In 1920, Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post Cereal Corporation, purchased a narrow sand and gravel ridge, an esker, on Upper St. Regis Lake. Throughout the 20s she built a rustic retreat in the Great Camp style with 68 buildings, including two boathouses on the lake; separate cabins for kitchens, bedrooms and baths, and living rooms; and two buildings for cooks, maids, caretakers, and guides.
For years the camp was accessible only by boat or float plane. Transporting supplies and people the 2.5 miles across the lake from the nearest road was challenging, necessitating the use of boats of varying speed and power, sometimes human. A funicular, a cable railway, provided access to the top of the ridge from the water.
The Post Foundation gifted Topridge to New York State in 1974, which then consisted of forty-five buildings and 207 acres with two ponds and the frontage on Upper St. Regis Lake. A hundred acres was transferred to the Forest Preserve. On the remaining property a road was constructed and buildings winterized to house guests for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games.
For the next ten years after the Olympics, the future of Topridge was uncertain. A proposed multi-use public/private facility caused controversy and Governor Mario Cuomo, shortly after he was elected, ordered Topridge sold by public auction. The buyer Roger Jacubowski had great plans, all unfilled. After his bankruptcy in the early 1990s, his creditors sold Camp Topridge to Harlan Crow, a real estate developer from Texas.
One day last fall a few friends and I paddled our canoes around Upper St. Regis Lake. As we approached Camp Topridge on the far side of the lake, my friend Marcia told us a story of an experience that she and her husband George had a number of years ago in Alaska.
“As a part of a tour, George and I visited a craft shop in Hanna where an Alaskan native was carving a large – over ten foot – totem pole,” Marcia said. “I took great interest in what he was carving and asked him who they were doing it for. ‘Adirondack,’ he replied. I couldn’t believe it and after quizzing him he looked at his notes and offered: ‘It’s some people from Texas, with a funny name, Topridge, in Adirondack.’ He kept saying Adirondack.”
Marcia asked him how much it weighed and how he was going to get it there. “We’ll put it on a cargo boat down the Inner Passage to Seattle, then we’ve hired a moving company to take it cross-country.”
Marcia continued her story by telling us she had once been on the road to Topridge and knew how narrow and curvy it was. She suggested to the Alaskan that maybe they could bring it by boat. “No worry, we can get it to Adirondack,” he assured her.
As we paddled toward the four-slip boathouse at Topridge, Marcia pointed to the nearby funicular – the cable railway. She said, “a few years ago, after we’d been to Alaska, George and I were paddling on Upper St. Regis and as we approached Topridge I saw two men on the dock. We stopped and chatted, and told them about how we’d seen the totem being carved in Alaska and asked if we could come up and look at the finished product.”
The caretakers got permission to escort them up the funicular to meet the daughter of the owner who was there from Texas with her friends and family. They were fascinated that Marcia and George had seen the totem being carved, and how Marcia had expressed reservations about the road. The daughter laughed, “Yes, the moving company did have a hard time getting the large semi around the curves, so they hired a local company with a smaller truck to bring the totem to us.”
“You can’t see the totem from here,” Marcia told us as she pointed to the top of the esker. “It overlooks Spectacle Pond, not Upper St. Regis.” Marcia was impressed that day as the owners graciously show them around – marveling at the great job they have done keeping-up the rustic cabins and grounds.
We admired the rustic elegance of the boathouses as we paddled closer to shore. It was fall and the caretakers were readying the place for winter, boarding up windows and securing the boats. Just past the boathouses, in the woods a few feet up the bank, we saw a path to scenes of metal horse statues. In one scene a horse bellowed with his front legs in the air near a barn, metal people statues loading hay. In another, the horses were drawing a passenger wagon.
I spoke with two men digging close by with shovels and pickaxes. “Are you making platforms for more statues?” I asked, curious as to how extensive this metal statue garden would be. “No, just making a path.”
“Where are we?” Gail yelled as she paddled in front of me while inspecting the metal statues? I joined in her disbelief – it just did not make sense that this garden of metal statues would be in the woods along the shoreline of an Adirondack lake, in the vicinity of restored rustic boathouses.
Mixed feelings about Topridge surfaced as I paddled away from the compound. I pondered over the contrasts – a tastefully, restored Great Camp juxtaposed with a totem pole carved by an Alaskan native and additionally, metal statues of horses that seemed more in keeping with an art gallery in a city.
Where are we? I thought. Is this Adirondack?
Photos: Above, paddling past the boathouse (photo by Lorraine Duvall); and below: The boathouse at Great Camp Topridge courtesy Wikimedia user Mwanner.