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The Great Camp Experience ~

Part II,
Camp Sagamore

Article by Persis Granger
Photos provided by The Sagamore Institute.

Vanderbilt…Morgan…Rockefeller…Carnegie…Durant…Huntington…. The names roll off our tongues like a Gilded Age guest list. Industrial tycoons, railroad magnates and others favored with vast fortunes sought out the beauty and seclusion of the Adirondacks as an alternative to their other posh vacation homes, which they referred to as "cottages." The cottage style of architecture influenced what would come to be known as the "Adirondack rustic style." The great camp look used native building materials such as logs, peeled bark and decorative twig ornamentation on porches and in gables. That style lives on today in the log cabin industry and also can be seen in buildings in our National Parks. Rustic furnishings like bent twig chairs, birch bark-faced dressers and sideboards and antler chandeliers extended the theme of a simplicity and oneness with nature. 

The great camps may have been at one with nature, but they were far from simple. These turn of the century islands of elegance offered guests amenities unheard of in the nearby Adirondack Mountain communities—sewer systems, indoor running hot and cold water, sometimes even electricity. A large staff catered to every need of the guests who came by train, stagecoach and steamboat to attend the lavish house parties hosted spring, summer, fall, and often Christmas. Guides made sure that the "sports" bagged deer by keeping a small herd penned up, and then releasing them when the hunting parties went out. Guests got bragging rights to the fish pulled from the lakes, even if hooked by guides. The camps typically had many buildings, which might include a bowling alley, library, game room, dining room, laundry, kitchen, a cottage for each family of guests, a main lodge, and sometimes even a schoolhouse and chapel. Outdoors there might be a putting green, croquet course, or tennis court.  
Below lies the 27-building complex
on the shore of Lake Sagamore.

In the 1890s, William West Durant, son of Thomas C. Durant (general manager of the Union Pacific Railroad), was cementing his reputation as the leading influence in the Adirondack Rustic style. He built three camps in the Raquette Lake area: Pine Knot, which he sold to railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington. Next came Uncas, sold to financier J.P. Morgan.
Great Camp Sagamore graces a rise at
the end of a winding drive.

His third was Sagamore, which was bought by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and his wife Margaret, a place where they created a playground for their wealthy and famous guests in lavish style. In 1915, Alfred boarded a ship for what was expected to be just one of his many routine business trips to Europe. But this ship was the Lusitania, and when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine, Alfred Vanderbilt lost his life. He had heroically given his life jacket to another passenger and rushed to help women and children into the small number of life boats. In the years after his tragic death, Margaret resumed her visits to Camp Sagamore, and continued her role as hostess par excellence.

Dining room at Sagamore in New York
The main dining room was twice expanded
and can accommodate 84.
Her parties were famous, and to be invited was an honor. Her guests included Gen. George Marshall, Richard Rodgers, Howard Hughes, Gary Cooper, Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney. Even Madame Chiang Kai-shek came, with her personal entourage.  

Over time the effects of age and illness caused Margaret to worry about what would become of Sagamore and the extensive staff for whom she felt responsible. In 1954, after determining that her sons were not interested in maintaining the property, she gave Sagamore to Syracuse University, which logged it and later sold it to the State of New York. In the 1980s an organization now known as the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks acquired the buildings and a small portion of the land and began restoration. The Sagamore became a National Historic Landmark in 2000.  

Now open to the public from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, Camp Sagamore offers not only daily group tours, but special events, such as the Adirondack Arts and Healing Retreat, a Photoshop course, Women in the Woods Weekend, Mountain Music and Dance Weekend, and the acclaimed intergenerational "Grands Camp" sessions, offering a variety adventures to be shared by grandparents and grandchildren. Participants stay in the old Vanderbilt lodges and experience a small taste of how the rich and famous vacationed in the Gilded Age.

Click here For books on the rich and famous  of the gilded age.


For more information about tours and programs at Sagamore today, visit or phone (315) 354-5311. 

This is the conclusion of a series that began with "The Great Camp Experience, Part I, Santanoni."

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