The Great Camps in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York were the wilderness playgrounds for the wealthy and elite of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century. One such camp, Camp Sagamore, has been preserved and restored and the serene and secluded wilderness setting can be experienced much like its Vanderbilt owners did over a century ago.
As I slowly drove a four mile dirt road, surrounded only by woods and no other sign of human life, the anticipation of a unique experience gradually built up. Camp Sagamore is located in one of the most remote regions of the Adirondack mountains. The area consists of miles of designated wilderness, which means no motorized boats on the lake, no motorized vehicles on the trails and very little technical connection to the social world outside. Time spent at Camp Sagamore is about relaxing and taking in the view of the mirror like lake, learning from one of the many on site programs, and taking part in a living history experience that is without “velvet ropes”.
Camp Sagamore – The Early Years
Camp Sagamore was built in 1895 by William West Durant, the creator of the Adirondack Great Camp style of architecture. Durant’s first Great Camp was Pine Knot, built on nearby Raquette Lake in 1877. In designing and building Pine Knot, and his succeeding camps, Durant used local stone and logs and rustic decorative elements from the area. The architectural aesthetic of Durant’s camps was to have them blend in and be part of the landscape which was a revolutionary concept for its time. This idea of structures reflecting their environment was eventually adopted by the National Parks out west as they developed their infrastructure for visitors 10-20 years later. Durant also designed the camps to be a compound of buildings, with each building having a specific function. This became the model for the many Great Camps that followed in the region.
Durant was a very good marketer, but not necessarily a particularly good business man. He was very successful in promoting his camps and made the Adirondacks THE vacation destination for the wealthy and powerful living in New York City. But he seemed to have financial troubles throughout his life. He had to sell his first camp, Pine Knot, to wealthy railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington. In 1890, William Durant built his second Great Camp, Camp Uncas on nearby Lake Mohegan. Durant eventually also sold Uncas, this time to J.P Morgan. Durant then built his third Great Camp, Camp Sagamore on Sagamore Lake. As with the previous two camps, when Durant got into financial trouble yet again, he sold Sagamore (at a loss) in 1901 to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (who eventually also purchased Camp Uncas).
Alfred Vanderbilt used Camp Sagamore as a private recreational and entertainment retreat. To make the experience even more comfortable for himself and his guests, he made many improvements to the camp, including the addition of hot and cold running water, a hydroelectric plant, a working farm, a tennis court, a playhouse, and even an outdoor covered bowling alley.
Sadly, Alfred did not get to enjoy the camp for very many years – he died on the Lusitania in 1915 along with 1197 other victims when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Ironically, even though he spent his summers on a lake, he could not swim. Alfred died a hero – knowing that he couldn’t swim, he chose to save others, women and children in particular, and made sure to get them on the lifeboats during the eighteen minutes that the Lusitania had before she sank, only eleven miles off the coast of Ireland.
Margaret Emerson, Alfred’s widow, continued to use Camp Sagamore seasonally for many years after Alfred’s death, and turned it into a social hot spot for the rich and famous of the early 20th century. Guests included Gary Cooper, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, Howard Hughes and members of the Rockefeller family just to name a few. They would spend the summers here, playing bocce, croquet, tennis, paddle tennis, bowling, fishing, rowing, card throwing, jigsaw puzzling and martini drinking.
In 1954, Camp Sagamore was gifted to Syracuse University who used it as a conference center for 20 years, and then sold it to the state of New York when the facilities were in decline. Eventually a non-for-profit group successfully bid on the property and have since worked to restore it and provide a wide range of living history experiences. In 2000, Sagamore was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Camp Sagamore – Today
Today, Camp Sagamore can be experienced in a variety of ways. The quickest are the daily tours given during the summer months, but that would only give you a brief taste of what Sagamore has to offer. The best way to experience Camp Sagamore is to participate in a program that includes spending two or three or more nights. Programs include intergenerational camps, fly fishing weekends, Adirondack crafting experiences, or women’s programs just to name a few. The Sagamore Institute has also partnered with Road Scholar offering a variety of programs, including The Illusion of Roughing It, which is the program a girlfriend and I recently enjoyed. During the week I was there, the facilities were also shared by the Adirondack Plein-Air Society.
The cost of a program includes accommodations, all meals and drinks and all program activities. Accommodations are basic but very comfortable – mostly double rooms with twin beds. And as befitting an experience in the wilderness, there are no keys for the rooms to lock the doors. Bathrooms are down the hall and are shared by 4-6 rooms.
All meals are served buffet style in the large dining hall that was originally built by William Durant and then expanded by the Vanderbilts. The food was good and there was plenty of it.
The Road Scholar program at Camp Sagamore included a variety of interesting talks about the history of the Adirondack Great Camps, the Durants, the Vanderbilts, and detailed tours of the Lower guest camp and the Upper workers’ facilities.
The Lower Guest Complex is where the Durants and the Vanderbilts and their guests stayed and played, and is where current guests also stay. All the buildings are characterized by detailed spruce pine log construction with eastern white cedar siding and red trim. In keeping with Durant’s building philosophy, all the materials came from the surrounding land.
The main lodge has somewhat of a chalet look to it. Inside, the patina of the original exposed log beam ceiling glows in the light given off by lamps forged in the local blacksmith’s workshop. Exposing the beams like this was also an original Durant design aesthetic. Much of the hardware details for all the buildings were forged on site.
Besides the large lodge buildings, there are also a few smaller, more intimate cabins set next to the lakeshore. These were built by Margaret Emerson for her children to use when they came of age. Today, they are also used as guest cabins.
Alfred Vanderbilt also built for himself a ‘boys clubhouse” in the woods that he called “The Wigwam” This is where he and his male friends went to play cards, drink and smoke and in general, hang out, and do guy things. An early man-cave of sorts. This building is also used for guest accommodations.
All these buildings and the associated elegant lifestyle in the woods required the help of extensive staff. In its heyday, the ratio of staff to guests was said to be six to one. The staff had their own set of buildings in the Upper Complex, tucked away, out of site, uphill and through the woods.
The staff complex is large, and besides the men’s house for accommodations, it also included a blacksmith shop, a school, hen houses and poultry yards, an ice house, a hog pen, a cow barn, and many other buildings needed to provide the illusion of a simple, rustic experience without losing any of the luxuries the Vanderbilts and their guests were used to.
Besides the lectures and tours, the Illusions of Roughing It program also had quite a bit of free time to enjoy the recreational opportunities offered in camp. My friend and I took the time to go canoeing one afternoon. Despite it being overcast, canoeing on the calm lake was like gliding through a crytal clear mirror. The rocks, trees and buildings were clearly reflected and provided endless photo ops.
There are many red traditional Adirondack chairs scattered throughout the camp that make it very easy to sit and relax and enjoy the scenery, or read a book, or just do nothing.
There is also a 3.5 mile trail that goes around the perimeter of the lake that is a very easy hike through the quiet woods.
The Road Scholar program ended with entertainment in the form of Bill Smith, a local Adirondack story teller. For an hour, Bill held us all spellbound as he told humorous and colorful stories about growing up in these mountains, sang folk tunes and played his instruments.
All too quickly, my three days at Camp Sgamore were over and I had to pack up for home. My time there was a good mix of relaxation and learning. This truly had been a unique living history experience, and I am definitely planning a return trip – maybe next time when the fall leaves are at their peak.
If this is the Vanderbilt way of ‘Roughing It”, I am all for it.
If you are interested in a visit to Camp Sagamore, get all the information you need at http://greatcampsagamore.org/
Road Scholar is also a non-for -profit organization that combines learning and travel. Check out their programs at https://www.roadscholar.org/
Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook page.
Thanks for visiting