The Great Camps

In the Adirondack Mountains, “camp” does not always mean roughing it in the outdoors, with canvas tents, cooking over a campfire, and fending off the worst of the elements. Instead, a “camp” is a cabin, often built near or overlooking one of the hundreds of lakes that are found in this region. The Great Camps are palatial compounds, constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the wealthiest families in America. These homes, set on enormous tracts of land, often copy the style of Swiss chalets, beautiful wooden homes that allowed them to bring the comforts of their mansions and Park Avenue apartments to the wilderness. With names like Vanderbilt, Huntington, Post, Morgan, and Lounsbury, the families that built the Great Camps wanted their mountaintop vacations to meet their expectations of luxury (via Wikipedia).

Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I headed up to visit family in the Adirondack Mountains. On Sunday, we ventured to Great Camp Sagamore to learn more about the historic Great Camps. Designed by William Durant, who designed many of the Great Camps, Sagamore was built between 1895 to 1897. It was sold to the Vanderbilt family, who upgraded the facilities to include indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, a tennis court, and a farm. After passing from the Vanderbilt family, the home was next owned by Syracuse University, and then finally by the Preservation League of New York State, a private organization that preserves famous buildings in the state (for more information, you should read Great Camps of the Adirondacks by Harvey H. Kaiser). Enshrined as a National Historic Landmark in 2000, Camp Sagamore is open to the public, both as a working resort and also for educational programming.

Map of New York and New Jersey, with a red pin in the location of Great Camp Sagamore.
Our Memorial Day weekend destination: the Adirondack Mountains!
New York Thruway, with mountains in the distance.
Getting on the road a little before 6:30 am on Saturday, we encountered almost no traffic on the drive north. That said, we couldn’t go too fast, as the New York State Police was out in force, with speed traps every few miles.
2012 Honda Accord parked in front of Kayuta restaurant and ice cream shop.
One sure sign of the approach of summer in the Adirondacks… Kayuta is open! As I have detailed before, this restaurant and ice cream shop has been an Adirondack landmark since 1963. Despite cooler temperatures and a steady rain, we made time for a vanilla shake (me) and a black raspberry cone (my wife).
Panorama of Fourth Lake in the Adirondacks.
By Sunday morning, the rain was gone – views like this never get old! A little later in the day, we set off to explore Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, NY.
Tree-lined dirt road, with hood of Honda Accord in foreground.
When I made reservations to visit Sagamore, the website stated that the camp is accessed by traveling along Route 28 and then turning onto a four-mile long gravel road. In reality, we turned onto a seemingly endless washboard road that was equal parts gravel, dirt, and mud. The holes in the road would have stopped an M1 Abrams tank, let along a car. I’m kind of amazed the front suspension didn’t simply fall off my Accord. My wife spent the drive hearing me utter many short exclamations, most of which are unsuitable for reprinting in this blog.
2012 Honda Accord in front of chalet at Sagamore.
Off-roading achievement completed! A little dirty, bumped, and bruised, but we arrived safely at Sagamore. Who needs an SUV when you have a seven year old coupe with over 131,000 miles?
Exterior of Guest House, with a tree and a blue sky framing the photo.
Our first stop was the Guest House, which now serves as a welcome center and gift shop. Leaving our car, we encountered one of the notorious pests of the northern climates: black flies. Despite slathering bug spray over ourselves and purchasing protective netting from the gift shop to cover our faces, we would spend much of the next two hours swatting away these little flying pests as they tried to take nibbles out of us.
Two long, narrow buildings in Great Camp Sagamore.
Sagamore was originally built by William West Durant. Durant, who designed many of the Great Camps, was the son of Thomas C. Durant, a 19th century robber baron who made his fortune through many ways, not all of which were entirely legal. Thomas tasked his son William with helping to develop their properties in the Adirondacks.
Exterior of barn
The barn, which is original to Durant’s 1895 plan, and is still in use today.
Interior of barn, with a stage, a screen, and maps of the evolution of Camp Sagamore.
Once a working barn, the space is now a performance and educational center for the camp.
Basketball hoop made from wooden basket, in rafters of barn.
Our tour guide pointed out one cool feature of the barn high in the rafters- the camp’s original basketball hoop from the early 20th century, made from an actual fruit basket.
Two seat horse-drawn carriage.
We stepped into the carriage house and saw this early 20th century runabout carriage. I wonder if someday we’ll look at automobiles as merely museum pieces, much as we look now upon these horse-drawn carriages.
Horseshoes hanging on wall.
Much like Mt. Vernon, the blacksmith shop creates all the iron implements used to sustain the camp.
Exterior of Wigman building, with a small BMW electric car in the foreground.
One of the coolest buildings on the site – the Wigwam. When Durant’s fortune hit hard times, he sold Sagamore to Alfred Vanerbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. The Wigwam was one of Alfred’s favorite buildings – he and his friends would go hunting in the woods and then return here for games, conversations, and drinking.
Balcony at back of Wigwam with a view toward stream.
The Wigwam’s second floor balcony offers a commanding view of the surrounding woodlands. The Wigwam is the midpoint of the camp, separating the upper camp (which was for the workers and their families) from the lower camp (where the guests stayed).
Large stone fireplace in Wigwam building.
What are the key aspects of a great camp? Remote locations, log cabin designs, a build date in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, porches, and extravagant fireplaces. This one, located in the Wigwam, would be where Alfred and his friends would gather to warm themselves after a day of hunting and fishing.
Exterior of Alfred's Cottage.
Alfred’s Cottage – one of the guest cottages built for the children of the Vanderbilt family.
Exterior of chalet at Sagamore.
The centerpiece of the camp – Sagamore Lodge, where guests would stay when they visited the camp. As with all the Great Camps, the wealthy guests could experience the rustic outdoors of the Adirondacks without ever actually having to “rough it.” Even now, beside being a museum, Sagamore is still an active resort with lodge rooms available for rent.
Close up of window on front of chalet, with red trim.
This window of the lodge, like so many other buildings in Sagamore, is painted in a color called Durant Red. Is it a unique color blend, specially ordered for the camp? Nope. Durant Red is whatever red paint was cheapest at the local building supply store when Sagamore was constructed.
Lobby of Lodge, with chandelier, fireplace, and round wooden table with chairs.
The lobby of the lodge was in immaculate condition. The iron chandelier is original to the lodge, and was custom-made in Sagamore’s blacksmith shop, over one hundred years ago.
Animal skins hang from walls, with bookshelves and lights for reading.
Nothing says “rustic outdoors” like having animal skins decorate the walls of the lobby.
Boathouse, with canoes on a rack outside of it, and picnic tables in the foreground.
The boathouse, over 120 years old, is still in use to this day.
Dining room with long tables in foreground, and a series of windows offering a panoramic view of the outdoors.
In the building next to the lodge is the dining hall. Meals are served family-style at the camp.
Round dining table with view of Sagamore Lake in the background.
Alfred Vanderbilt died in May of 1915 on a journey to Europe when the ship transporting him was sunk by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. The ship was the RMS Lusitania, and the unprovoked attack on a passenger vessel carrying American citizens brought the United States into World war I. After Alfred’s death, his widow, Margaret Emerson, took over running the camp. Among the changes she made was a wholesale redesign of the dining hall, including this rounded alcove with a view of the lake.
View of Sagamore Lake with mountains in the background.
The view from behind the lodge was simply amazing.
Red Adirondack Chairs by lakeside.
Adirondack chairs, in their natural environment… the Adirondacks!
Playhouse Exterior.
The playhouse, which was the camp casino for many years, complete with billiards, card game tables, and a giant stuffed alligator… the parties at this camp must have been legendary. This space is now used for musical and dramatic performances.
Interior of the playhouse, with wooden folding chairs in foreground and a large fireplace in the background. Several stuffed animal heads are mounted to the walls.
Note the animal head trophies on the wall – Alfred Vanderbilt wasn’t much of a hunter, as his passion was driving horse-drawn coaches. His wife Margaret was the hunter of the family, and most of the animals you see being used as decorations were trophies from her hunts.
Exterior of bowling lanes.
The last building we visited was this odd structure. Our tour guide asked if anyone from our group had any guesses what this was. One member of our group thought it might be a chapel….
Two bowling lanes under arched roof.
…but no, this building houses something a bit more earthly… bowling lanes! These lanes were built in the early 20th century, and are now over one hundred years old. The building was constructed on top of an 8-foot thick concrete slab, so despite being exposed to the elements, the lanes are still perfectly straight. One member of our tour group was allowed to bowl, and her attempt rolled right down the middle of the lane. So cool!
Car odometer that reads 131746 TRIP A 129.1
And by Monday night, we had returned home. The Accord continues to run well, and it performed flawlessly on a 600 mile round trip. Next stop… 140,000 miles!

Similar to the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island that I visited last year, the Great Camps of the Adirondacks allow you to step back in time and visit the lives of the upper crust from over a century ago. We spent a fascinating afternoon at Sagamore, and would happily return again (although maybe not during black fly season!). Great Camp Sagamore is open from late May through early October every year, although tour availability depends upon the day of the week, so check the website before you go. Admission for a guided tour of the camp is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and military (with ID), and $10 for students. If you’re in the Adirondack Mountains, it is definitely worth a visit.

Thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!

‘Til next time.

7 thoughts on “The Great Camps

  1. What awesome architecture and cool features. Love the bowling alley and the basketball court, haha. Now you’ve got me thinking about black raspberry cones. I hope the Accord didn’t sustain any damage on the gravel/washboard road, but I’m sure you took it easy and will have it detailed and looking 100% again in no time! Those unexpected terrains are all part of the road tripping adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everything still seems attached! lol. It definitely made the adventure more memorable! Glad you enjoyed the post, and yes, writing it made me want to make a return trip to Kayuta for more ice cream!!

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  2. Two comments:

    All those horseshoes are upside down, and all the luck is running out of them. Horse people know that if you are going to hang a horseshow, you hang it so the luck can’t run out……………..!!!

    The Vanderbilt family had a beautiful horse farm in Maryland, outside Baltimore — called Sagamore Farm. It was given to Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr, by his mother (the Margaret Emerson mentioned in the stuff you included) on his 21st birthday. This was the birthplace of Native Dancer — my sister and I were taken to the farm to see Native Dancer when we were about 12 or 13. Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Talk about hidden connections – that’s fascinating that the Sagamore name traveled down to Maryland as well. I admit to having to look up Native Dancer. I saw that he was listed as the third greatest racehorse of the 20th century. It’s very cool that you got to see him when he was still alive!

      And I know how I’ll be hanging horseshoes in MY house from now on… 😉

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