The Great Camp
Article by Persis Granger
Photos provided by The Sagamore Institute.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The main dining room was twice expanded
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
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.
For books on the rich and famous
of the gilded age.
For more information about tours and
programs at Sagamore today, visit
www.greatcampsagamore.org or phone
This is the conclusion of a series
that began with “The Great Camp Experience, Part I,