Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Roosevelt’

Friday, April 29, 2011

Fort William Henry Hotel: Lake George’s First Luxury Resort

Lake George has been lodging visitors at the site of the Fort William Henry Resort and Conference Center for more than 150 years. 156 years, to be precise.

Five years after the original hotel opened in 1855, the first Minnehaha was launched, and her captain entered into a relationship with the steward of the hotel’s dining room; as the boat came churning up the lake, the captain would blow the ship’s whistle once for every 10 passengers aboard, so that the steward would know how many would be in for dinner.

In 1868, the hotel was sold for $125,000 to T. Roessele & Sons of Albany and enlarged. A mansard roof was added and the hotel was now seven stories high. A 25 foot wide piazza extending the entire length of the north side of the building, supported by a row of 38 foot-high Corinthian columns, was also added. By then, steamboats were being met on the docks at the foot of the hotel’s lawns with 13 piece German bands. The hotel could accommodate 1000 guests; among them, former president U.S. Grant and Generals W.T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, to name just a few of the celebrities who cooled themselves on the piazza.

A twelve year-old Theodore Roosevelt accompanied his family to Lake George in 1871, and they, too, put up at the hotel. Roosevelt kept a diary of the visit, recounting each day’s activities. For instance, of August 2nd he writes:

”Early in the morning we went to the ruins of Fort George which we found after some difficulty. We brought home some specimens with us. There was an airgun before the hotel with which we had some shooting matches with variable success. There was an Indian encampment near which of course we visited. Then we hired some boats and rowed off to an island in the lake where we left the Ladies, went off some distance and had a swim. We then rowed back to the island (and then) home to dinner.”

A visitor during that same decade wrote:

”The coach is driven with a sweep and a swirl through the grounds of the hotel , and, suddenly turning a corner, dashes up before the wide and corridored piazza, crowded with groups of people – all superb life and animation on one side of him, and a marvelous stretch of lake and mountain and wooded shore on the other…”


The hotel opened for business in mid-June. Life there was pleasant and undemanding, if an 1893 account in the Lake George Mirror is any indication. “The hotel is supplied with every modern convenience, and there are billiard rooms, bowling alleys, swimming baths, lawn tennis courts, and music is provided throughout the season, there being also balls and parties at intervals.”

The Mirror continues: “The cuisine is always of the finest and cannot be improved upon, it being of a character to commend it to wealthy and fastidious people. The drives in the neighborhood, the fishing in the lake, and the boating and yachting, all contribute to make a stay at the Fort William Henry Hotel all that once could wish for… The outlook from the piazza is at all times little less than enchanting, commanding, as it does, the level reaches of the lake for miles, with a number of the most picturesque islands and promontories. In the evening, by full moonlight, or on a peaceful Sunday, while the orchestra discourses sacred music, and the only undertone is the flutter of cool dresses, dainty ribbons and fans, and the low voices of friendly promenaders, life here seems entirely worth living.”

The author of the Mirror’s account goes on to describe the interior of the hotel:

“Under the dome (from the upper part of which a grand view of the lake is obtained) is the general office, including also a ticket office, telegraph office, bazaar, news, book and cigar stand, etc. West of this is the drawing room, and on the east, suites of apartments, bijou parlors, and the large billiard hall, while at the back is the great dining hall. A cabinet of Indian and historical curiosities, gathered from the locality, attracts great interest.”

The hotel was owned by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad when it burned in June 1909, and two years later a new hotel was constructed on the site. In an article on the opening which appeared in the Lake George Mirror, the new structure was acclaimed “a masterpiece of architecture. With its companion hotel at Bluff Point on Lake Champlain, it shares the honor of being the only fireproof house in Northern New York devoted to the resort business.”

In another edition of the Mirror, an editorial described the lavish display of flowers and shrubs surrounding the new hotel and urged the natives to cooperate with the hotel in guarding the grounds against vandalism.

This hotel was demolished in the summer of 1969, the very same week that the Prospect Mountain Highway opened for the first time. In retrospect, the two events seem not co-incidental, since it was the automobile, more than any other single factor, which brought about the demise of the great resort hotels. The original dining room of the 1909 hotel, however, is still intact, as is the hotel’s stable.

Photos courtesy of the Lake George Association.

For news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror or visit Lake George Mirror Magazine.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Let’s Eat: John Burnham Adk Mountain Creams

John Bird Burnham (1869-1939) visited the Adirondacks for the first time as a guest of the Rev. George DuBois family. It was during one of these visits to the family’s camp in St. Huberts that he fell in love with the Reverend’s daughter Henrietta. They were married by her father in the family chapel in 1891. That year, John Burnham joined the staff of Field and Stream, writing articles about game protection.

Burnham is best remembered as an ardent conservationist. In 1898, he purchased a home in Willsboro, New York, which he operated as the Highlands Game Preserve. He served as a member of the three-man commission that codified the state’s fish and games laws, and as the first President of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, Burnham was instrumental in the effort to ban hunting deer with dogs in the Adirondack Park. His friends and colleagues included Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. He is less well known for his career as an Essex, N. Y. candy maker. » Continue Reading.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Thomas W. Symons: Father of Barge Canals (Part II)

The first 20 years of Keeseville’s Thomas Symons’ career were incredibly successful. The highlights from Part 1 of this story include: graduating number one in his West Point class; joining the historic Wheeler Expedition to several western territories; becoming the nation’s acknowledged expert on the Columbia River in the Northwest; negotiating with hostile Indians; and engineering the noted Columbia River jetty.

Add to that improving Washington, D.C.’s water, sewage, and pavement systems; developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington; improving the Mississippi River works; developments in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma; and surveying the US-Mexico border. The list sounds like a career review, but Thomas Symons was just getting started.

In 1895, he returned to the East, charged with planning and designing the river and harbor works at Buffalo. He was named engineer of the 10th Lighthouse District, which included Lakes Erie and Ontario, encompassing all the waterways and lighthouses from Detroit, Michigan to Ogdensburg, New York.

Among his remarkable projects was “a very exposed, elaborate lighthouse and fog signal” in Lake Erie, near Toledo. Grandest of all, however, was one of Thomas Symons’ signature accomplishments: planning and constructing the world’s longest breakwater (over four miles long). Built along the shores of Buffalo, it was a project that earned him considerable attention. Further improvements he brought to the city enhanced his reputation there.

Another major project talked about for years came to the forefront in the late 1890s—the possibility of a ship canal spanning New York State. The 54th Congress in 1897 commissioned a report, but the results disappointed the powerful committee chairman when Symons’ detailed analysis named a barge canal, not a ship canal, as the best option.

In 1898, New York’s new governor, Teddy Roosevelt, assigned Thomas to personally investigate and report on the state’s waterways, with emphasis on the feasibility of a barge canal to ensure it was the correct option. A concern on the federal level was national security, which was better served by Symons’ plan to run the canal across the state rather than through the St. Lawrence, to Montreal, down Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson to New York City.

Thomas’ route across New York kept the structure entirely with America’s borders. (This and many other projects were requested by the War Department, which explains the security factor.) His additional work for Roosevelt reached the same conclusion, and after extended arguments in Congress, $100 million was appropriated for canal improvements. The decision was affirmation of Thomas’ judgment and the great respect in Congress for his engineering capabilities.

In 1902, the senate noted “the conspicuous services of Major Thomas W. Symons regarding the canal problems in New York,” and that he had “aided materially in its solution.” A senate resolution cited “his able, broad-minded, and public-spirited labors on behalf of the state.”

During the canal discussions, his life had taken an unusual turn. Teddy Roosevelt had won the presidency in 1902, and in early 1903, the decision was made to replace his top military aide. Keeseville’s Thomas Symons was going to the White House.

It was sad news for Buffalo, Thomas’ home for the past eight years. At a sendoff banquet, the praise for him was effusive. Among the acknowledgments was that his work in Buffalo’s harbor had brought millions of dollars of investments and widespread employment to the city. From a business and social perspective, one speaker professed the community’s “unbounded love, affection, and admiration.” The comments were followed by an extended ovation.

For a man of Symons’ stature, some of the new duties in Washington seemed a bit out of place. Officially, he was the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds of the District of Columbia, a position for which he was obviously well suited. (And, the job was accompanied by a pay raise to the level of Colonel of Engineers.)

However, Thomas was also the president’s number one military aide, making him the Master of Ceremonies for all White House functions. Every appearance by Teddy Roosevelt was planned, coordinated, and executed by Symons, his close personal friend. Depending on whom the guests were, Thomas selected the décor, music, food, and entertainment.

He became the public face of all White House events. In reception lines, it was his duty to be at the president’s side. No matter what their stature, he greeted each guest as the line progressed, and in turn introduced each guest to Roosevelt. Everyone had to go through Roosevelt’s right-hand man before meeting the president (though he actually stood to the president’s left).

He also played a vital diplomatic role by mingling with the guests, ensuring all were seated and handled according to their importance, and allowing the President and First Lady to feel as secure as if they had planned each event themselves.

He was also the paymaster general of the White House, seeing to it that all funds appropriated for expenses were spent properly. The media regularly noted that, in Teddy Roosevelt’s home, Symons was the most conspicuous person except for the president himself.

With so many responsibilities, the job of top aide to the president seemed impossibly busy, which is why Roosevelt expanded the staff from one to nine aides, all of them placed under the charge of Symons, who could then delegate much of his authority.

The only sense of controversy to arise during Thomas’ career was related to the development of New York’s barge canal, and it had nothing to do with him personally. He was the designer of the proposed system, and many felt it was critical that he stay involved in the project. But the new duties in Washington kept him very busy. Because congress approved additional engineering employees to work under Symons, some felt it was wrong to allow Thomas to spend some of his time working on the canal project, away from his regular job.

Symons even agreed to forego the higher pay he received from the White House position in order to help with the canal. There was considerable resistance, but Roosevelt himself stepped forward, telling Congress that, as governor, he had hired Thomas Symons to closely examine New York’s waterways. Thus, there was no man better suited for overseeing the $100 million expenditure.

The legislators relented, and by authority of a special act of congress, Symons was allowed to work on the creation of New York’s barge canal system. After Roosevelt’s first term, Thomas left the White House and focused his efforts on the canal work.

In 1908, when the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps was retiring, Symons, by then a full colonel, was among the top candidates for the job. His strongest advocate was President Roosevelt, but, after 37 years of service, Thomas submitted his name to the retirement list.

He remained active in the work on New York’s canals, which he monitored closely, and despite suggestions of excessive costs, the project came in well below the original estimates. He also served on the Pennsylvania Canal Commission and continued working and advising on other engineering projects.

His role in the building of America is undeniable, from New York to Washington State, the border with Mexico, the Mississippi River, Washington, D.C., and so many other places. The world’s longest breakwater (at Buffalo) and New York’s barge canal system stand out as his major career accomplishments. And, Roosevelt’s first administration took him to the highest echelons of world power for four years. He shared the president’s gratitude and friendship.

Thomas Symons, trusted aide, the man Teddy Roosevelt called the “Father of Barge Canals,” died in 1920 at the age of 71. In 1943, a Liberty ship built in Portland, Oregon was named the SS Thomas W. Symons in his honor.

Photo Top: Colonel Thomas Williams Symons, engineer.

Photo Middle: 1904 map of Symons’ planned route for New York’s Barge Canal.

Photo Bottom: A portion of the breakwater in Buffalo harbor.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt: Wilderness Warrior

A new book on Teddy Roosevelt by New York Times bestselling historian Douglas Brinkley is described by the publisher as “a sweeping historical narrative and eye-opening look at the pioneering environmental policies of President Theodore Roosevelt, avid bird-watcher, naturalist, and the founding father of America’s conservation movement.” For those interested in the Adirondack region, this new biography helps put TR’s Adirondack experiences into the lager context of wilderness protection and wildlife conservation history.

Brinkley draws on never-before-published materials for his look at the life of what he calls our “naturalist president.” Launching from conservation work as New York State Governor, TR set aside more than 230 million acres of American wild lands between 1901 and 1909, and helped popularize the conservation of wild places.

Brinkley’s new book singles out the influential contributions of James Audubon, Charles Darwin, and John Muir in shaping Roosevelt’s view of the natural world. Some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to TR’s relationship with Dr. C. Hart Merriam, who reviewed the future president’s The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in 1877; Merriam’s own The Mammals of the Adirondacks Region of Northeastern New York, published in 1884, was duly praised by TR.

Merriam and Roosevelt later worked successfully to reverse the declining Adirondack deer population (they brought whitetail from Maine), and to outlaw jack-lighting and hunting deer with dogs and so helped establish the principles of wildlife management by New York State.

During his political stepping-stone term as 33rd Governor of New York (1899-1900) TR made the forests of the state a focus of his policies. He pushed against “the depredations of man,” the recurrent forest fires, and worked to strengthen fish and game laws. Roosevelt provided stewardship of the state’s forests and the Adirondack Park in particular, that led to the most progressive conservation and wilderness protection laws in the country.

TR also worked to replace political hacks on the New York Fisheries, Game, and Forest Commission (forerunner of the DEC), according to Brinkley, and replaced them with highly trained “independent-minded biologists, zoologists, entomologists, foresters, sportsman hunters, algae specialists, trail guides, botanists, and activists for clean rivers.” To help pay the bill he pushed for higher taxes on corporations while also pursuing a progressive politics – what Brinkley calls “an activist reformist agenda.”

The book ranges with Roosevelt to Yellowstone, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Dakota Territory, and the Big Horn Mountains. It does capture Roosevelt’s time in the Adirondacks, but its’ strength is in putting that time into the larger context of Roosevelt’s life as a wilderness conservationist. For example, TR’s opposition to the Utica Electric Light Company’s Adirondack incursions is only mentioned in passing, though Brinkley’s treatment of the relationship between Gifford Pinchot and TR is more developed. An index entry – “Adirondack National Park” – is lightly misused bringing into concern how much Brinkley really appreciates the impact of Roosevelt’s Adirondack experiences (both in-country and in Albany) on his wilderness ethic.

All in all, however, Wilderness Warrior is a well written collection of the strands of Roosevelt’s conservationist ideas, woven into a readable narrative. Considering TR’s role in so many disciplines related to our forests, that’s no mean feat.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Upper Saranac Lake’s Fish Rock Camp and Jacob Riis

Marsha Stanley of the Upper Saranac Lake Sekon Association dropped me a note to say that she has spent the summer posting the history of Fish Rock Camp, believed to be the first of the great camps built on Upper Saranac in 1893. Marsha’s work included digitizing and placing online the camp’s guest register from 1905 to 1915. The guest book is replete with sketches of life at the camp, including the vignette at left from 1905, “Alfred in his Auto.” » Continue Reading.



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