Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Social distancing from black flies: Durant’s floating houseboat

Who likes black flies? No? Some folks like them, and some like hummingbird liver and pickle relish sandwiches!

Black flies hatch in May and last well into July. They move in packs and bite for blood. I’m pretty sure that’s all they do! You can swat, but that just amuses them. You can move to New Jersey or Antarctica. Or you can do what William West Durant did at Camp Pine Knot.

W.W. Durant built Great Camp Sagamore, but Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake was his first. He moved to Raquette as a young man in 1876, where he met his first and his 5-trillionth black fly, both on the same day.

To escape these creepy critters, he built something so cool that we still talk about it.

The strength of the black fly is in the numbers. Alone, they’re clumsy fliers and they can’t cross lakes. So, to escape the flies, Durant built a houseboat and christened it the Barque of Pine Knot.

After people climbed aboard, it was towed to the middle of the lake where someone dropped anchor. Days later (maybe when the wine ran out), someone had to ring a bell to alert the shore for a tow back in.

The Barque was an impressive sight on Raquette Lake. It was 60 feet long, had two bedrooms, a fully stocked kitchen and a bathroom with running water.

The story goes that William put, at various times, his mother Heloise, his sister Ella, and eventually his wife Janet onto the Barque and sent them off into the lake to save them from the black flies while he stayed on shore. Again, social distancing?

The SUNY College at Cortland has been preserving and running Camp Pine Knot since 1949. In 1971, a group of students and faculty raised funds to restore the Barque, which had been beached on a swampy shore behind the camp for decades. Now it sits on a sturdy base in great condition.

Can you find Camp Pine Knot on a map of Raquette lake? What is the historical meaning of the word barque? Someone research black flies. Is sucking blood really all they do? What is William West Durant’s father, Thomas, best known for?

Photo courtesy of Great Camp Sagamore

Built in 1897 on 1,526 acres of remote Adirondack wilderness by William West Durant in Raquette Lake, Great Camp Sagamore was a wilderness retreat for the Vanderbilt family for half a century. It is now a National Historic Landmark imanaged by a non-profit educational institution in order to inspire others to help protect the environment, history, and culture of the Adirondacks.

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Robert Engel is historian at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake.

5 Responses

  1. Alan Jones says:

    Thomas Durant was instrumental in the construction of the first trans-continental railroad which was completed in 1869.

  2. Patrick J. says:

    Did they have to drain the swamp to save the boat?

  3. SNAPPER PETTA says:

    I’ve had the privilege of working/living at Pine Knot off and on since my first visit in January 1974. As a seasonal employee of the college’s Recreation department, I’ve shared the Barque with many students over the years. It’s a wonderful story to tell; especially during May when we’re usually there and everyone is experiencing the black flies first hand. If you ever get the chance to visit, take advantage as the center isn’t open to the public all that often.

  4. Penny Curran says:

    I enjoyed this article and especially how it was presented. You wanted to read further. I sent it to our grandchildren to read , answer the questions and send answers back to us.

  5. Carl says:

    When my family operated Echo Camp for Girls (1946+) and I was a small boy, friends and I used to sneak over and play in the houseboat. It was incredible for a small boy’s adventures. This was long before SUNY took the property, and I’m glad that it has been at least partially restored. A great bit of history to have experienced in person.

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