What do Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek have in common? They all spent time around Raquette Lake for one reason or another. Who knew such a seemingly unprepossessing spot on the Adirondack map could have played host to such luminaries?
You will, once you peruse a new book by James M. Kammer, Raquette Lake resident and historian. Around Raquette Lake, appropriately named because it takes us on just the tour its title suggests, is an installment of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series, and it follows that series’ formula to a T—that is, it consists of several dozen old photos, with brief captions. It does its job better than some I’ve seen in this series that seem to have been thrown together in a frantic attempt to capitalize on a good thing before the public tires of it; the quality of pictures, from Kammer’s personal collection, is consistently good, allowing for the fact that some are over a century old and weren’t always given archival care, and most of the writing is of comparable quality. The 128-page book can be consumed in a pleasant half-hour.
What becomes clear as Kammer takes us around the sprawling lake, with its narrows, islands and bays stretching every which way, is that Raquette went within a generation from a wilderness body of water known to a few reclusive backwoodsmen to a haven for a cadre of rich and powerful men the likes of whom America will not see again. The lake was soon ringed by grand hotels and Great Camp compounds, touched by railroads on two sides, and churned by miniature steamboats.
The author also leads us on side excursions to ancillary lakes where many of these Great Camps sprang up.
There was money to cast away, and it was. Kammer shows us a camp owned by leather wholesaler J. Harvey Ladew, whose family arrived at the lake in a private railroad sleeping car and was transported the rest of the way in a private steamboat. He shows us the camp of container manufacturer Horace Inman, who liked the tropics so much that he had one of his buildings outfitted to accommodate tropical plants and beasts. (And we talk of invasive species today.) We see entire farms chopped out of the forest to feed the Great Camp families and their guests, who included the cast of characters named in the first paragraph. One bizarre scene has a Wright Brothers airplane, owned by magazine publisher Robert Collier, being unloaded, hand over hand, from a railroad baggage car. Kammer’s book chronicles a brief, almost absurd period in Adirondack history that seems unimaginable now.
As Raquette Lake grew in popularity, a resident population sprang up, much of it there to serve the rich outsiders. Kammer gives them their due, presenting such markers of their lives as their tiny school, little more than a shack, to which the children were brought not by bus but by steam launch.
A curious juxtaposition of sizes is revealed in this book. Many things having to do with Raquette Lake were small—the minuscule steamers, which could accommodate just a handful of people, look like models of the real thing, and one of the railroads was the shortest standard-gauge line ever built, at 7/8 of a mile long. But other trappings of civilization were immense, and they got bigger as time passed, especially the hotels and the Great Camps. The zenith of this “bigger must be better” affliction is seen in Forest Lodge, William Seward Webb’s retreat that stretched endlessly along Lake Lila’s shoreline.
It was a heady era, but it was doomed. Fortunes were lost. The hotels, like so many in the Adirondacks, burned. Steamboats and train cars deteriorated; some were rescued and hauled off to the Adirondack Museum, where they repose in perpetuity. Forest Lodge was torn down after the state acquired the land under it, to Kammer’s regret. Those of us who could not live in that time are privileged to visit it all through Kammer’s book.