Last week, after taking a lunch cruise on the W. W. Durant with Raquette Lake Navigation, I toured Great Camp Sagamore.The very long ride down the ‘driveway’ to Sagamore, while quite lengthy, peaked my interest in the seclusion and exclusivity that must have been felt by travelers down the same road in the past. I’ll admit, even as a historian, and one particularly interested in 19th century leisure culture, I didn’t know much at all about Sagamore. I knew it was a vacation camp owned by the Vanderbilts, and therefore must be pretty impressive. However I had no idea of the extensive grounds, multiple historic structures, and beautifully rustic vistas. A visit to the camp changed my understanding.
This historic camp boats a rich history of the travel and vacationing that was such an integral part of nineteenth-century leisure culture. Constructed between 1895 and 1897 by William West Durant, this great camp was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Great Camp Sagamore’s website provides a very nicely concise description of the site’s general history:
“Great Camp Sagamore has had four owners. William West Durant, developer, built it from 1895-1897 and lived in the Main Lodge from 1897-1901. His bankruptcy forced him to sell. The wealthiest young man in America, A.G. Vanderbilt, purchased it in 1901. Alfred G. Vanderbilt died on the Lusitania in 1915 and his widow Margaret Emerson came here for the next 39 years with her children and grandchildren.” (source)
A walk through the historic campus of Great Camp Sagamore unveils the complexity of the location’s history, contrasting the lavish parties Margaret entertained with the tucked-away servant quarters. The split between the upper and lower complex (or, the guest complex and the workers complex) is aesthetically obvious, and quite telling of the level to which 19th century socialites consumed rustic luxury). The image to the right is the Main Lodge building at Sagamore, and probably the most recognizable symbol of the camp. But there is much more to this space, which boasts several cottages, barns, historic structures, and even a historic bowling alley (which was very very cool).
Here, you can read a very interesting account of Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s time at the camp and his memories of Margaret.
“Margaret, for reasons unknown to the family, gave Sagamore to Syracuse University in 1954. SU used it for the next 20 years and then decided to divest itself of the by then, dilapidated white elephant in serious disrepair. SU logged the land, sold the furnishings, and sold all but 7.7 acres of the 1526-acre estate to the State of New York for the Forest Preserve. The 7.7 acres with the bark-covered guest buildings were saved at the 11th hour by the Preservation League of NYS that asked the State Department of Environmental Conservation to put the property up to bid to not-for-profits who might fulfill their stipulation that the buyer should be a “compatible neighbor to the Forest Preserve.” (source)
Like many of the other historic great camps in the Adirondacks, Sagamore reveals a fascinating the fascinating and complex history of the historically wealthy and their affinity for the Adirondack region. It tells the story of leisure travel, luxury and rustic aestheticism which is so specific to the Adirondacks, and therefore so incredibly unique. A visit to Great Camp Sagamore is an absolute must. As I said before, even as a student of 19th century American history, I knew very little about this location before my visit last week. I found it to be a fascinating experience, and a window into a long gone culture of rustic exclusivity and luxurious Adirondack culture.
– Great Camp Sagamore webite
– Raquette Lake Navigation website
- Raquette Lake Navigation blog on Imponderabilia
– William West Durant Wikipedia page
– Great Camp Sagamore on Facebook
- Great Camp Sagamore on Twitter