Friday, April 29, 2011

Fort William Henry Hotel: Lake George’s First Luxury Resort

Lake George has been lodging visitors at the site of the Fort William Henry Resort and Conference Center for more than 150 years. 156 years, to be precise.

Five years after the original hotel opened in 1855, the first Minnehaha was launched, and her captain entered into a relationship with the steward of the hotel’s dining room; as the boat came churning up the lake, the captain would blow the ship’s whistle once for every 10 passengers aboard, so that the steward would know how many would be in for dinner.

In 1868, the hotel was sold for $125,000 to T. Roessele & Sons of Albany and enlarged. A mansard roof was added and the hotel was now seven stories high. A 25 foot wide piazza extending the entire length of the north side of the building, supported by a row of 38 foot-high Corinthian columns, was also added. By then, steamboats were being met on the docks at the foot of the hotel’s lawns with 13 piece German bands. The hotel could accommodate 1000 guests; among them, former president U.S. Grant and Generals W.T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, to name just a few of the celebrities who cooled themselves on the piazza.

A twelve year-old Theodore Roosevelt accompanied his family to Lake George in 1871, and they, too, put up at the hotel. Roosevelt kept a diary of the visit, recounting each day’s activities. For instance, of August 2nd he writes:

”Early in the morning we went to the ruins of Fort George which we found after some difficulty. We brought home some specimens with us. There was an airgun before the hotel with which we had some shooting matches with variable success. There was an Indian encampment near which of course we visited. Then we hired some boats and rowed off to an island in the lake where we left the Ladies, went off some distance and had a swim. We then rowed back to the island (and then) home to dinner.”

A visitor during that same decade wrote:

”The coach is driven with a sweep and a swirl through the grounds of the hotel , and, suddenly turning a corner, dashes up before the wide and corridored piazza, crowded with groups of people – all superb life and animation on one side of him, and a marvelous stretch of lake and mountain and wooded shore on the other…”


The hotel opened for business in mid-June. Life there was pleasant and undemanding, if an 1893 account in the Lake George Mirror is any indication. “The hotel is supplied with every modern convenience, and there are billiard rooms, bowling alleys, swimming baths, lawn tennis courts, and music is provided throughout the season, there being also balls and parties at intervals.”

The Mirror continues: “The cuisine is always of the finest and cannot be improved upon, it being of a character to commend it to wealthy and fastidious people. The drives in the neighborhood, the fishing in the lake, and the boating and yachting, all contribute to make a stay at the Fort William Henry Hotel all that once could wish for… The outlook from the piazza is at all times little less than enchanting, commanding, as it does, the level reaches of the lake for miles, with a number of the most picturesque islands and promontories. In the evening, by full moonlight, or on a peaceful Sunday, while the orchestra discourses sacred music, and the only undertone is the flutter of cool dresses, dainty ribbons and fans, and the low voices of friendly promenaders, life here seems entirely worth living.”

The author of the Mirror’s account goes on to describe the interior of the hotel:

“Under the dome (from the upper part of which a grand view of the lake is obtained) is the general office, including also a ticket office, telegraph office, bazaar, news, book and cigar stand, etc. West of this is the drawing room, and on the east, suites of apartments, bijou parlors, and the large billiard hall, while at the back is the great dining hall. A cabinet of Indian and historical curiosities, gathered from the locality, attracts great interest.”

The hotel was owned by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad when it burned in June 1909, and two years later a new hotel was constructed on the site. In an article on the opening which appeared in the Lake George Mirror, the new structure was acclaimed “a masterpiece of architecture. With its companion hotel at Bluff Point on Lake Champlain, it shares the honor of being the only fireproof house in Northern New York devoted to the resort business.”

In another edition of the Mirror, an editorial described the lavish display of flowers and shrubs surrounding the new hotel and urged the natives to cooperate with the hotel in guarding the grounds against vandalism.

This hotel was demolished in the summer of 1969, the very same week that the Prospect Mountain Highway opened for the first time. In retrospect, the two events seem not co-incidental, since it was the automobile, more than any other single factor, which brought about the demise of the great resort hotels. The original dining room of the 1909 hotel, however, is still intact, as is the hotel’s stable.

Photos courtesy of the Lake George Association.

For news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror or visit Lake George Mirror Magazine.

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Anthony F. Hall

Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.





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