Fans of both iconic Adirondack institutions gather to share stories
By Tim Rowland
Tell a friend you’re headed to Sagamore for the weekend and only true Adirondackphiles will know to ask “Which one?”
Separated by 75 miles of dense forest, Great Camp Sagamore and the Sagamore Resort tend to exist in separate orbits, with their own partisans — until a chill Friday evening when 200 people descended on the hotel conference room for “A Tale of Two Sagamores,” including presentations by historians of each.
The shared name Sagamore is emblematic of a wise Indigenous leader, a term late-19th century Americans would have been familiar with, thanks to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series. Those stories of frontiersmen in the land of the Haudenosaunee were enjoying a revival at a time when it began to appear that city life might not be all that it was cracked up to be.
Both retreats were also born of fantastic wealth, yet were tacit admissions that money isn’t everything. And both, said Great Camp Sagamore Executive Director Emily Martz, have come to represent “the critical relationship between nature and humanity.”
Each played a distinctive role in that era of bounty bracketed by the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression, when the Adirondacks were the oyster of the New York City elite and provided industrialists a pristine escape from the sooty urban hellscape of their own creation.
The first Sagamore hotel was built in 1883 by four men who already owned ostentatious mansions on what became known as Bolton Landing along the increasingly trendy Lake George.
Even when these capitalists were on vacation they just couldn’t help themselves, and sensing a business opportunity was ripe for the picking they created the first Sagamore hotel. In the Adirondacks, grand hotels burned with the frequency of NFL linemen tearing their ACLs, and Sagamore I was no different. It was consumed by flames just a decade after its construction by a fire that started in the laundry room, said author and historian Bill Gates.
Sagamore II was built almost immediately, Gates said, with higher ceilings to better dispense the summer heat, more finely crafted woodwork and an octagonal tower that distinguished it from Sagamore I. And finally, Gates said, “they did not attach the laundry to the hotel.”
Tony, ruffle-festooned guests arrived by stage to the herald of trumpets until steamboats offered more comfort, and great, celebratory crowds would disembark at the docks, along with an occasional oddity known as the motorcar. “No one knew at the time the ramifications,” Gates said.
From its earliest days, The Sagamore became known for speedboat races, featuring craft that were among the fastest in the world. A great regatta had been booked for 1914, when on Easter Sunday as it was preparing for the season a careless workman tossed away the butt of his cigar and — you guessed it.
For years the site sat empty, until, armed with blueprints kiped from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a group of businessmen built a plantationy-looking clubhouse that was finally expanded into the iteration of today’s Sagamore.
Camp Sagamore, by contrast, was never a place for public gaiety, and — even though its founders had riches exceeding those of its Lake George compatriots — had a notably more rustic mission.
It was the goal of railroad icon Thomas Durant to build a line cutting on the diagonal through the wilderness toward the northwest, but the road never made it past North Creek. This put his son, William West Durant, behind the eightball, dooming his plans to open the wilds to a series of luxury camps whose now-famous Adirondack decor “blurs the lines between inside and outside,” said Camp Sagamore historian Robert Engel.
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The younger Durant’s contributions to the Adirondack canon look better in hindsight than they did in the day, and by the turn of the 20th century he was frantically selling off assets to avoid bankruptcy.
This played into the hands of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, great grandson of the Commodore, and son of Cornelius II and Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, a couple of dazzling socialites fond of dressing up in costumes so outrageous that they would have made the Louis XIV look like Gandhi, and for whom the thought of gutting a trout on a foggy Adirondack morning would have instigated an acute case of the vapors.
“The Adirondacks would not have interested them in the slightest,” Engel said.
But Alfred, perhaps touched by a hint of childhood rebellion, was more willing to trade urban luxuries for an occasionally rougher existence. Up to a point. He purchased Durant’s bark-encrusted Sagamore in 1901, and installed flush toilets, hot and cold running water and electricity. “I wouldn’t say he craved a more bucolic life, but he did crave a sporting life,” Engel said.
Today Great Camp Sagamore is open for tours — “one of the greatest things you can do in the Adirondacks,” Engel said — and opens June 1 for tours, paddling, hiking and lodging, along with a whiff of the Gilded Age.
Alfred himself, owner of Camp Sagamore, went down with the Lusitania in 1915, the year after Sagamore II in Bolton burned. The Lusitania’s sister ship Mauretania continued to offer speedy and luxurious Atlantic crossings until it was scrapped in 1935. Among its liquidated furnishings were exquisite dining room chairs which by way of auction houses made it to New York City and then to the dining room of the Sagamore Hotel.