This is the story of how an unambitious, unsociable man who could barely support himself, much less his family, and had no experience whatsoever in running a hotel, came to build and run the first hotel on Raquette Lake. That such a person who, according to one of his relatives, “was neither suited to the country, nor the people” and “made enemies through the country” could be capable of this feat seems to defy all we know about other proprietors of pioneer hotels.
Wilber, the man who built the hotel, came into the Adirondacks from the West around 1855, a time when all the inhabitants of Raquette Lake could fit into a present-day family’s SUV. He named his establishment the Raquette Lake Hotel, but contemporaries called it Wilbur’s or Wilber’s. But very little was known about this pioneer hotel owner, why he came here, why he built the place. Even his proper name remained something of a mystery.
Contemporary descriptions and early maps show that the hotel was located on a narrow strip of land, several hundred feet long, that served as a portage or carry where travelers shouldered their boat overland between Forked Lake and the northern end of Raquette Lake, a short distance from its outlet. This carry or portage was widely used by settlers, hunters, fisherman and early travelers with their guides, coming to and from the Raquette river through the outlet onto Long Lake then paddling or rowing down the 14-mile length of Long Lake. From there, they could continue south, through Forked Lake and onto the carry.
Along the way could be found small boarding houses run by settlers who offered rather primitive accommodations, not much more than a home cooked meal, a bed, and a roof over their heads. In addition, rudimentary supplies for their trip were frequently available for sale by the proprietors. However, once past pioneer settler Thomas Cary’s rustic log house, near the head of Long Lake, there was no hotel or boarding house on Raquette Lake or within a day’s travel.
Once on the Raquette Lake end of the carry, with a bit of luck, they may find the two Eldridge brothers. Whenever the spirits moved them, these two “very attentive and obliging men” from Indian Lake working out of a bark shanty, offered a small selection of supplies for cooking, fishing, and hunting.
It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see that this well-traveled carry would be the perfect place to put up a modest boarding house. This seemed like the sort of project that an ambitious, skilled and well-respected pioneer settler, seeking a way to make a better life for his family, would undertake. But Wilber was not such a man. Nevertheless, the hotel he erected on a parcel of land near this carry was quite successful.
To understand how this happened, we must step back a few years and look at the history of the land and its owners.
The owner of this land was professor Farrand Benedict, a brilliant, ambitious man, well respected surveyor, scholar, and land speculator who came to the Adirondacks in 1835 searching for opportunities to exploit the “hidden wealth of the forests”.
But before the first dollar could be earned, a method of getting this hidden wealth to market had to be developed. That would involve the construction of decent roads or even canals and, eventually, railroad connections. Until that could be accomplished, the primary routes would continue to be through the extensive system of lakes and rivers. The professor was convinced that Raquette Lake was a hub of the waterway transportation for the Central Adirondacks, and that land surrounding the lake was certain to increase in value. Eventually, he accumulated about 152,000 acres in the Adirondacks including all of Township 40 where Raquette Lake is located. One small portion of his land holdings included the land on which the first hotel on Raquette Lake would be built.
The Benedicts were a tightly knit family. Actually, more like a clan than a family. Farrand’s enthusiasm for the Adirondacks was unbounded, almost evangelistic.
And not just restricted to his family. It was due to his influence that in 1841 a commencement speaker at the University, Rev. John Todd asked Benedict to take him along on his next trip to the Adirondacks. Todd would write Long Lake, the first book devoted solely to the region. Benedict also encouraged a cousin and best-selling author, Joel T. Headley, a physical and mental wreck, to seek recovery in the Adirondacks. Headley would write about his adventures in The Adirondack: or, Life in the Woods in 1849, the first widely published book about the Central Adirondacks.
On his visits, Farrand would often bring his wife and his brothers, Abner and Joel But it was Joel’s extraordinary bride, Amanda Brinsmaid who was responsible for bringing the future proprietors of the hotel into the area.
It wasn’t until 1996 that much of this story came to light. That year, Barbara McMartin, while researching her splendid book about the Benedict family in the Adirondacks, was given access to the family papers. There she discovered a reminiscence of the couple’s vacations in the Adirondacks, penned by Amanda’s husband, Joel Benedict. He wrote these in 1876 to his beloved Amanda to help “alienate the suffering you are enduring on the last part of your Earthly pilgrimage”. Amanda had na advanced and aggressive form of skin cancer, and it had reached the terminal stage but Joel hoped that by reading their shared memories “in the intervals between your morphine sleeps” she would hear his voice. This was his way to deal with her slow and painful death.
He reminded her of their first trip as a couple to the Adirondacks taken around 1852. Their destination on this vacation was Carey’s log cabin at Long Lake. The previous year Joel took his first trip to Raquette Lake so he felt familiar with the area, “before it became a thoroughfare for the rude and uncultivated from cities of more recent times”.
It was on that trip that Amanda first crossed the carry between Raquette and Forked Lake. “Once on Raquette, we feel a sort of inspiration not felt before..” They determined to make this lake “the centre of our summer trips” and “thought of building a summer retreat on its shores”.
In 1854 Joel and Amanda bought a 50-acre parcel of Farrand’s land “at the head of Baxter’s Bay” along the north shore of the outlet of Raquette Lake. Their hope was that “some day it might be a good place to build a small house”.
Joel and Amanda would spend their time on a portion of the land, facing Beech’s Island, at the southeast, with a high slight hill close to the…behind which it lay concealed and to the west ran into the lake, with deep bays running back. A high mountain rose up to the north and the main lake lay to the south..” which they called their “Winter Landing”. It was easily accessible by water along the lake shore or “up the (Crown Point and Carthage) road a mile (? More like 2 miles)” and down a trail to the shore.
Here, at Winter’s Landing, the young couple entertained guests, who although thoroughly enchanted by the primitive beauty of the lake and the solitude the wilderness offered, did not share Joel and Amanda’s passion for “the natural influences of the surroundings”.
Amanda and Joel began to talk about sharing their portion of this Eden with others and hoped “that some day it might be a good place to build a small house for ourselves and sell portions to any who might wish to settle on the Raquette”.
To realize their dream, Amanda purchased about 900 additional acres in the bay area. Part of that land encompassed the old carry separating Raquette Lake from Forked Lake. This is the land that the hotel would be built on and this is also thepoint at which Mr. Wilber enters the story.
One of Amanda Benedict’s sisters, Matilda, was married to Julius Nelson Wilber (not Wilbur as commonly spelled), a man “easily overcome by labor”. During the mid-1850s they were living in Alto, a small, recently organized prairie town in Wisconsin, with their two daughters and another of Amanda’s sisters, Sophia. The couple had moved to Wisconsin after Julius attempt to make a living farming in Indiana had failed. If there was one think that Julius did with some degree of consistency, it was fail. Joel recalled with more than a bit of sarcasm, that during his time in Alto, Wilbur “was hanging about..getting poorer and poorer every day.”
It pained Amanda, a generous and loving sister by all accounts, to see the family struggling and she and Joel decided to step in and help. So, in December of 1854, Amanda, gave the couple her land along the carry and invited them to move east and live on what Joel considered, “the finest place in the whole region for a public house for company in the summer”. Here Julius, Matilda and their family would have a fresh start, “put up a good home” with a small garden and erect a guest house for income.” That guest house would become Wilber’s Hotel.
Finally, Amanda hoped, her sister and the children would become financially independent and, perhaps as importantly, they would be back east, closer to her and Joel.
Wilber got off to a good start by first building a log cabin, just large enough for his family. This would be their home during the winter season. Once completed, he started to put up a two-story frame building nearby to use as the hotel which he would operate during the sporting season; around the last day of May until early November. The precise location of the hotel has been lost to history, nor are there any surviving drawings or photographs, but there are several hints given by veteran guide and pioneer settlers who recalled the locations decades after its demise. Jerome Wood said, “The Carthage road ran right by the hotel.” And from Joel Benedict, we learn that it was in a clearing “out of sight of water”. Barbara McMartin places it to the west of the Raquette Lake end of the carry from Forked Lake. The current owners of the land on which the hotel probably stood have been actively searching for any remains but the Adirondack forests are voracious consumers of artifacts. Nevertheless, there is hope.
By 1856 the construction on the hotel was still not completed. Amanda and Joel Benedict were frustrated and tired of lending Wilber money and seeing little or no prospect of his turning his life around. Joel wrote to Amanda revealing his frustration with Wilber, “His poor wife, your sister, frail as she was, would do all that a woman could do, but she was unable to make up for his continued blunders and inefficiency.”
Wilber must have felt the pressure from his benefactors because the following the following summer his Raquette Lake Hotel recorded the first guest into their hotel register. Wilber had decided that the building was good enough to take in guests. Early guests thought otherwise.
In 1858, several years after it opened, two sportsmen, guided by the famous Sam Dunning, “over six feet tall, powerfully built and, at although in his middle age, still in his prime” visited the hotel. They described it as “roomy” and commodious” but certainly still far from being finished. It was, “not yet clapboarded and plastered, but simply lathed, and you can take a peep from room to room through the chinks.” In the upstairs, “blankets were hung for doors”. The three travelers slept on straw beds and left the next morning longing for “the spruce and balsam boughs of the tent.” They wrote this less than favorable review, the first ever, and it was published in the popular Frank Leslie’s newspaper.
Rather than stay and finish the building, Wilber decided that had his fill of the North Woods. He didn’t like the neighbors, the guests, the work, the climate nor, for that matter, the rearing of his children. Julius Wilber would not be missed by the Benedicts, “We were both of us glad he was well away, though it cost us dearly.” As Joel wrote, “through Wilbur’s mistakes” the couple lost “over $3,000” and were left with a hotel which in Joel’s estimation was “not worth a sixpence”. Yet despite it all, Joel could not bring himself to express enmity towards Julius, “Poor Wilbur”, he rued, “he had a good chance given him to become independent, but he was neither suited to the country, nor the people.”
The Wilber’s headed back west to Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin and from there he continued his vagabond ways moving to at least three other locations before settling in Gage County, Nebraska where the couple lived out their final days in a boarding house in the town of Crete. In 1909, Matilda died at the age of 92. Julius died in 1908 at the age of 87. They are buried together in Gage County, Nebraska.
Wilber was gone but the hotel continued with Cyrus Kellogg, a farmer/guide from Long Lake, taking over the management until about 1865 when Thomas R. Cary, the father of the famed guide Reuben Cary, assumed control.
Joel Bennett was not impressed by Cary’s personality nor his management skills. Describing him as a “crooked stick”, one not fitting into society, Joel noted that his skills were barely a notch above Wilber’s. “He had a bad temper” and had, “driven nearly all company away and had scarcely anything in the house to eat.”
Despite the consistently bad reviews (I have yet to come across a single favorable comment about either Mr. Wilber or the hotel he built), the hotel grew, both in the number of guests and ghastly additions. It seems that despite the changes in proprietorship, the hotel remained a “work in progress”. At best the hotel was utilitarian; a haphazard assembly of hastily constructed additions put into place to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors. It certainly wasn’t much to look at, a two story brown clapboard structure, eighty feet long and forty feet wide. The guidebook author, H. Perry Smith, who stayed there in 1871, while Carey was running the place, described the building this way; “The back end stands up eight feet from the ground on one or two crazy abutments, and is higher than the front, giving it the appearance of a mule that had just kicked a man up in the air.” A correspondent from the Boston Daily Advertiser stayed here in July 1869 wrote of the ‘dreadful discomforts of this house.” And commented, “ In a land abounding with fish and venison is regaled with meal after meal of fried pork and potatoes.”
Thomas was running the hotel when the Benedicts made their last visit.
As the couple approached the hotel, Joel’s mind was flooded with “the memories of broken promises and unfulfilled dreams”. If he felt anger at seeing the “old house going to decay”, he didn’t express it.
As they walked the carry they must have reminisced about their youthful days at Raquette Lake and of what might have been.
Cary stayed on until 1873 after which the place remained vacant and in a state of decay as the forest moved in to consume it.
After the death of Amanda Benedict on March 26, 1877, Joel Benedict never returned to the Adirondacks and, since Amanda made no mention of her land holdings in the Adirondacks, the land eventually reverted back to the State for unpaid taxes
After the Benedicts
After lying idle for a while, George Leavitt, a lumberman from Warren County acquired the property in 1878. It is said that he moved part of the old log structure to the Forked Lake end of the carry, enlarged it and operated as the “Forked Lake House”. However, I can find no description of the hotel being a log structure but perhaps this was a later addition. The only descriptions I’m aware of, H. Perry Smith and the testimony in People vs. Golding, describe a frame building. But there is no doubt that some part of the structure was moved to Forked Lake
Looking through the hotel guest registry, I was surprised to see the diversity of overnight visitors. Men and women from all walks of life from ministers to businessmen to land owners to artists and writers came to Wilber’s.
William H. H. Murray was there on September 3, 1866, although he failed to even mention, much less recommend, Wilber’s in his book.
Another author, Joel T. Headley, the first widely published author to write about Raquette Lake and his son Russell stayed on August 16 1869, guided by Charles Sabattis.
The important role played by Wilber’s loation at a crossroads in Adirondack travel is readily seen in the descriptions of the destinations and starting points of the guests. Only a small portion of the visitors listed Raquette Lake as a destination. Most were just passing through to other destinations.
Although women travelers in those days were supposed to be a rare sight, I found a significant number of them, most accompanying their husbands. Many brought their children along. Over the years of its operation, as many as 20% of the guests were women.
You can also see the slow drift from hunters to hunter/tourists to tourists. Also apparent is the geographic spread of interest in the Adirondacks. Early guests were primarily native New Yorkers who were staying at nearby hotels such as Paul Smith’s and Martins. Gradually they began to arrive from more distant states; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Florida.
By 1871, just prior to the end of its life, the Raquette Lake Hotel had entertained 2,500 guests.
After 16 years in business, the end came in the autumn of 1873. Unlike the fate of many hotels in the wilderness, its demise did not come about from fire, although there was mention of a fire in 1867. Rather, it was dismantled (nothing gets wasted by residents in the Adirondacks). The salvaged lumber and part of the original structure took on another life in 1878 when it was moved to the Forked Lake end of the carry near a clearing. That clearing was known Helms, after (William Helms) who had a cabin there in the late 1850s. A pair of travelers in 1858 describes landing there, “Helms is a trapper and hunter and farms his little clearing. His good natured wife and her six babies, the oldest not eight years old, receive us in their tidy log shanty of two rooms and a garret, entertains two regular boarders, four hounds, and keeps a hotel.”
There, greatly enlarged, it became part of a larger building now called the Forked Lake House. George Leavitt, a lumberman from Friend’s Lake in Warren County, took over as proprietor and lent his name to it.
Later it was bought by John Holland and his brother-in- law, Dr. Martine who employed Myron Fletcher as proprietor. A newspaper article noted that the Leavitt house, “after being thoroughly cleaned and painted, is opened to the public, with Myron Fletcher as proprietor, and James Bartlett as clerk.”
Photo: The Forked Lake House built near the carry between Forked Lake and Raquette in 1878. A portion of Wilbur’s is said to have been moved here and incorporated into this new hotel.