I swung the door wide and surveyed the rustic room that would be my home for the next three days. Rich leaf green walls topped pine wainscoting and a red and black checked quilt was deftly tucked into the sides of the heavy wooden cradle bed. Anxious to dive in for a late afternoon nap, I held my hand out for the key.
“There’s no locks on any of our doors,” the caretaker explained. Paranoia took over. How would I secure my laptop and other electronic equipment when I was out of the room? Seeing my alarmed expression, he assured me that they had never had a problem and promptly left.
Bedroom in the main lodge of Great Camp Sagamore
The lack of locks at Great Camp Sagamore is a holdover from the days when the facility had been the private summer home of the Vanderbilt family. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt purchased Sagamore in 1901 from railroad tycoon William West Durant, who had completed the “camp” just four years earlier in the tradition of grand family compounds built in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Alfred’s wife preferred the comfort of their glitzy Newport, Rhode Island mansion to Sagamore. Alfred, however, spent a great deal of time at Sagamore, which was soon expanded to include a casino and the “Wigwam,” a separate lodge constructed a discreet distance from the main lodge, where male guests could enjoy the company of ladies of ill repute. The latter was likely a factor in the couples’ scandalous divorce in 1908.
In 1911 Alfred married Margaret Emerson McKim who, unlike his previous wife, shared his enthusiasm for the outdoor life. Though Alfred died in 1915 when he sailed on the ill-fated Lusitania cruise ship, Margaret continued to entertain at the camp for many more years, earning it the nickname “playground of millionaires.” After World War II Margaret’s use became infrequent and she donated it to Syracuse University. Eventually, it was purchased by the State of New York, which transferred the property to a not-for-profit institution that now operates the historic property as a lodge.
Ground floor common room in main lodge, Great Camp Sagamore
Today Great Camp Sagamore looks much as it did back in the Vanderbilt days. In the main lodge a regal fireplace constructed from local stone soars to the ceiling, where it meets enormous burnished pine vigas that glow in the soft yellow lamplight. Bedrooms line the second and third floor halls, punctuated by a series of bathrooms shared by guests, just as they would have been when the house was full of Vanderbilt summer guests. Scattered around the grounds are smaller cottages that were built for specific family members, a communal dining room, conference centers, and even a private bowling alley, which was all the rage in the early 20th century.
My stay at Great Camp Sagamore coincided with their “Grands Camp.” Grandparents, with their grandchildren in tow, participated in a week long program of music, canoeing, swimming, hiking, crafts, singing, campfires, talent shows and workshops with Dan Duggan, one of the country’s finest hammer dulcimer musicians. The kids were in their glory, jumping into canoes each morning for a paddle on Sagamore Lake, while the grandparents cheerfully struggled to keep up. But when the kids were forced to sit through a performance of Romeo and Juliet on the front lawn one afternoon one little girl grouched, “I didn’t understand a word they were saying.” The adults smiled secretly; revenge was sweet.
Romeo and Juliet performed on the lawn at Great Camp Sagamore
For a better view of some of the most famous “camps” in the Adirondacks, one evening I hopped aboard the WW Durant for a dinner cruise on Raquette Lake. We sailed past great camps built for Governor Phinneas Lounsbury of Connecticut, the Robert Collier publishing family and the Carnegie family, as Captain Dean Pohl narrated the history of this golden age of the Adirondacks. Continue reading