, which became known as the Great Camps.

Early clubs were the forerunners of these Great Camps. The first men’s sporting club in the Adirondacks, according to historian Craig Gilborn, may have been the Piseco Lake Trout Club in the late 1830s. The club rented a cabin rather than owning land. The Adirondack Club, the second such organization to use the name (the first was formed in 1858 but was discontinued during the Civil War) was founded in 1877. Ten years later, the North Woods Club organized as the Adirondack Preserve Association, with the purpose of “boating, fishing, athletic and all manly sports and pastimes, and the preservation of game and forests.” While these two clubs served primarily as sporting social clubs, family clubs not unlike suburban country clubs also formed in the Adirondack region. The most notable of these were the Adirondack League Club (1890), Ausable Club (1887), and Lake Placid Club (1904). The Lake Placid Club was founded by Melvin Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System of library organization.

Camp Pine Knot, begun in 1877, is considered the first of the Great Camps. William West Durant constructed Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake for his family. Though not an architect, Durant drew inspiration from his travels in the European Alps as well as the vernacular architecture of the rudimentary cabins and structures in the region. Between 1877 and 1895, he designed over a dozen structures for the camp. His work at Camp Pine Knot formed the basis of the Adirondack camp style of architecture which flourished through the early twentieth-century. This aesthetic included other Durant projects at Camp Uncas (1893-1895), Sagamore Lodge (1897-1899), and Arbutus Lodge (1898-1899).

Among other noted designers of Great Camps were:

  • Robert H. Robertson, an architect who designed Nehasane and Santanoni (both 1891-1893);
  • William L. Coulter, a resident of the Adirondacks and architect of cottages and residences at Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and St. Regis Chain of Lakes;
  • William G. Distin, a draftsman for Coulter who later took over his firm and designed more than 50 projects in the region;
  • William S. Wicks, architect and member of the Adirondack League Club who published Log Cabins: How to Build and Furnish Them in 1908;
  • Augustus D. Shepard, also an architect who designed about twenty camps at the Adirondack League Club and an additional forty projects in the Adirondack region; and
  • the partnership of William Scopes and Maurice Feustmann, most noted for the Kildare Club.

Recreational activity in the Adirondacks was not limited to the wealthy owners of the Great Camps. Leased hunting clubs and tent camping attracted middle-class tourists to the region. The establishment of Adirondack Park in 1892 provided an environment where vacationers could interact with an untouched landscape encountered by their ancestors, though the contemporary view of the wilderness as a place of escape and respite certainly contrasted with early settlers’ fear of the dangerous wilds. Although the “Forever Wild” clause of the state constitution limited the infrastructure that could be constructed in the park lands to accommodate the growing numbers of tourists, government agencies built campgrounds, hiking trails, and, most notably, winter sports facilities, to meet the demand of recreational tourists.

Swede immigrants in Maine originated skiing in the northeastern United States around 1870. Most ski development in the nineteenth century occurred in this region, primarily in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. By the turn of the twentieth century, the epicenter of skiing had shifted to the upper Great Lakes region, with extensive development in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Cross-country skiing and ski-jumping were the activities of choice, and ski clubs were organized to promote the sport. While clubs in the Great Lakes were inclined toward membership segregated by nationality or ethnicity, Adirondack ski clubs were open to all. The Utica, New York club comprised twenty members calling themselves “The First Kingdom of the Ski,” and included white-collar professionals and other middle class members. Unlike their largely Scandinavian counterparts in the Great Lakes region, New York skiers considered the sport solely to be a social pastime with no ties to tradition or culture. In the Adirondack region, the outdoor clubs comprised of wealthy urbanites also embraced skiing. The Lake Placid Club of the Adirondacks offered skiing beginning in 1904. Ten members had use of forty skis and poles purchased from Norway. Within two years, the club could accommodate 1,400 members in the winter ski season.

After World War I, a divide emerged between ski traditions in the east and the Great Lakes region. The National Ski Association, headquartered in the Upper Peninsula town of Ishpeming, Michigan, had been the predominant regulatory body in skiing, which had primarily focused on ski jumping and cross-country events. East coast skiers, however, embraced the downhill and slalom events developed in the European Alps. The U. S. Eastern Amateur Ski Association, known as the Eastern, was formed in New York in 1922. Initially a regional chapter of the NSA, the Eastern took control of the national organization by 1930. The rising popularity of downhill skiing in the United States, and proactivity of the Eastern, lead to the award of the 1932 Winter Olympics to Lake Placid.

The Lake Placid Club served as host of the Olympics. While local and national ski officials were excited about the future prospects of skiing following the event, the Games themselves were less than successful. Only sixteen nations competed, and snow conditions were poor. The Olympics were a financial failure with expenses totaling over $1 million and only $93,415 in gate receipts.

Despite the disappointing turn of events around the Olympics, skiing grew in popularity in the Adirondacks. In 1930 the Eastern counted 38 member clubs, but within five years the number had more than tripled to 112. By the winter of 1940, there were 181 clubs. Estimates of the number of skiers in the United States ranged from 1 million to 3 million that year. While the wealthy continued to travel to Europe to ski during the Great Depression, local ski clubs targeted middle-class membership. In 1939 the Onondaga Ski Club in Syracuse had a membership of 35 people paying annual dues of 25 cents. Skis could be purchased from Macy’s department store for $10-16 for domestic skis and $17-20 for skis imported from Europe.

For middle-class skiers, the sport was a physical activity and an occasion for socializing and escaping the city. Railroads began offering special trains to ski destinations. These “snow trains“ ran from Boston and New York City to ski towns in the Berkshires, Catskills, and Adirondacks as well as the Laurentians in Canada. The New York Central railroad began its own snow train to North Creek in the Adirondacks on January 8, 1936. During the following 1936-1937 winter season, nearly 7,500 passengers rode snow trains to destinations in the Adirondacks and Catskills. By the winter season of 1940-1941, the railroad operated 13 regular weekly trains plus seven weekend trains from Weehawken, New Jersey to Bear Mountain, carrying nearly 25,000 passengers.

Skiing took a hiatus during World War II, and the snow trains were discontinued. Once the war ended in 1945, skiing quickly resumed. American soldiers had learned to ski while stationed in Europe, and they looked to continue the sport once returning home. New ski resorts began development to serve the growing number of skiers. Marble Mountain opened in early 1949 after languishing in planning for over a decade. However, the ski area had steep and difficult runs with constant wind that scoured the north side of the mountain of its snow. As Phil Johnson noted in an article about the history of the ski area, “Marble Mountain turned out to have terrible climate conditions for a ski area.” In November 1947 voters approved a constitutional amendment for construction of a ski center on Gore, South, and Pete Gay mountains in Warren County. Marble was replaced with nearby Whiteface Mountain Ski Area in 1957, and the former ski area closed three years later.

Last updated: November 21, 2018