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Into the woods

The surprising history of an abandoned Adirondack summer camp

When I arrived in the Adirondacks in a pair of sensible sneakers for hiking, I expected to be reporting a story about the American rustic architecture of Eagle Island, an ancient, nearly 10 years abandoned summer camp in Saranac Lake, New York. But somehow, about three minutes into my stay at the town’s Doctor’s Inn guest house, I realized I had no choice but to also report a story about a global health pandemic. And neither story could be told without recounting the history of this quiet old lake town, whose fresh air has an almost mythical reputation for healing bodies. In this story presumably about architecture, people die, a family suffers a great tragedy, pre-teen girls electively spend weeks at a time sleeping outside on a man-free island Utopia, Sylvia Plath shows up for enough time to break a leg, a German scientist cures tuberculosis, a group of former Girl Scouts sue for land rights.

In the 1860s, the Adirondacks’ Saranac Lake region (composed of Upper, Middle, and Lower Saranac Lakes, plus a few smaller bodies of water) was a tangle of trees and freezing lakes uninhabitable by humans for 10 months of every year. In spite of, or maybe because of, its genuine ruggedness, its multi-hour-train-ride distance from New York City, and the no-girls-allowed clubhouse mentality of its lodging accommodations, it was an ideal hunting retreat for Manhattan’s male robber baron elite.

Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was one such man. The wild pleasures of Saranac Lake bewitched Trudeau when he was a young, virile medical student in New York City, visiting the region occasionally for love of the hunt. In 1876, Trudeau left New York City and came to Saranac Lake for good, expecting to die. Like his late brother Francis, and 70 to 90 percent of city dwellers in Europe and North America at that time, Trudeau contracted tuberculosis, otherwise known as consumption or phthisis. His prognosis was not bright.

Trudeau did not, in fact, die when he arrived. Instead, his body adapted well to Saranac Lake’s fresh air and climate, and soon the doctor regained his health. He thought the air might help others, too. In 1885, after taking an intense interest in the German open-air sanatorium system that Dr. Hermann Brehmer implemented for the cure of tuberculosis, Trudeau pioneered his own American model. Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium (later renamed the Trudeau Sanitarium after his death in 1915) began treatment on two patients, a pair of sisters who worked in a New York City factory, in a one-room "cure cottage" called Little Red. Under Trudeau’s supervision, their health improved.

A devoted fundraiser, Trudeau was able to harangue money out of wealthy industry titans to expand his sanitarium. As the town gained a reputation as a fresh air haven for consumptives, its draw for the wealthy expanded—as long as those with money could buy space far out of town on their own sprawling lakefront camps.

Coulter came to the Adirondacks to expand the concept of cure cottages, but in the ten years that Coulter spent in Saranac Lake, his finest, most everlasting work is on the opposite end of the architectural spectrum.

Many patients got better in the mountain air, but suffered relapses when they returned to New York City or Albany living. Surely the Adirondack air held no mystical powers, but the separation from the clogged communal breath of New Yorkers must have felt otherworldly to patients.

Tuberculosis also brought William Coulter, an architect from New York City, to Saranac Lake in 1896. Coulter was a partner at New York firm Renwick, Aspinwall, and Renwick, the firm of James Renwick, an architect most notable for Washington, DC’s Smithsonian and New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The firm shipped Coulter north for twin purposes: to help Trudeau build out his Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium system, and to cure himself. The cure cottages, some of which remain in an altered form today on the Sanitarium property, took on a specific architectural look. Coulter realized Trudeau’s hope in avoiding a massive, institutional building with dark hallways and small windows.

Eventually, with Coulter's architectural savvy, Trudeau’s sanitarium expanded into a closed community consisting of small, simple "cure cottages" equipped with broad outdoor decks on which, for $5 a week, patients could spend most of their days relaxing. Decks allowed patients the space and foundation to sleep outside under the stars, the breeze from the nearby lake cycling fresh air onto the property.

Indoor/outdoor cushioned recliners called Adirondack Cure Chairs, made of wood and steel springs, were developed specifically for the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. These natural comforts brought sick people to Saranac Lake, and also writers and thinkers looking for refuge. Robert Lewis Stevenson was a patient of Dr. Trudeau’s; Einstein visited. Sylvia Plath broke her leg on Mount Pisgah while visiting in 1952, inspiring a skiing scene in The Bell Jar wherein Esther Greenwood contemplates suicide on a mountaintop.

As Saranac Lake became known as a resting haven for consumptives, the Trudeau Sanitarium ran out of space. Similar, family-run cure cottages popped up all around town. The Doctor’s Inn, where I stayed during my trip, was one such property. I slept in a former rest porch, now enclosed by drywall, and lying still in the un-air-conditioned June night, trying not to check my email, I understood how the air could calm a sick patient.

Coulter came to the Adirondacks to expand the concept of cure cottages, but in the 10 years that he spent in Saranac Lake, his finest, most everlasting work was on the opposite end of the architectural spectrum. Coulter is responsible for the look of several estates for Manhattan and Albany’s wealthy leisure class, based on prototypical Adirondack camps, like Pine Knot and Sagamore, built by architect William West Durant in nearby Raquette Lake. In 1902, Coulter hired architect Max Westhoff, who likely also came to Saranac Lake for a fresh air remedy after contracting tuberculosis. Coulter made Westhoff a partner, and their firm, Coulter and Westhoff, operated until 1907.

"Coulter worked for the firm in New York when he was doing country houses in Long Island," says Mary Hotaling, a founder of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, a preservation organization, and a Coulter expert. "When he first came to Saranac Lake, he did things of that vein. But he became more and more rustic as he stayed here longer. [Eagle Island Camp] is his best example." Hotaling wrote her master’s thesis in historic preservation on Coulter, and her work contributed greatly to the rhetoric used to lobby for Eagle Island as a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

These so-called "great camps," a term writer Harvey H. Kaiser coined to describe the expansive, rustic lodges favored by the robber baron set, were frivolous and elaborate, host to nightly black tie dinners, custom mahogany Chris Craft boats, butlers, servants’ quarters, tightly packed itineraries, and notorious anti-semitic exclusivity. A passage from journalist Robert Taylor’s book on the town, Saranac: America’s Magic Mountain, describes weekend-long parties at Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Camp Topridge on nearby Upper St. Regis Lake, comprised of 68 buildings and requiring 85 staff members at its peak:

Your hostess stage-manages the revels by itemized memoranda. No detail is too trivial for her, and you are provided with a return schedule in the event you are to overstay your appointed holiday. Instructions about packing and procedure are included (attention to plan equals contented guests), and if it all smacks of military logistics, why, that too is part of Marjorie Post’s rigorous hospitality.

Before the Hamptons, before Bermuda, there was the Adirondacks as the convenient summer destination spot for New York’s elite. Though families like the Morgans and the Rockefellers could afford physical space and transportation for their waitstaff up to the Adirondacks every summer, tuberculosis didn’t discriminate by class. While some built great camps for pure recreation, wealthy sufferers of tuberculosis also used their private spaces to try the same "wilderness cure" Trudeau’s patients attempted.

Before the Hamptons, before Bermuda, there was the Adirondacks as the convenient summer destination spot for New York’s elite.

"The cure cottages and the nearby Adirondack lodges occupy opposite ends of the architectural spectrum," Taylor writes. "The desire to live in accord with nature, however, was no less urgent than in the village." And this, more or less, is where the story of Eagle Island Camp begins. In 1903, former New York State governor and U.S. Vice President Levi Morton employed Coulter to build a summer home for him on a secluded island on Upper Saranac Lake. The Morton family already had an Adirondack great camp, called Camp Pinebrook, designed by Coulter. Records are unclear on why the Mortons wanted a second estate, but likely it was because the island provided more privacy than their mainland mansion.

Eagle Island is 32 acres, set in the middle of Upper Saranac Lake, the northernmost of the interconnected Saranac Lakes. Just as Coulter had designed the look of cure cottages with functionality and space in mind, so he did with Eagle Island. A broad covered walkway runs across the main cluster of buildings comprising the camp, with ample room for family and guests to recline in cure chairs. Despite the full-on Americana of the camp's rustic cedar poles and shingles, the roofs slope into delicate chalet eaves. The main lodge still has a moose head watching over the place, known to the Girl Scout campers who later occupied the camp for over 70 years as Adam.

In 2016, some of the original furniture—including Adirondack cure chairs—remains in the camp, unblighted by years of dust and Girl Scouts’ peanut butter hands. Clawfoot tubs sit in every bathroom. There are books everywhere, and campers’ little scribbles and notes tucked away in drawers. The island doesn’t feel haunted; there’s that Saranac mythos in the air, even if nobody’s around to enjoy it much anymore. It’s hard to imagine that the original owners of Eagle Island, a stuffy political family, would have been pleased that their boathouse and dining room were repurposed by a bunch of preteen girls for camping and crafting, but that’s exactly what happened to this once-formal estate.

After the patriarch’s death, Henry Graves Jr., a sometime renter of the property, bought the camp from the Morton family. Graves was a millionaire; born into an already prominent family, he made his fortune in railroads. Graves is also notorious for owning what was then the world’s most expensive and complicated timepiece, the Supercomplication watch.

After two of Graves’ sons died in separate automobile accidents in 1922 and 1934, Graves and his wife donated the camp in perpetuity to the Girl Scouts of the USA. The donation opened up the Saranac region to a whole new population: young girls out in the wilderness for the first time. By the mid-1950s, German scientist Robert Koch had discovered the cure for tuberculosis; the rest cure method was on the way out. The Trudeau Sanitarium closed in 1954; the Girl Scouts outlived tuberculosis.

When I visited Eagle Island in June, I boarded a boat at Gilpin Bay, just as the Girl Scouts did to start their summers every year beginning in 1938. It was a short pontoon boat ride to the Eagle Island boathouse, and my primary guides were Hotaling and Carole Mackenzie, treasurer of the 501(c)(3) Friends of Eagle Island, which formed when the Girl Scouts put the camp up for sale in 2008.

From 1938 until 2008, Eagle Island Camp functioned as a Girl Scout camp for troops in New Jersey. And then, like tuberculosis, it vanished. In 2007, national leadership at Girl Scouts of the USA shifted. The organization’s 300-plus regional councils were consolidated into just over 100. In 2008, the streamlining of councils affected Eagle Island, as three different New Jersey groups—the Girl Scouts of Greater Essex and Hudson Counties, Washington Rock Council, and Rolling Hills Council—merged into one group called Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey.

The island doesn’t feel haunted; there’s that Saranac mythos in the air, even if nobody’s around to enjoy it much any more.

Girl Scouts of the USA started selling over 200 of their properties; then-CEO of the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey Susan Brooks, who declined to comment for this piece, made the decision to sell Eagle Island Camp. Money was tight; employees were owed pensions. Girls, it seemed, weren’t interested in camping any more. According to Chris Hildebrand, a Friends of Eagle Island spokesperson, it seemed as if top brass thought girls had outgrown it. "The Girl Scouts’ new mission is the empowerment of girls through technology, through cheerleading, through makeup." Hildebrand may be referring to the "Science with a Sparkle" cosmetic chemistry workshops offered to Girl Scouts at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center, a class that made headlines in 2014.

Friends of Eagle Island disagreed that girls were no longer interested in camping. Plus, they argued that it was not legal for the Girl Scouts of the USA to sell the island, since the Graves family specifically donated it to children. Friends of Eagle Island had Henry "Buz" Graves Jr., the great grandson of Henry Graves, on their side, too. The group filed a lawsuit against the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey, which the Friends ultimately lost in July 2012.

"We presented a very strong lawsuit," Hildebrand told upstate New York’s Press Republican in 2012. "[The judge] said it could be sold but that income from the sale had to be used for outdoor activities for Girl Scouts, because that’s what the property was given for."

After a long fight, the Friends of Eagle Island bought the camp from the Girl Scouts in November 2015, for $2.45 million, with the help of a large anonymous donation. Even though the Friends of Eagle Island lost the case, the lawsuit helped in that it kept away any bids on the island while it was in legal limbo.

And now more fundraising begins. As we walk from building to building of the camp, Mackenzie says, "Now we have to fundraise for restoration, renovation, new roofs, new electrical, [a] preservation architect, an engineer."

Saving a pristine piece of rustic architecture is crucial, especially as Saranac Lake has seen other Coulter camps destroyed in the past few years. "We lost a really good one—The Waubeek—a few years ago to new construction. It was a wonderful Coulter camp open as a resort," says Hotaling. "[The owners] sold it and somebody bought it with the intention of camping there as a private home, but then they decided to do new construction."

When I ask if the home at the former site of Waubeek was garish, Hotaling tells me she hasn’t been able to bring herself to look at it. "It’s a castle thing," she says. And I know exactly what she means—those mansions that pop up in historic resort towns, interfering with the tree line.

Every story told about Eagle Island Camp is one of wily young women living in nature, learning how to exist on their own for the first time in the mountain air. And as more Girl Scouts hear about threats to the island, more rally on its behalf. Jim Bowes, the volunteer caretaker on Eagle Island when I visited, had been volunteered for the three-week job by his wife in Colorado. She was a camper in the 1970s and a counselor in the 1980s, but hadn’t been back since. And still, Jim was there.

Eagle Island campers are deferential to symbols spread all over the property, whether they attended in 1938 or 2008. All Eagle Island women talk about taxidermy, sleeping outside, ice cream sundae nights, and Church Island, a small step of land in Upper Saranac with a chapel. Mariners, or older-level Girl Scouts, originally slept at the boathouse, which at one point in the camp’s history was suspended over the water, though it’s on dry land now. In later camp years, all campers slept in tents on platform foundations.

Stories about connections formed and memories cemented at Eagle Island are especially poignant for the campers who attended Eagle Island before World War II, middle class women who experienced a freedom at camp they hadn’t elsewhere.

Erna Hoover, who attended Eagle Island in 1938 and every summer after for four years, remembers a production of Romeo and Juliet the girls put on the first summer. "We did one part of Romeo and Juliet and we invited Maurice Evans, who was a well-known Shakespearean actor with a place on Saranac," she says. "We invited him over to see it, and on the way back he was polite enough to applaud and say ‘Very good'."

Liz Crandall, who attended the camp first as a 12-year-old in 1939 and 1940, remembers sailing and camping. "I remember getting into those elegant mahogany Chris Craft boats that picked up from Gilpin Bay out to Eagle Island," she says. "I stayed at the Mariner’s boathouse. And sleeping on that second floor with no screens or anything. I was the last cot out towards the lake. It was like I couldn’t believe how magnificent it was."

Friends of Eagle Island hopes to reopen the camp by 2018, not specifically for Girl Scouts, or even just for girls. A paradigm that the Friends of Eagle Island follows is the 2008 closure and independent reopening of former Girl Scout camp Little Notch in the southern Adirondacks. A committee of former Girl Scouts and friends banded together to save the camp, which reopened in 2012. The new Eagle Island seems a bit more egalitarian, more willing to take in any kid who needs a little fresh air, just as Graves’s original deed intended.

In Robert Taylor’s Saranac: America’s Magic Mountain, the author wrote, "Air in Saranac is what water is to Venice, the element of the spirit of place. Like Venice, too, Saranac can seem secretive and inward-looking, conscious of history to a degree unique even among older American settlements, for Saranac incorporates in its past a European comprehension of death."

That’s a lot resting on the shoulders of an upstate vacation town, especially Saranac. Its downtown is sleepy. Though there’s now a craft brew spot and a coffee shop mimicking Brooklyn mimicking a rustic mountain town, Saranac seems conscious of, or even haunted by, its past as a place where travelers used to cover their mouths while passing through for fear of catching tuberculosis.

But nobody comes to Saranac for craft beer, or even for a good lunch. People come to be cured, even if it’s just for a short while, even if it’s just for the summer.

Editor: Sara Polsky