A look back at the historic buildings in now-defunct property
By Tom French
When most people think of Camp Gabriels, they probably envision the former prison eight miles north of Saranac Lake, but the history reaches much further into Adirondack past and includes rehabilitation and education in addition to incarceration. Before it was a prison, it was part of Paul Smith’s College, and before that, a sanitarium with ties to a Belgium-born bishop and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The hamlet of Gabriels was Paul Smith’s Station on the Adirondack & St. Lawrence (later New York Central). The Sisters of Mercy, a worldwide religious organization of Catholic women, established a tuberculosis sanitarium there in the late 1800s on land donated by Paul Smith, William Seward Webb, and the state.
The Bishop of the Ogdensburg Diocese at the time, Henry Gabriels, encouraged the Sisters of Mercy to establish the facility, the second sanitarium in the Adirondacks following Trudeau’s, and the first to admit Black patients.
Beginning with a small donation of $15 in 1895, Sister Mary of the Perpetual Help Kiernan and her co-worker, Sister McAuley, moved into an empty cabin near the tracks and recruited Isaac G. Perry to design three buildings pro bono. Raised in Keeseville, Perry is sometimes considered the first state architect of New York because he oversaw construction projects at the capitol in Albany under Gov. Grover Cleveland.
An inside look
Only one of the three buildings still stands. The Kieran Cottage sits near the northern entrance and can be seen from Route 86. It was the first stop on a recent tour sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). It served as a home for the Sisters of Mercy assigned to work at the sanitarium and later as the superintendent’s house and administrative offices during the prison years.
Perry’s Rest-A-While Cottage, where the patients resided, was removed as part of the agreement when Paul Smith’s sold the property to the state in 1980, and the third original building, an administration building, burned in 1916.
A chapel with an octagonal nave was built in 1904. It is believed Perry designed it as well but died before completion. Used through the college and prison years, it is now in disrepair, with a collapsed floor. We were allowed to peek through the door.
The sanitarium expanded in the mid-1920s with three buildings designed by John Russell Pope – the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, National Archive, and West Building of the National Gallery of Art, among many others.
Two of the Pope buildings housed tuberculosis patients while the third contained medical facilities such as an operating room, lab, and x-ray equipment. Later the buildings were used for class and dorm rooms for nearby Paul Smith’s College. The Department of Corrections used the buildings to house prisoners.
The next phases
With the decline of tuberculosis patients after WWII due to the rise of antibiotics and vaccines, the sanitarium’s population dwindled. Paul Smith’s purchased the property for $150,000 in 1965 for its growing forestry program. The college built several additional buildings including a gymnasium that was also used as a cafeteria for a time.
But by the late ’70s, shrinking enrollment combined with maintenance costs compelled the college to transition the students back to the main campus and the state bought the property.
The first group of 25 inmates, chosen for their building skills, arrived in August 1982. As they renovated and added additional spaces, more inmates were transferred to the facility until, at its peak, more than 325 men were housed at the minimum-security work camp.
In addition to regular work on the prison campus, inmates engaged in a number of tasks throughout the North Country including trail work, forest fire abatement, opening and closing state campgrounds, and community service with churches, animal shelters, and food pantries. They righted headstones, assisted with cleanup from the Ice Storm of ‘98, and are responsible for many of the familiar brown and yellow DEC signs seen throughout the Park. They helped build the Saranac Lake Ice Palace for years. Inmates took classes and earned their GEDs.
With no sliding gates or fences, life at the prison was an honor system in many ways. Although most inmates respected those boundaries, occasionally someone ran. Our tour guide recalled one escape that made the press. An inmate ran to Bloomingdale, stole a bicycle, rode to Plattsburgh, and then hitchhiked to North Hudson before being stopped at a roadblock. Some only slipped away far as the convenience store next door to grab some beer.
Current state of neglect
The NYS Office of General Services (OGS) inherited the building when the prison closed in 2009. Most of the buildings are now in disrepair. Parts are boarded up except where trespassers have broken in and vandalized.
Restoration of the historic buildings and repurposing the campus is complicated. The OGS attempted to sell the property by auction three times, first in 2010, but no one bid at the opening price of $950,000. Members of a Jewish Orthodox community with hopes of creating a summer camp successfully bid $166,000 in fall of 2013, but the deal fell through when title insurance could not be obtained due to the property being in the Forest Preserve.
The property has been in limbo ever since. In order to have a successful auction and closing, many parties feel an amendment to the state constitution is necessary. The NYS Senate approved a proposed amendment in June 2021, but the assembly has yet to do so and the process, which requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions before being placed on a ballot for voters, will reset with the new legislative session in 2023 unless the assembly acts.
Ideas for the property have been bandied about, such as renovating the buildings into affordable housing, but it could be years before the amendment process and a voter referendum takes place.
In the meantime, only ghosts reside at Camp Gabriels. Ara Newman, one of the guides for the AARCH tour and former commissary clerk at the prison, claims one of her coworkers saw a clown. Legend has it that clowns used to entertain the sanitarium patients. The Prison Health Services Clinic was also “known to be haunted.”
“We all have our little ghost stories.” Ara says. “I’m not sure why.”