Ramblin' Through Saranac

Ellie S. Thomas   
© Copyright 2011 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Stamp honoring Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau.
There really aren't many through routes out of the North Country, or into it, for that matter, (but more people seem concerned with getting OUT than in); be that as it may, we like to take Route 30 through the mountains, UP SOUTH, as we natives call it because although we are going south, we are also going up...climbing the mountains.

As we climb, we are in Saranac Lake in just over an hour, yet a world away in atmosphere. Saranac Lake is a relatively small village perched on the side of the mountain, but one soon gets used to seeing people of diverse cultures, here educating or getting educated, or to work at the excellent medical clinics, or to vacation close by the Olympic center of Lake Placid, N. Y.

Saranac Lake is in the Adirondack Mts. and should not be confused with Saranac, an equally small village close by Plattsburgh, N.Y. although in all honesty, it IS confusing. (Local people are apt to leave the Lake part off the name all too often when referring to Saranac LAKE).

Saranac Lake first gained prominence in 1884 when Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a consumptive, traveled northwards and began a sanatorium to help fellow sufferers. He felt there were curative powers in the crystal air, saturated with the resinous exudates from the trees, and the crisp, cold mountain atmosphere.

Saranac Lake was a community of, or devoted to, tuberculers until late in the 1900's. Local people were taught to protect themselves and school children were given regular x-rays. Spitting on the streets carried a $50.00 fine.

Dr. Edward L. Trudeau was felt to be just about the last hope for anyone suffering from tuberculosis and he initiated the treatment which would later be followed by sanatoria all over the world. Saranac swelled from a community of 3000 sufferers and their hosts and hostesses to about 6000 when the families and visitors arrived. The Postal department showed their recognition by alloting the sanatorial complex a postal station named "Trudeau". The Trudeau name became an illustrious name throughout the country and one feels that Gary, creator of the Doonesbury strip of political satire and great-grandson of the innovator of the 'Trudeau' cure, could profitably utilize his talents to re-create a documentary on his noted forbears.

One can still visualize his grandfather, the second Dr. (Francis) Trudeau treading the forests with his big dog, Snow. Dr. Trudeau was an avid hunter and he was apt to stride into the house in Glenwood Estates, calling, "Darling, I'm home". After dashing up the stairs in a boyish fashion, he would don his plaid hunting outfit and head for the woods. He had a hunting buddy down on Easy Street at Paul Smiths, and the two might head for favored spots throughout Duane. Hunting and fishing came naturally to Dr. Francis Trudeau. His parents had necessarily interacted with the hunters and trappers, or lumbermen, who comprised the early Saranac, in fact one old guide told Dr. Edward that 'it was a darned shame to ruin a good fox runway by putting a sanatorium on it!'

The inhabitants of Saranac Lake were not impressed by the names of the famous; these people got sick and died just like everyone else. Robert Louis Stevenson rented the Baker cottage for his family in 1887 for $50.00 a month. It was a bitter winter and the idea of spending sub-zero weather in a non-insulated frame cottage without central heating would be daunting to people inured to the cold; Stevenson didn't like it. He complained in print of the bleak, blackguard, beggerly climate 'of which I can say no good except it suits me...whom by all rights it ought to kill'. He was put off by his doctor, (Trudeau) with his 'vials of green scum' and he remained a loner, reserved and isolated from the inhabitants of the village who thought him unfriendly. Considering the hours he must spend in bed for his health's sake and his literary output, it's little wonder if he was not sociable. In fact, all three, he, his wife and her son, all wrote, so his mother, who liked Saranac and was more gregarious, came and went via her bedroom window rather than disturb the others! Stevenson wrote some of his most important works at Saranac Lake and when General Custer's widow laughingly chided him for not having more women in his stories, he made her Alison Durie in 'The Master'. He also used the 'bleak, black cold' of Saranac winter in the MASTER OF BALLANTRAE.

Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the colossi at Mt. Rushmore, was apparently more impressed with Saranac Lake and it's guests than Stevenson. He did a bronze bas-relief of Stevenson which hangs by the door of the cottage and a sculpture of Dr. Trudeau which stood near 'Little Red', the first cottage of the sanatorial complex.

Mark Twain was just returning from a world tour when he decided to visit Saranac Lake. He rented a log cabin on Lower Saranac Lake, called THE LAIR, and true to fashion, he immediately changed it to THE LIAR. He was still in the area when Teddy Roosevelt was met by a messenger as he came down Mount Marcy who informed him that he was now the 26th president of the United States. Twain had some pungent remarks to air about assassins.

In the early days of prohibition, the roads which led directly south from Upstate were heavily patrolled by booze-running gangsters; Saranac, like many other small northern hamlets, suffered its own invasion. The notorious criminal 'Legs Diamond' used to visit his brother, Eddie, who was being 'cured' at the Sanatorium. 'Legs' usually visited at night, unless his red-haired mistress was with him and insisted there was something she MUST have from downtown. At that point, they might venture down to one of the stores and make a few purchases while fidgety police officers walked back and forth outside.

It is not surprising that a roll call of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Stillman, Emerson, Calvin Coolidge, MacLeish, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Maugham, etc. caused not a ripple in the community. There were so many of them, and if THEY weren't sick, they were visiting someone who was, so by the time streptomycin was discovered and Saranac Lake made the delicate adjustment into a retreat for R&R, rather than consumptive treatment, there was a cavalier feeling about the rich and noteworthy folk who begun to arrive.

It was, perhaps 1901, when Albert Einstein arrived for peace and quiet and liked it so well that he spent much of the next ten years summering there.

"They were a happy couple who laughed a lot", the Adirondack Daily Enterprise remarked, but the headlines they printed later jolted the nation when the sportswriter announced to the world, 'EINSTEIN LOST!'

Einstein had been sailing his 17ft. boat and neither he, nor Else, his wife, were wearing life belts or preservers, (as usual). After considerable time, someone noted that the TINEF was overdue and the paper carried the report. Many rescue vehicles converged on the water front and began the search for the celebrity, and soon they were found...becalmed, and looking a bit annoyed at the intrusion. 'No, they did NOT want help...when the wind blew, they would return1

Einstein refused to discuss nuclear fission or any of the projects he'd been involved in. He preferred to relax at his Glenwood Estate home, sometimes playing the violin with concert violinist, Francis Magnus, or plying the waters of the nearby lakes. Sometimes he was good-naturedly pulled OUT of the lake by someone passing by. It might be well to clarify the ambiguous positions of the waters and villages at this point. Saranac Lake and the small village of Saranac are, as mentioned, separate entities. Also, there are two Saranac LAKES, bodies of water, that is. There is the Lower and the Upper Saranacs and the Lower is above the Upper one-

When Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer stayed in Saranac Lake, he was compared to 'that nut Einstein', to the credit of neither. Their worst offense was to appear foreign, unforgivable in a land-locked provincial community. Einstein was ahead of his time in a shaggy pull-over sweater, faded denims and sandals, while poor Bartok, who'd entered the country with what he was wearing, hiked the fields in a kind of short knee-britches, heavy socks and boots...and carrying a long, walking stick. Both men were reclusive to some extent, intent on their writings, or their music. It was in Saranac that Bartok wrote his Concerto that premiered in Boston December 1, 1944.

Marjorie Merriweather Post owned a vast estate called Topridge which was accessible by a road down by Pauls Smith College. She had her guests flown in to the Saranac Lake airport on the Merriweather, the world's largest private plane. They were taken across Upper St. Regis Lake by private launch and yanked up the steep incline by a cable car. The incredible complex of buildings saw some notable names over the summers. Daughter, actress Dina Merrill had her own private cottage, and there was a Russian dacha in honor of Mrs. Post's third husband, who was ambassador to Moscow. Guests were treated royally and there were gay evenings of dancing and movies. Daytime might be spend gliding over the lakes, or sitting in the gazebo where the servant in charge of cobwebs was on continuous prowl with his fly whisk, least he miss a one and offend his mistress's eye. After Mrs. Post's death, Roger Jakubowski, the 'hot dog salesman' from New Jersey bought all but 102 acres for a trifling $911,000.

Perhaps some of Saranac Lake's unique quality is due to it's location in a State Park of some 5 million acres. It is a vast, sprawling region- no national park is as large- and a clause was written into the State Constitution in 1894 that made most of the Adirondacks 'forever wild'. The freedon to almost literally step out the back door into untouched wilderness has produced people of robust, independent character. The beauty and solitude drew visitors from many places and by 1900, a quarter million people were vacationing in the Adirondacks, and this before the day of the ubiquitous car!

Saranac Lake today has become more a center for the arts than a strictly medical enclave, although there is nearly a community within a community of doctors, radiologists, nursing personnel, and allied staff members. Many of the doctors who first arrived as patients stayed on to work in the area they'd come to love. This established a high ratio of doctor-to-patient which continues today; the only difference is that their fields have changed from tuberculosis to oncology and diseases of the upper respiratory tract.

The lakes are ringed with homes of various artists, writers, musicians, and other members of an eclectic group of performers. The Pendragon Theatre shows some very good fare and has wide support. The North Country Community College is proud of it's talented young people and Camp Intermission on Lake Colby sponsors members of the Performing Arts. They continue the practice set forth by showman William Morris, who coerced people like Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and many others to make each July fourth a memorable occasion.

And so, we drive UP SOUTH every chance we get. The mountains are blue all around us and life seems all pleasure. We feel somewhat like the cartoon figure which appeared in HARPER'S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE at the start of the century. It depicted an emaciated, sunken-chested person entering the Adirondacks carrying a carpetbag; then he is shown coming out, full-bodied and carrying an enormous string of fish; the only difference is that we are merely carrying our replete selves, rested and happy from a day in Saranac.

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