Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Mighty Adirondacks

You just don't see views like this where I'm from.

Almost since their discovery by the first hunters and pioneers, the Adirondacks have been a destination for tourists and New Yorkers escaping the city.  I discovered by reading that the use of the word "vacation," as we know it today, was coined by New Yorkers when they 'vacated' their homes in the city to take the trains to the Adirondacks! (Prior to the mid-1800s getting away from one's home was traditionally called a 'holiday') So this was actually the original vacation destination of America.

In keeping with the subject of this blog, I found the following article about the mountains as a tourist destination from 1864:

A CENTRAL PARK FOR THE WORLD. New York Times editorial, August 9, 1864
Within an easy day's ride of our great city, as steam teaches us to measure distance, is a tract of country fitted to make a Central Park for the world. The jaded merchant or financier or litterateur or politician, feeling excited within him again the old passion for nature (which is never permitted entirely to die out) and longing for the inspiration of physical exercise and pure air and grand scenery, has only to take an early morning train in order, if he chooses, to sleep the same night in the shadow of kingly hills and waken with his memory filled with pleasant dreams, woven from the ceaseless music of mountain streams.

To people in general, Adirondack is still a realm of mystery. Although the waters of the Hudson, which today mingle with those of the ocean in our harbor, yesterday rippled over its rocks, and though on all sides of it have grown up villages and have been created busy thoroughfares, yet so little has this wonderful wilderness been penetrated by enterprise or art that our community is practically ignorant of its enormous capacities, both for the imparting of pleasure and the increase of wealth.
It is true that the desultory notes of a few summer tourists have given us a vague idea of its character. We know it as a region of hills and valleys and lakes, we believe it to abound in rocks and rivulets and have an ill-defined notion that it contains mines of iron.  But as yet we have never been able to understand that it embraces a variety of mountain scenery unsurpassed, if even equalled, by any region of similar size in the world; that its lakes count by hundreds, fed by cool springs and connected mainly by watery threads which make them a network such as Switzerland might strive in vain to match; and that it affords facilities for hunting and fishing which our democratic sovereign-citizen could not afford to exchange for the preserves of the mightiest crowned monarch of Christendom. And still less do we understand that it abounds in mines which the famous iron mountains of Missouri cannot themselves equal for their quality and ease of working; and that its resources of timber and lumber are so great that, once made easily accessible, their supply would regulate the prices of those articles in our market.

And this access is what we are now going to secure. The gay denizens of Saratoga this season are excited by an occasional glimpse of a railroad grade running north from that town toward the Upper Hudson and aiming directly at the heart of the wilderness.  A thousand men are now cutting down and filling up and blasting and bridging "on this line." ...With its completion, the Adirondack region will become a suburb of New York.  The furnaces of our capitalists will line its valleys and create new fortunes to swell the aggregate of our wealth, while the hunting-lodges of our citizens will adorn its more remote mountainsides and the wooded islands of its delightful lakes. It will become to our whole community, on an ample scale, what Central Park is on a limited one. We shall sleep tonight on one of the magnificent steamers of the People's Line, ride a few cool hours in the morning by rail, and, if we choose, spend the afternoon in a solitude almost as complete as when the Deerslayer stalked his game in its fastnesses and unconsciously founded a school of romance equally true to sentiment with that of feudal ages.
 And here we venture a suggestion to those of our citizens who desire to advance civilization by combining taste with luxury in their expenditures. Imitating the good example of one of their number who upon the eastern slopes of Orange Mountain has created a paradise, of which it is difficult to say whether its homes or its pleasure-grounds are more admirable, let them form combinations and, seizing upon the choicest of the Adirondack Mountains, before they are despoiled of their forests, make of them grand parks, owned in common and thinly dotted with hunting seats where, at little cost, they can enjoy equal amplitude and privacy of sporting, riding and driving whenever they are able, for a few days or weeks, to seek the country in pursuit of health or pleasure. In spite of all the din and dust of furnaces and foundries, the Adirondacks, thus husbanded, will furnish abundant seclusion for all time to come; and will admirably realize the true union which should always exist between utility and enjoyment.

 Being almost inaccessible by horse and buggy due to absence of paved roads, most vacation-goers of the 1860s would have entered the mountains on a long ride by locomotive or by steamboat.

There was one notable early photographer who captured life in the primitive days of the Adirondacks, and my grandma had a book full of his pictures that enchanted me as a kid.  His name was Seneca Ray Stoddard (born 1843, died 1917) and his pictures are like the romantic paintings hanging in art museums of the great North frontier, only they are real.  For the historians and reenactors, it is a life of freedom and adventure in unclaimed wilderness that we can only dream of today.

This is one of my favorite photographs by Stoddard, taken in 1889. It shows a bunch of hunters telling stories by a campfire deep in the forest, lit only by firelight and a small oil lamp hanging under their rough pine shelter.

As the hunters, explorers and fur trappers tamed the vast reaches of wilderness and opened the way for travelers, many resorts and secluded getaways sprang up around its over 1,000 lakes.  Frequented by citygoers, the wealthy and those recovering from illness, the pure mountain air and natural spring water helped some to be brought back from the brink of death, and live healthy for many years afterward. If there ever was a Fountain of Youth, it probably could have been found in a place like the Adirondacks.

This is a 19th century way to camp in the Adirondacks. The canvas tent and fly are exactly the same construction as our familiar Civil War tents, only these are pitched over a raised wooden platform.  Open to the air, these would be very susceptible to cool mountain breezes and at the time were a popular treatment for recovering Tuberculosis patients.

As much in love as they were with the Adirondacks, my grandparents were not born in upstate New York. My grandfather was a city boy from Philadelphia, and my grandmother was from New Jersey.  It was after the end of World War II that they were married in 1947, and Hugh got a job working for the Department of Defense in the 1950's, building radar domes in the North Country.  Only two or three years after my mother was born at their home then in Doylestown, they decided to move to upstate New York. 

My grandpa used to hike the Adirondacks with an old Navy buddy in the post-war years, and really enjoyed the awe-inspiring mountain vistas and unpolluted air up north. They are using camping gear from WWII surplus; notice the USMC blanket rolls and leggings.

This small photograph, taken between 1948 and 1950,
is of grandpa actually camping in a lean-to built of pine logs.

A modern replica of the same type of shelter.
These enclosed cabins provided better shelter in the winter.

Standing outside a log cabin wearing his '42 mountain rucksack,
Corcoran army boots and canteen. Picture from 1953

His passion for wilderness surroundings and a simple existence has certainly been inherited. The next post will be about my trip to the Adirondack Museum.

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