Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Gerster’s “Notes Collected in the Adirondacks”

GersterWhile staying at Camp Kirby on Raquette Lake last summer I picked up the two volume Notes Collected in the Adirondacks 1895-1896 and 1897-98 (North Country Books, 2010) by Dr. Arpad Geyza Gerster, and edited by Sidney S. Whelan Jr.

The book is a transcription of the diaries kept by Gerster, who had a summer home on Big Island on Raquette Lake.

Gerster was quite a character. Born in Hungary in 1848, he was a surgeon in the Austro-Hungarian Army before emigrating during the Panic of 1873. Working first for Manhattan’s German Hospital, he became a renowned surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital, taught at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and served as President of the American Surgical Association.  Gerster was also an avid sportsman, a trustee of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, a lover of Italian opera, and an accomplished artist.

Most of Gerster’s diaries are poetic accounts of life on Raquette Lake, and the characters he encountered. He recorded his fishing and hunting trips and the local flora and fauna – “Man against the elements” was one of his favorite themes:

“What a pleasure to stride through the reaches of the forest, booming with the roar of the tempest through the treetops, or better yet, launch your boat, and buck your tossing way against black squall and numberless, unceasing files of oncoming, whitecapped seas.”

Gerster also described with flair the daily hum of activities at his camp and around Raquette Lake. One amusing event was the Inman family dynamiting a new well. The Inman’s eccentric camp is one that “do[es] not appeal to the instincts of acquisition.” On blasting the well, Gerster says: “It cost him so far $300, but they have no water yet, and all their roofs have holes knocked through them by the rock blasted out by dynamite, of which they have used 200 lbs.”

The two-volume collection was a delight to read; so much so, that I spent an evening on the dock racing the setting sun to finish.

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Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at Cayuga Community College and is currently writing a trilogy of historical fiction featuring the Durant family. Her first book Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga was published in 2015. The second book in the series, Castles in the Air: A Durant Family Saga, will be published in 2016. To learn more visit

8 Responses

  1. Nadya says:

    Thank you very nice and interesting post !

  2. jodi says:

    I had to laugh when one of my friends sent me this from your website! I’m so glad they are now following your adventures and research too!

  3. Charles Herr says:

    Thank you for writing about Gerster’s Notes Collected in the Adirondacks for the years 1895 to 1898. Sidney Whelan has done a fantastic job annotating the journals of an interesting man.

    I write history articles for the Almanack and for the Weekly Adirondack in Old Forge about the Fulton Chain. Not only have I found unwritten history in period newspapers at online sites for my research, I have also discovered the wealth of information available to researchers when journals such as Gerster’s are published.

    Gerster travelled in the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake and wrote about the guides, Fred Hess’s hotel burning, Durant’s Mohegan Road being built for J.P. Morgan, and the water/stage route from Fourth Lake to Raquette Lake. He also hobnobbed with Woodruff and Durant and other historical figures. His conversations were Alvah Dunning are revealing about the guide and his times.

    Other first person published sources are Brown & Walton’s Lost Adirondack Empire about the John Brown’s Tract containing many letters of the fated Charles F. Herreshoff to his family in Providence about his activities to settle the Tract. They reveal his enthusiasm and depressions with lack of funds and flooding mines about his early19th century attempt to establish a settlement on behalf of his father-in-law. His final letters prior to his suicide are revealing of the struggle with his difficult task.

    Another is “Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk” with the first person reports by the intrepid paddler of Rushton’s Susan Nipper and Sairy Gamp up and down the Fulton Chain in the early 1880s which provide his meeting guides who later would be famous, about the Jones Camp characters where the Peg Leg railroad customers transferred later to the Steamer Fawn, his walking around the deserted Herreshoff Manor, later Arnolds, and revealing the desolation of the new State dam at Sixth Lake, ruining the environment caused by the subsequent overflowing of the river banks there.

    More of these Journals must be published.

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    I never heard of Arpad Gerster until the first volume of ‘Notes Collected’ came out in 2005.Since then I have discovered that he is a fixture in some of the more significant literature of the region. Hochschild mentions him in Township 34, Aber and King mention him in ‘History of Hamilton County’, and in the Second Annual Report of the Fisheries Game and Forest Commission for the State of New York 1897 there is mention of Gerster (whose annual rent on leased land on Raquette Lake was $200.) There are two black and white photos in this report, one showing the Gerster Cottage on Raquette Lake, the other showing Pine Island, Raquette Lake ‘from the Gerster cottage.’

    I have learned quite much about the topography of the Raquette Lake region thanks to Arpad Gerster. When he described his many walks in the woods surrounding this region he described them in detail. I have the original 1903 topographical maps of the West Canada Lakes & Raquette Lake Quadrangles which cover the very areas he so eloquently describes in his diaries (one of the same maps is mentioned on page 76 in the first volume.) As I read these diaries and Gerster’s portrayals of this region I looked over these maps and could see exactly where he walked in the broken lines on the maps depicting trails in these same places. Many of these trails are now grown over and surely there is hardly a one who explores these same routes nowadays.

    I never knew there was a trail to the Moose River Plains from the great Camp Sagamore until I read Gerster’s diaries. That trail is on the old map but has since been covered by a thick forest. It was one big adventure for me going over these journals and finding the places he mentions on the old maps. My fruitful mind went to work imagining what it was like in them days as Gerster describes scenes and events in his notes.

    You can feel the poetry in his words throughout and ‘boy’ did he know how to impress images with his words. He says “Soon the sun set, the wind fell, and stretched out on my fine balsam bed, with a good fire blazing before the tent, I composed myself for an ambrosiacal night. I woke up about midnight, and crawled out to doctor my fire. The moonbeams were pouring through the forest, and were fancifully playing with the surface of the ever rushing stream.”

    He had a philosophical bent when he talks about going in the woods alone versus having a companion. “Going in company makes matters much easier, but the true school in teaching prudence, self-help & self-reliance is in going off on a forest trip alone, over new and unknown trails, where, besides the unaccustomed but indispensable labors involved in locomotion, feeding & sheltering oneself, the route has to be found and the observing faculty of the senses, and a sound judgement have to be made use of, in order to extricate the wayfarer from many perplexities.” I too like to go in the woods alone.

    These two volumes are chock full of pleasantries relative to the out of doors in this region where my roots go back a hundred years. Thank you so much for bringing Arpad Gerster up Sheila. I have been encouraged to pull out his two volumes and go through them all over again. There is so much ‘good meat’ in them and they most certainly will always be a very significant part of all the Adirondacka that has come out and will continue to come out over the years.

  5. Mike says:

    Read one volume a couple years back, it was a fantastic read! This is a nice reminder for me to read the second! Great post Sheila!

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