A little more than a century ago, a horrendous description of an Adirondack village appeared in newspapers, including the Mail and Express published in New York City. At issue was the placement of a yet-to-be-built tubercular sanitarium. Feelings ran so high at the time, you’d swear they were selecting the next Supreme Court justice. But taking sides is nothing new, as proved by use of the written word back then to describe one of the candidate locations. As you’ll see, it’s hard to believe they were talking about the same place.
One of the favorites was Lake Clear, strongly preferred by Dr. John Pryor, head of the five-man commission doing the choosing, and New York City’s Howard Townsend, another commission member. Two others thought Lake Clear was the best site among dozens under consideration. At a hearing early in the process, a strong new candidate emerged: Dannemora, home of the infamous state prison. Dr. Julius Ransom, physician at the prison, offered several compelling arguments that later appeared in a small book detailing the successes against tuberculosis at Clinton.
“Johnson and Dannemora Mountains form a semicircular barrier to the west and north, leaving the enclosed area somewhat in the form of an amphitheater with a southeastern exposure, protecting it on the west and north, and leaving it open to … the greatest amount of sunlight possible to this northern region. The air is clear, permitting comprehensive, inspiring views.”
“The water is pure and palatable, and free from all possible pollution by animal matter…. The air is so dry, and the precipitation so complete after these periods of disturbance [storms], that none but good effects are ever seen to come from them; in fact, they act as air purifiers.
“The healthiness of this climate is not only borne out by the figures … but the death rate in the village outside is extremely low, averaging only about 6 per 1,000. In the 12 years last past, there is not a recorded death from pneumonia or typhoid fever within the corporation limits, and only one in the prison hospital, and that was a case of senile pneumonia complicated with heart disease.”
Clinton had been recognized years earlier as the healthiest place for tubercular inmates, causing the state to send all afflicted inmates there. In 1892, inmate deaths by tuberculosis were: Sing Sing 27, Auburn 44, and Clinton 10. A decade later, the totals were Sing Sing 7, Auburn 5, and Clinton 7. The reductions occurred because every inmate recognized to be ill with tuberculosis was sent to Clinton. Dr. Ransom also noted Clinton’s death-rate superiority among other known sanitariums: Metropolitan Infirmary, 29.68 percent; Army Sanitarium, 20.9; Marine Sanitarium 14; Clinton Prison, 2.08. It wasn’t even close.
Among those to argue against the Lake Clear location were Whitelaw Reid and Anson Phelps Stokes, very wealthy and influential men, the affluent type who always stepped forward in such situations to represent the interests of average citizens. (Just kidding … they both owned large camps on Upper St. Regis Lake, very close to Lake Clear, and were NIMBY men.)
Other highly respected doctors and health officials came forward on Dannemora’s behalf as the process played out, but a newspaper article in early 1901 opposed the site unequivocally. Perhaps someone considered what a real estate agent or chamber of commerce promoter might write about the village, and then did the exact opposite. The result was not pretty.
“But Dannemora? Have you ever been there? Its name is a synonym for desolation, for despair without hope. If you want a mental picture of it, fancy a wide district of treeless mountains, grim, charred, rocky, as though the wrath of God had been visited upon them and they had huddled forgotten ever since. Then place in these leafless mountains a village of ugly cabins, where iron miners and their families are held by the circumstances of oppressive poverty; a village without gardens, without trees, voices the ignorance and hopelessness of its people’s lives.
“Not far from this village, still among the bare mountains which have been denuded to feed the charcoal pits where the iron is smelted, in these unlovely surroundings is the state prison for convicts of long terms or life imprisonment. A feature of this prison is the number of men who annually become insane within its walls.
“Now, were you an invalid, subject to an invalid’s sensitiveness to surroundings, going away from home with only a fighting chance for life, are these the surroundings you would choose? Or would you choose them for some stricken friends?”
While the article might not have been the deciding factor, it certainly didn’t help Dannemora’s chances. The committee knew it was clearly an excellent choice, perhaps even the best, but couldn’t reconcile themselves to locating a new state hospital in the same village hosting a state prison, even though Clinton already had a successful and growing tubercular facility.
In the end, the committee’s selection was neither Dannemora nor Lake Clear, but Ray Brook. The property today is known as Adirondack Correctional Facility.
Photos: Clinton Prison at Dannemora (1915); Ray Brook Sanitarium (c. 1910)