The sparsely populated towns in the Adirondacks often hold a particularly rich and intriguing history, but it often lies undiscovered and under-appreciated. The Township of Johnsburg, in the southeastern corner of the Adirondack Park is a prime example.
It appears that Sir William Johnson used a Native American trail through Johnsburg to sneak north to terrify and murder the French during the French & Indian War. It is likely too that his son, Sir John Johnson, used that same trail to lead a band of 528 loyalist New Yorkers south in 1780 to rescue 143 Loyalists and then burn 120 barns, mills and houses in his home town of Johnstown during the American Revolution. » Continue Reading.
What follows is a guest essay by Sheila Myers, who is working on a historical novel based on the life of William West Durant.
In science there is an expression that theories can never be proved, only disproved. I teach science, and that may be why a comment I read while researching William West Durant for my novel about his life provoked me to find out where this famous builder of Great Camps in the Adirondacks drew his inspiration. This then led me to uncover some fallacies in his biography.
It started with the dissertation by Mary Ellen Domblewski (Cornell University, 1974). In it she conjectures that Durant, having no formal training in architecture, may have visited the Bernese Oberland during his time abroad. It would be there, she believed, he would have observed the Swiss cottage style that he emulated at great camps Pine Knot and Sagamore.
Just when I think I have learned all of the origins and instigators for the building of the Raquette Lake Railroad during 1899, I find a new participant.
I have read of Collis Huntington’s impatience with the inefficiencies of the Fulton Chain steamers and stages from Old Forge’s transportation monopoly’s companies, his sitting on a keg of nails during a long wait. Also, that his wife refused to visit him at Pine Knot until this builder of the transcontinental railroad built a railroad to their camp. Dr. William Seward Webb did plan in 1892 on a road from Clearwater to Raquette Lake. Later, the Raquette Lake Railroad would use the two mile lumber railroad built in 1897-1898 by John Dix to Rondaxe Lake as the beginning of this road’s route.
In the Harold Hochschild private history Township 34 excerpt published by the Adirondack Museum, we learn that William West Durant determined that the Delaware & Hudson Company would not be extending his father’s line past North Creek. This meant that Dr. Webb’s line built in 1892 would be the only railroad available to connect Raquette and Blue Mountain Lakes to major population centers. Hochschild wrote that it was Durant who thought a railroad should be built connecting with the New York Central and that, lacking the funds to do so, Durant interested Collis Huntington in the project. » Continue Reading.
In the off year election of 1918, New York voters elected a new governor (Al Smith) who later became the first Roman Catholic and Irish-American to run for President. In that same election, voters also approved a constitutional amendment to the “forever wild” Article VII (rewritten as Article XIV in 1938) permitting the construction of a state highway on forest preserve lands from Saranac Lake to Old Forge by way of Blue Mountain and Raquette Lakes. Until this highway was built, the road from Inlet to the north ended at Seventh Lake.
When the segment from Seventh Lake to Raquette Lake was completed in 1929, it became the route of choice to Raquette Lake from Eagle Bay, replacing what today begins at that place as Uncas Road and ends as Browns Tract Road ending at Antlers Road at Raquette Lake. Its name changes at Browns Tract Ponds. » Continue Reading.
For more than a century, paddlers traveling between Utowana and Raquette lakes have used a trail known as the Marion River Carry — a portage around rapids in the Marion River. In recent years that access has been threatened after the owner announced plans to build several homes along Utowana Lake.
A fierce opposition to development near the carry was raised by local residents and outdoor enthusiasts and today the Open Space Institute (OSI) has announced that it has acquired 295 acres surrounding the Marion Carry. » Continue Reading.
Raquette Lake comes together each year to celebrate the founder of the Adirondack Great Camp style, William W. Durant. Durant Days not only celebrates the history of the Adirondack architectural form, but brings people to the area that was the birthplace of the Great Camp design.
Event Organizer Donna Pohl says, “Beverly Bridger of Great Camp Sagamore and I started this event 14 years ago as a way to gain attention for the National Historic Landmarks of Raquette Lake. One of the crowning jewels during Durant Days is the opportunity for a guided tour of Camp Pine Knot.” » Continue Reading.
But for people with more than a casual interest in things Adirondack, one of the most fascinating things about Durant is his biography. A member of Harvard’s class of 1910, which also included John Reed and T.S. Eliot, he attended the Versailles peace conference as an aide to Woodrow Wilson’s envoy, Colonel House. And before retiring to Jamaica, Vermont, and devoting himself to researching the evolution of the guide-boat, he was the US bureau chief for TASS, the Soviet news agency.
I don’t know whether that was common knowledge before Durant’s death in 1972. I once asked my mother whether it would be a violation of trust to write about that aspect of his career. She advised against publishing anything locally about Kenneth’s time with TASS, on the grounds that it was not something he would have wished discussed in public. In 2003, however, Amy Godine wrote a meticulously researched article for Adirondack Life titled “The Red Woods,” about leftists with Adirondack associations, Kenneth Durant included.
Godine also wrote about my father, Rob Hall, a Daily Worker editor who left the Communist party in 1956 and moved to the Adirondacks. In last week’s post, I was somewhat disingenuous when implying that my family’s friendship with Kenneth and his wife Helen was based on a shared interest in the history of wood boats.
To be sure, my father was interested in Kenneth’s work on guide-boats, and published excerpts from the work in progress in his weekly newspapers and later in the Conservationist magazine.
Kenneth also solicited my father’s help in publicizing Tom Bissell’s fiberglass guide-boats, which Bissell manufactured in Long Lake in the early 1960s.
But my parents’ relationship with the Durants began well before they moved to the Adirondacks, and it was much more complex than most of their Adirondack friendships.
Genevieve Taggard, a poet and biographer of Emily Dickinson, was a teacher of my mother’s at Sarah Lawrence College in the late 1940s; Taggard was also Kenneth’s second wife.
After my mother graduated from Sarah Lawrence, she went to work for TASS, presumably upon the advice or at least with the consent of Kenneth, who had retired from TASS in 1944.
Kenneth, in fact, became something of a paternal figure in my mother’s life, a substitute, perhaps, for her own father, who publicly disavowed her in the early 1950s.
A Cleveland manufacturer, my grandfather was serving as an assistant to Averell Harriman, Harry Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, when a midwestern Congressman revealed that the daughter of an administration official was working for TASS. My grandfather resigned and returned to Cleveland.
When my parents were married in 1950, they drove to the Durants’ home in southern Vermont for their honeymoon, listening to the Weavers’ ‘Good Night Irene’ on the car radio all the way from Washington. (Reds at the top of the pop charts! Perhaps they were on the right side of history after all.)
Thereafter, my parents spent most, if not all their holidays at the Durants’ house in Vermont, called Gilfeather after the farmer who once owned it, or in a nearby farmhouse called Potter Place, which the Durants also owned.
When, for instance, my father was covering the trial of Emmett Till’s killers in Mississippi for the Communist newspapers, my mother stayed behind at Potter Place.
By then, Genevieve Taggard had died and Kenneth had married Helen Van Dongen, celebrated in her own right as the editor of Joris Ivens’ 1936 Spanish Civil War film, The Spanish Earth.
Written and narrated by Ernest Hemingway, the film remains highly valued as a documentary about war as well as for its innovative technique.
A few years ago, in a book about American writers and the Spanish Civil War (The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles), writer Stephen Koch claimed that Joris Ivens and Helen were not independent film makers with leftist sympathies, as they represented themselves, but, rather, Soviet agents. According to Koch, their assignment was to persuade Hemingway, Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish and others to work, however inadvertently or unknowingly, for the Soviet cause.
I once asked Craig Gilborn, the former director of the Adirondack Museum who had come to know Helen well in her final years (she died in Vermont at the age of 97 in 2006), what he thought of Koch’s claims; fanciful at best, scurrilous at worst, he replied.
Why do I write about these things? In part, because I’ve always been struck by the words of a character in Russell Banks’ Adirondack novel, The Sweet Hereafter: “To love a place, you have to know it.”
Our appreciation of the Adirondacks only deepens the better we come to know the characters who have populated the region, and Kenneth Durant was a true Adirondack character.
As I noted in last week’s post, Kenneth had a legitimate claim upon the Adirondacks.
His father, Frederick C. Durant, was the developer of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, the first luxury hotel in the Adirondacks. To accommodate his own family, Durant built a camp on Forked Lake, a tributary of Racquette Lake, in the style made popular by his father’s cousin, William West Durant, which they called “Camp Cedars.”
Browsing through a Vermont antique shop a few years ago, I saw hanging near the rafters a large photo, badly framed, which the dealer had labeled, “Fisherman in rowboat on Vermont Lake.”
It was, in fact, none of those things. It was a photo of Kenneth, taken by Helen, rowing his guide-boat in Blue Mountain Lake. The photo was taken to commemorate Kenneth’s last row in the boat before donating it to the Adirondack Museum. I recognized it from the book on the guide-boat, and, needless to say, I bought it.
We’ve also had hanging in the house a large embroidered tapestry of a richly imagined Dutch village, which Helen made for us.
These things remind me how profoundly people from the past shaped us, our assumptions, our choices, our aspirations. For me, connections with those long gone are ties that bind me to the Adirondacks today.
Photos: Kenneth Durant in Vermont; Helen Van Dongen with documentary film maker Robert Flaherty, whose Louisiana Story and The Land she edited.
In the 1880s Frank Ofeldt invented a small engine powered by a petroleum by-product called naphtha, which proved to be a very useful means of water transport when attached to 16 or 18-foot launches. For a while, these naphtha launches flourished on the Adirondack lakes, transporting passengers and freight between camps, hotels and settlements.
By the turn of the century, naphtha launches were common on Lake George. Some were excursion boats, such as those owned and operated by the father os onetime Lake George Supervisor Alden Shaw. The majority, however, belonged to summer residents. Dr. Abraham Jacobi of Bolton Landing owned one. Harry Watrous, the perpetrator of the Hague Monster Hoax, owned two, as did Colonel Mann, the New York magazine editor who was the butt of the hoax. (Mann’s own magazine, by the way, poked fun at the rich for taking the accoutrements of soft living into the Adirondack wilderness, naphtha launches included.) The Eva B, the launch portrayed here, was owned by Charles Barker, a gentleman who spent one summer on Lake George in 1892. Barker sailed the craft from New York City to Troy and then came up the Champlain Canal through the locks. The launch was brought overland from Glens Falls to Lake George, where it was paraded in the Water Carnival. When Barked departed Lake George at the end of the season, he announced that he would sill down Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, then on to Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands.
The naphtha launch, unlike the steamboat which it replaced, was light and easy to handle. No special license was required to operate it. Thus, the naphtha launch became popular very quickly. Just as quickly, however, it disappeared, supplanted by the gasoline-powered motorboat, which was much faster than the naphtha launch and, or so it was said, much safer.
“It is eighty years or more since the naphtha launch came into the woods. They are gone and the steamboats with them. Handled with good manners, the launch was no threat to anyone and a pleasing service to many,” Kenneth Durant wrote in his monograph on the naphtha launch, published by the Adirondack Museum in 1976. Durant’s monograph remains the single best source of information on the naphtha launch.
Durant himself is best known for his pioneering studies of the Adirondack guide-boat. He had originally intended to incorporate the material which he had gathered on the naphtha launch into his book on the guide-boat, but then decided that it would be too much of a digression. After his death in 1972, his widow, Helen Durant, edited the manuscript and produced the pamphlet that is still available through the museum.
Durant’s knowledge of the naphtha launch, like his knowledge of the guide-boat, was rooted in his own experience. His father, Frederick C. Durant, was the developer of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, the first luxury hotel in the Adirondacks. To accommodate his own family, Durant built a camp on Forked Lake, a tributary of Racquette Lake, in the style made popular by his relative, William West Durant, which they called “Camp Cedars.” Warren Cole, the Long Lake guide-boat builder, was the family’s guide, and Durant spent much of his youth in the guide-boat that Cole built for him.
The family also maintained a naphtha launch, called the Mugwump. For sport and pleasure, there was always the guide-boat, Durant said. The naphtha launch was essentially a service boat. “It transported busts who might have been timid or clumsy in a guidebook. It towed the scow with loads of lumber from the mill or stone cut from the quarry at the head of the lake. It towed the freight boat with a load of fresh balsam for the open camp, or a string of guide-boats for a fishing party to the far end of the lake. Now and then one might make a leisurely cruise along the evening shore, with engine muted.”
Durant’s interest in the evolution of the guide-boat brought him to Lake George in 1960 to study the bateaux that had just been discovered at the bottom of the lake, and he and Helen visited my family often in Warrensburg, usually when traveling from their home in Vermont to Hamilton County, which Durant always called “the woods” and which he believed was the true Adirondacks.
(He once wrote to his friend, canoe authority Paul Jamieson: “When I was half as old as I am now we could say unctuously, ‘There are no venomous snakes in the Adirondacks,’ reciting a bit of nature lore: ‘Rattlesnakes do not advance beyond the oaks.’ Then, when I was not looking, someone moved the Blue Line around Lake George and took in oaks and rattlesnakes–and worse.”)
While he may have been harsh on Lake George, I remember Kenneth as the gentlest of men. And he managed to impart to many, through his books, his conversation and his example, something of his passionate interest in wooden boats and their history on the lakes of the Adirondacks. Those of us who have learned from him had had richer lives as a consequence.
Raquette Lake will be a buzz of activity as community and guests enjoy the annual celebration honoring William West Durant. Tours, boat rides, fireworks and concerts are just a few of the activities everyone can enjoy this weekend.
William W. Durant is most commonly known as the founder of the Adirondack Great Camp. The most recognizable elements of the Great Camp style are rough hewed log construction, local stonework and decorative work using twigs, bark and branches. The camps were self-sufficient mega complexes that provided all means of entertainment for its guests from teahouses to bowling alleys. In the 1800s his father, Thomas C. Durant, had owned thousands of acres of Adirondack property turning the Raquette Lake acreage over to William to manage. William West Durant first built the Great Camp Pine Knot that would eventually be owned by Collis Huntington and other properties including Camp Uncas (owned by J.P. Morgan 1895) and Sagamore Lodge (built in 1897 and purchased by Alfred G. Vanderbilt in 1901). Durant supervised the building of over 100 buildings on the properties, a town, a railway and two churches (St. Williams and St. Huberts) and was responsible for hundreds of workers while spearheading these Great Camp endeavors. The rampant development of these large-scaled projects eventually led to his bankruptcy. These three camps are now National Historic Landmarks as advocates of history have worked hard to preserve this golden Adirondack era.
Currently Pine Knot is owned by SUNY Cortland and not open for public tours except on July 30th during Durant Days. Not only is Durant known for the founding of a classic architectural style but also for creating a town named in his honor that provided employees and families a place to congregate. The town of Durant no longer exists. The renovated store and St. William’s Church are all that remains of a once thriving waterway community on the north shore of Long Point.
With the opening of the railway line in 1900, the post office was moved from Durant to what is now the hamlet of Raquette Lake.
Event coordinator and caretaker of St. Williams’s On Long Point Andrea Monhollen says, “On Thursday nights we have free concerts here and the Raquette Lake Boys’ Camp and Girls’ Camp meet people at the dock and offer free boat rides to the events. It is a wonderful way to bring the community together.”
A special event will take place on Saturday on St. William’s on Long Point with a free water taxi from the town dock with a free afternoon concert from “Wide Variety” billed as Jersey’s premier A Cappella Group. Other activities commence throughout the day culminating with a band on the village green, boat parade and fireworks.
The Great Camp experience is also available through a free 10:00 a.m. tour of Camp Sagamore on Sunday, August 1st. All other guided tours are fee-based. The planned activities end with free vester service at St. Hubert’s.
US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced yesterday that Great Camp Uncas on Mohegan Lake has been selected as a National Historic Landmark.
Camp Uncas is located a few miles south of the hamlet of Raquette Lake, in the Town of Long Lake, Hamilton County. It is close to the geographic center of the 9,300-square mile Adirondack Park. The camp was built by William West Durant, pre-eminent architect and builder of the Park’s most famous and well-preserve great camps (including the adjacent Great Camp Sagamore, also an Historic Landmark and open to the public for day trips and overnight stays). The designation of Great Camp Uncas marks the third building in the tiny hamlet of Raquette Lake to be awarded National Landmark status. The other two are Great Camp Sagamore and Great Camp Pine Knot, all built by Durant.
Great Camps are compounds of buildings meant as a self-contained (often self-sustaining) seasonal retreat for a wealthy family, mimicking a tiny rural village. Great camp architecture reached its peak around the dawn of 20th Century, as the industrial magnates of the Gilded Age were spending their fortunes on ways to escape the crowded and polluted cites of the Northeast. Each building served a separate purpose, with dining halls, libraries, game rooms, blacksmith shops, boathouses, carriage houses, barns, farms, guest quarters, servants quarters and lounges.
Many great camps fell into disrepair as the wealthy owners passed away or lost their fortunes in the Great Depression. Some were later purchased by scout groups and other institutions that had the means to keep them in order.
Perhaps the two most important features of Durant’s great camps are his use of the landscape to conceal the buildings from view until you are right next to them, and his use of whole logs, rock and bark to create a rustic look that matched the landscape but also provided great comfort within. It was a combination of the American log cabin and the opulent European ski chalet. The style has been widely emulated, serving as the prototype for nearly every major lodge and administrative structure built by the National Park Service, including Yellowstone Lodge in Montana.
While Durant built Great Camp Uncas for himself, he was forced to sell it to pay his debts. New owner J. P. Morgan used it as a wilderness retreat for many years.
For the past 30 years, visitors to Great Camp Sagamore have been given tours of Uncas as well. More than 20 group tours came through just this past summer. Uncas and Sagamore have each hosted the Adirondack Council’s Annual Forever Wild Dinner and Conservationist of the Year Award celebration. This year, Uncas hosted the Adirondack Architectural Heritage organization’s annual meeting as well.
The Sagamore and Uncas roads are designated bike trails, surrounded by Adirondack Forest Preserve lands.
Here is an excerpt from today’s Department of the Interior news release announcing the new designation for Great Camp Uncas:
* Camp Uncas was developed 1893 to 1895 on Mohegan Lake in what is now the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
* Camp Uncas is one of the best examples of Adirondack camp architecture, which was designed for leisure. It is of exceptional historical and architectural significance as the first Adirondack camp to be planned as a single unit by William West Durant, widely recognized as one of the most important innovators of the property type.
* At Camp Uncas, Durant developed the camp as a single cohesive unit: a “compound plan” for camps that provided for an array of separate buildings, all subordinate to the natural setting. Camp Uncas was built as an ensemble from start to finish.
* The Adirondack camp had a strong and lasting influence on the design of rustic buildings developed for national and state park systems in the 20th century.
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