Sagamore—it’s a name celebrated in Adirondack history, story, and song, synonymous with a glittering but shortlived era of rapacious wealth and ostentatious luxury. The subject of attention in many books, most recently Gladys Montgomery’s An Elegant Wilderness: Great Camps and Grand Lodges of the Adirondacks, 1855-1935, the place now gets its own deserved volume in Great Camp Sagamore: the Vanderbilt Adirondack Retreat.
Written by Great Camp Sagamore Director Beverly Bridger, this slim but generously illustrated book packs a lot in, giving us the rise, fall, and rescue of a classic Adirondack institution. All told, the book contains more than fifty-five photos. Most of them are historical black-and- white images and are as good as can be expected of reproductions of old prints. There also are eight pages of color photos taken in recent years.
Bridger’s articulate account of the camp’s saga is supplemented by an eloquent foreword written by a Vanderbilt descendant and by three appendices, one of which contains family recollections of Richard and Margaret Collins, Sagamore’s caretakers for almost twenty-three years. It was they who made the place work, and their inclusion adds a satisfying dimension to the story.
You might be wondering how a collection of old buildings on a lake way back in the woods of Hamilton County comes to have a director. Since 1989, Bridger has led or co-led a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Sagamore, now a National Historic Landmark.
Let’s clear up what a Great Camp is before we go any further. Bridger writes that the term did not exist during its own eponymous era, coming into use only in the 1980s. To qualify, a place needed to have been built for one (absurdly rich) family, have lots of buildings (twenty-seven in Sagamore’s case, giving it more than some small Adirondack hamlets), look like it was in Europe while made of native materials, raise its own food, and have a resident staff that did everything from tend the flowerbeds and prepare lavish banquets to give the children violin and tennis lessons.
It was the railroads that made the Great Camps possible. In the nineteenth century, they were the ticket to wealth and social prominence, and a half-dozen men parlayed good timing, luck, skill, and sometimes spectacular skulduggery into previously unimaginable fortunes, portions of which they applied toward vacation retreats of monumental proportion.
The patriarch of Great Camps in the Adirondacks was William West Durant, son of one of the kingpins of the transcontinental railroad, Dr. Thomas C. Durant of Albany. His third iteration was Sagamore, built on Shedd (later Sagamore) Lake, a handful of miles south of Raquette Lake. But only four years after occupying it, stung by personal and financial reversals, he offered the spread to Alfred Vanderbilt, scion of the New York Central Railroad family, as a honeymoon suite for a marriage that later ended in divorce. In 1901, the 1,526 acres with its forests, lakes, and buildings conveyed for $162,500. Sagamore was to stay in the Vanderbilt family for more than half a century.
Thus the bulk of the book is, fair enough, devoted to the Vanderbilt years at Sagamore. These are summarized eloquently in the foreword by the grandson of the first Vanderbilt on the scene. “It was like Brigadoon,” Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt III reminisces. “Everyone was happy all the time.” He explains that in 1911 his grandfather married Margaret Emerson McKim, who more than any other individual came to be associated with the estate. Just four years later, though, Grandfather Vanderbilt died in the torpedoing of the Lusitania after giving his life preserver away and helping guide panicked children to lifeboats.
Presumably that put a momentary crimp in the perpetual happiness scenario. But Margaret retained Sagamore, the spot she and her husband had loved among all their other homes, and became renowned as a hostess and outdoors aficionado. Guests over the years included Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein; aviation and film pioneer Howard Hughes; actor Gary Cooper; and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, who arrived with twenty-five personal servants in tow. Accomplished in the sporting life, the widow Vanderbilt challenged the gender codes of her class and era by taking her guests hunting, skeet shooting, and fishing. She was also ahead of her time in her considerate treatment of her employees.
But nothing stays the same, and as it became clear that no one in the family wished to deal with Sagamore after her passing, she deeded it to Syracuse University. A succession of neglectful owners nearly ruined it, but eventually the organization that Bridger heads resuscitated it. All of this is detailed in the book, an update of an earlier edition that was prompted by the receipt of a Vanderbilt scrapbook with previously unpublished historic photos, Bridger explains.
What of Sagamore today? Retreats and seminars on the relationship between Adirondack culture and environment are offered year-round. Public tours are available in season; tourists can exclaim at the open-air bowling alley and imposing moose heads, watch children and their grandparents making dulcimers at a camp just for them (no parents allowed), or listen to an Adirondack folk singer. Or they can stay over and take a course, such as Boreal Birding, Adirondack Scandals, or Kayaking. Some of these are offered through the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program.
“Many people care about Sagamore, not as an icon of architecture, but as a place of camaraderie, learning, contemplation, recreation, and connection to the natural world,” Bridger says. Sagamore is lively again, and one gets the feeling that Margaret Vanderbilt would approve.