Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Upper Saranac Lake’s Fish Rock Camp and Jacob Riis

Marsha Stanley of the Upper Saranac Lake Sekon Association dropped me a note to say that she has spent the summer posting the history of Fish Rock Camp, believed to be the first of the great camps built on Upper Saranac in 1893. Marsha’s work included digitizing and placing online the camp’s guest register from 1905 to 1915. The guest book is replete with sketches of life at the camp, including the vignette at left from 1905, “Alfred in his Auto.”

Visitors to the camp in 1909 included then governor of New York Charles Evans Hughes, the prominent Republican from Glens Falls, but perhaps most interesting was a visit by one of America’s earliest documentarians, Jacob A. Riis, a Dutch immigrant and journalist who wrote and photographed the seminal book on poverty in New York City of his time, How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among The Tenements of New York (published in 1890). His early use of flash photography in that book (and throughout his career) earned him his reputation today as a pioneer of photojournalism.

Riis arrived in New York after the Civil War with a flood of immigrants that amounted to twenty-four million people moving into urban areas, causing an eightfold increase in the population of Eastern cities. In the 1880s some 350,000 people were crammed into filthy disease-ridden ghettos (10 or 15 to a room) in a single square mile of the Lower East Side, then the most densely populated place in the world.

Riis was one of the impoverished and he was homeless—it’s said that he ate from the refuse of Delmonico’s Restaurant and for a time his only companion was a stray dog, beaten to death by a vicious policeman. That event spurred Riis to leave New York City and for a time he traveled the West selling irons. On his return to New York he took a job with a Long Island newspaper but resigned after two weeks when he discovered the editor was corrupt.

Riis returned, jobless, to the infamous Five Points slum where a chance encounter with an old schoolmaster led to the suggestion he become a trainee at the New York News Association. After washing himself in a horse trough, Riis, disheveled from life on the streets, was given a test assignment covering a luncheon at the Astor House. He soon rose in the ranks of reporters to cover the crime beat for the New York Tribune working the night-shift on the Lower East Side. It was then that he met then New York City Police Commissioner and fellow reformer Theodore Roosevelt. The sketch at right from Riis’s autobiography shows Riis walking the beat behind Roosevelt.

Riis was asked by his host at Fish Rock Camp to add a quote from his own writing to the guest book, and he added three. One was thoughtfully drawn from How The Other Half Lives (link to the full book):

I have seen an armful of daisies keep the peace better than a policeman and his club, seen instincts awaken under their gentle appeal, whose very existence the soil in which they grew made seem a mockery.

Fish Rock Camp was built for Isaac Newton Seligman, the son of banking giant Joseph Seligman. Isaac was a member of the Committee of Seventy, the Committee of Fifteen, and the Committee of Nine —all organizations that attempted to reform municipal New York City government. He was also the trustee of Temple Emanu-El, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and the United Hebrew Charities.

Isaac Seligman was attending Columbia College when his crew won the university eight-oar college race on Saratoga Lake in 1874. Three years later, his family was excluded from one of Saratoga’s most prestigious hotels, the Grand Union, and it’s believed the ensuing national scandal led to Seligman’s desire (and that of many of Jews) to own his own resort—Fish Rock Camp.

Tomorrow I’ll post that story, which includes luminaries like Ulysses S. Grant, America’s first department store mogul, A.T. Stewart, the robber baron Jay Gould and Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.

 

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