Great Camp Sagamore National Historic Site, or plain old “Sagamore” to most of us, is a wonderful little jewel nestled around Raquette Lake, NY. The camp area was built in 1897 by William West Durant, inheritor to vast Adirondack acreage from his railroad developer father, Thomas Durant. The camp was designed and built by W. W., one of a triumvirate of marvelous wilderness mansions (the other are Camp Pine Knot and Camp Uncas, still in existence). The climax of the tour through Sagamore is this Main Lodge, Durant’s “castle” of sorts. The inside is exquisite.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
The camp is situated on a small peninsula of what was once called Shedd Lake, now Sagamore Lake. The original 1,526-acre complex housed numerous buildings in two separate locations. One campus held buildings for the multitudes of caretakers and servants and the other campus — nearer to the lake — held the elaborate Adirondack lodges. Here, the richest and most famous members of the Gilded Age partied amongst the pine trees. There is a bowling alley, a “casino” or playroom as it was later named, numerous outdoor activities, a lodge for meetings and carousing, and more.
Durant had to sell the camp almost as quickly as he constructed it. In 1901, he sold it to the illustrious Vanderbilt family, who introduced a level of lush and licentious living unheard of in these parts. The Vanderbilts kept the camp in the family until 1954, when it was donated to Syracuse University and used as a conference center. The camp was in very bad disrepair until 1976 when restoration began. The acreage was drastically shorn — only 7.7 acres remain — but the camp became a National Historic Landmark in 2000 and the place really shines from restoration.
We took advantage of the tour of the place. The camp is hidden behind a 4-mile obstacle course of sand, rocks and wilderness. The forest and Adirondack experience is thick.
Despite the gathering rain clouds, we decided to brave the weather and join a tour group. There were quite a number of people, I thought!
Our tour guide was a young lady from Delaware, named Celia. She was very friendly and talkative, relaying interesting stories about the Durants, Vanderbilts, and all the servants who essentially ran the place.
We meandered through the servants’ and caretakers’ campus first. Many of the buildings were closed to visitors — the hen house, the schoolhouse, the barn, the root cellar, and others. Most of the tour was conducted outside.
I found it very interesting that the utilities — electric power and the sewer system — were piped up here from the New York City system!
Most travel throughout the Adirondacks was via boat. Actually, quite a bit of it still IS via boat– the U.S. Post Office has a Mail Boat Carrier who delivers mail to folks up here. Back then, local people earned good money paddling ritzy guests to the various camps.
The Vanderbilts even had a bowling alley up here! The local children earned a nickel for re-placing the pins after each bowl.
Some “artifacts” from the Vanderbilt days were discovered in the dump, and placed on display. I wonder if the rich and famous ever dreamed that their trash would someday be so precious that we’d preserve it in glass cases and pay to gaze at it!
Celia told us stories of the Vanderbilt’s tempestuous lives and lifestyles. The family was rocked with divorces, adulteries, scandals, societies, and reams and reams of money.
Mr. Vanderbilt died in 1915, with the sinking of the Lusitania.
Vanderbilt’s widow, Margaret Emerson, kept the camp for several decades, toning down the raucous parties and encouraging more tamer sports.
As I said, Mrs. Emerson gave the camp to Syracuse University in 1954. Today, the camp lives on. Summer vacationers — quite a number of them from New York City — still filled the campgrounds. You can rent lodgings and enjoy the lake, go hiking on nearby trails or enjoy other activities. The grounds are extremely peaceful and lake is very appealing.
Camp Sagamore operates without any local, state, or federal support! It exists only through revenue and donations. The place does well — it is beautiful.
Just as a sidenote: perhaps the most shocking moment of our visit was when I realized that there were NO BUGS. I was doused in bug spray, of course, but no one else was and I didn’t see one mosquito or black fly!
It’s wonderful that today the “average” American can enjoy the Adirondacks, that the experience is no longer limited to the very wealthy. Check out the information below if you want to visit.
Great Camp Sagamore
PO Box 40
Sagamore Road Raquette Lake, NY 13436
Tel: (315) 354-5311