Tag Archives: history

Hanging with the Hobos

A good time was had by all – judging from the crowd – at the Hobo Fest.

The other day, we happened on down to the tracks and the (beautifully restored and displayed) Union Depot in Saranac Lake for the Hobo Fest. The event was principally a music sort of thing, with lots of super fun good ol’ tunes from lots of different folks  throughout the day. Really neat. We ran into many, many friends. It was awesome – the music, pulled pork sandwiches, grilled eggplant, the depot – sublime. Especially for train lovers. (Although I fail to see what this all has to do with hobos – Some hobo stew for sale and a little hobo/train history set up in the depot would have pulled the theme together nicely.)

Everybody’s a critic, right? I shouldn’t quip. It was totally well attended, and it was fun.

NewYorkRailroads.com tells us that, “Saranac Lake’s Union Depot was built in 1904 by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, consolidating the passenger operations of the Chateaugay Railroad from the east, and the New York Central Railroad from the west. This depot is on the same site as the old Chateaugay depot, which was moved across the tracks and attached to the old freight house as an office.”


I’m guessing that old Chateaugay Depot is the old thing still standing across the street from the current depot.

Another awesome thing I learned – That previous New York Central passenger depot was actually on Broadway, up the tracks a little ways. Maybe the brick building next to the Kinney drug store? Or where Aubuchon Hardware is now? That makes more logistic sense.

It’s totally a history mystery.

You have a great day too!



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Playing the Big Time in Saranac Lake

Before radio, television, and even talking pictures, Vaudeville was king. Being a musical theatre historian, I know way too much about this, and could go on and on. So I’ll try to keep it relatively brief. And I promise there’s a local connection.

Think of the entire audience for television, radio, and film, all seeking entertainment. Vaudeville. It was a lot like those TV variety shows from the 1970s. You might have a juggler or a dog act opening the bill, move on to a legit singer, maybe a big star in a short one-act play, a comedian or two, a pianist, a dance ensemble, a big-time headliner, and maybe a dog act to cover the walkout. The last slot was considered the worst … “Playing to the haircuts.” Every town had a vaudeville theatre, and most often, acts travelled the country via syndicates. Our local theatre, the Pontiac, is pictured towards the end of the Vaudeville era, as operators were beginning to combine live acts with films. (Note the marquee – Looks like we had our share of big-time headliners!)

Vaudeville was no vacation. Poorly heated theatres in Winter. Stifling heat in Summer. Several shows a day, constant travel. However, performers did tend to stick with it. In the days before assistance and social security, even a small-time performer could make decent money. But. With the Syndicates (who owned and operated the theatres) quite literally running the show – names like Pantages, Loew’s, Albee, and Keith-Orpheum – the performers felt that they needed a union. This had become an industry. By 1907, vaudeville was earning $30 million a year.

Enjoying the bulk of that profit, the biggest Keith-Albee syndicate pretty much controlled the industry. In fact, in several instances, they crushed infant unions founded by the performers. When a union called “The White Rats” emerged and began to show signs of succeeding, Edward F. Albee set up a company union called National Vaudeville Artists, refusing to book performers who did not join his group. And if you didn’t play Albee’s Keith-Orpheum circuit, you pretty much had no work. Albee had a near monopoly.

Albee kept his so-called union under his firm control, silencing all opposition to his often abusive treatment of performers. After all, a union run by the syndicate was hardly a union at all. However, on down the road, Albee’s NVA stuck. And although under the control of Albee, it did manage to do a few decent things. A beautiful clubhouse was opened in Manhattan’s theatre district. (It’s now the Church of Scientology on West 46th Street.) And eventually, Albee built a retirement and rest home for Vaudeville artists on the top of a gorgeous hillside in Saranac Lake, New York.

In 2010, the gorgeous facility is Saranac Village at Will Rogers, an independent living community for seniors. What’s the Will Rogers connection? As Vaudeville was in its decline in the 1930s, famous Big-timer and philanthropist Will Rogers and his Will Rogers Institute took over the place, and began caring for tuberculosis-stricken entertainers. The facility was the Institute’s home TB and pulmonary cases and research. In 1976, the Institute moved to White Plains, New York. After a few failed attempts at ownership, the historic facility became Saranac Village … although, around here, we still call it “Will Rogers.”

I played a rehearsal on the old stage last night. (Think of the famous feet that crossed that small stage!) Saranac Village hosts a good many concerts, plays, and community events each year. The care and restoration work that has gone into the building is just stunning. What a gorgeous place. It’s a wonderful thing, you know? To have a historic landmark so well cared for, and so involved in hosting and presenting community events.

Cheers to you, Saranac Village! You’re awesome.

Thanks to Bunk’s Place as always for the gorgeous photos and postcard images, and thanks to MWanner for the wonderful area photos, and documentation of Saranac Lake’s history.


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Wish You Were Here

Welcome to the Town of Brighton, friends! We’re not enough of a place to really have postcards, and we like it that way. However, a friend and I had a super nice drive around the back roads on Saturday, and I hope you enjoy the photos. And who knows? Maybe you’ll pick up a little Adirondack/Franklin County history along the way.

Would you believe that Keese Mills Road was names for Mr. Keese and his mill? What? Is it that obvious? Two Mr. Keeses, in fact. Brothers. They built a saw mill on the St. Regis River, near (my favorite) Black Pond. Local lore and several-generation natives tell me that the wood for all our old houses in the village came from the mill. Water’s still running as of January!

I’m sure this thing has a proper name, but I usually just call it a Tree Eater. It’s able to cut and pick up an entire mature tree, and limb it to boot. I’m supposing this thing belongs to the DEC. It was parked in the DEC parking lot/trailhead just before Black Pond.

Down a little road with a historically-big name is the entrance to White Pine Camp, which served as Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House during the Summer of 1926. Built by a Mr. Archibald White in the early 1920s, it includes the owners home, a dining hall, boathouses, cabins, an indoor tennis court, bowling alleys, and a teahouse on the water. It was later owned by the heirs to the Sears-Roebuck fortune.

Stony Wold was a tuberculosis sanatorium built in 1900. It closed in 1955 and the property was bought by the local diocese of the Catholic Church in 1958, to serve as a Boys’ Camp. It was operated by the “White Fathers,” a group of medical missionaries originally from France, known for their white robes. In 1962 the Camp was turned over to the Franciscan Friars, who used it a Seminary while the Saranac Lake facility was being built. By the 1970s, most of the buildings had been razed by New York State. Only this chapel remains. Fun Fact – The Tiffany windows now grace a stairwell at the New-York Historical Society at Central Park West and 77th Street in Manhattan … and I’ve seen ’em.

And finally, a favorite road for many reasons. This is Kushqua Mud Pond Road, a far sight from what it looks like during the Summer months – this is just down the road from where my favorite canoe launch place is.

Love Franklin County, Saranac Lake, and Adirondack history? I recommend http://www.hsl.wikispot.org/.


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House Haunting and Hunting in Saranac Lake

I follow local real estate, and I follow local ghost stories. You’d be surprised how frequently the two meet in the middle.

I got on a good sip-snortin’ ghost bender yesterday, and spent a good deal of time paging through tons of nonsense concerning “a ghost with the body of a man, and the head of a raccoon,” another one about a ghost lady with a panther head, and all told, quite a number of beast/human combos. One would think that Saranac Lake’s ghost population were recruited entirely from its taxidermists.

But, I had been told otherwise. “There’s that big house up on the hill. The Colonial.”

The Prescott House (originally known as the Mary Prescott Reception Hospital) was a Tuberculosis hospital, built in 1905 at the request of Dr. Trudeau by a formed TB patient named Mary R. Prescott, to serve patients who were too ill to be admitted to Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium (which only accepted incipient cases). The Colonial revival building still stands on Franklin Avenue. After the hospital closed in 1949, the building was home to the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild, and later did service as a North Country Community College dorm.

The hospital is rumored to have been busting with ghosts during it’s tenure as a dorm, especially in the basement kitchen area – originally the morgue. Can’t quite find any first-hand tales, but as my original informant mentioned, “Oh, that place is haunted. Everybody knows that.”

Haunted or not, it’s certainly gorgeous. Prescott House has been most recently operating as a Bed & Breakfast. (Twenty-two bedrooms and 19,500 square feet!) Judging from the few mentions I’ve seen, Mary Prescott’s kindness is firmly in place – The review(s) are quite good. As for the ghosts, the jury is still out. I didn’t find much. But don’t take my word for it. You can find out for yourself for a cool $975k – It’s for sale! Check out those neat old sinks in what looks like the basement in the listing photos. Shudder.

As always, thanks to Bunk and his excellent Saranac Lake history website for photos. Love local history? Then you have to see this. And this. Stayed tuned for more on the awesome Mary Prescott. You rock, Mary.


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The Franklin County Glitteratti

I was just reminiscing about the time Dr. Trudeau came by the house. Several times, actually. And Paul Smith came by repeatedly. And P.T. Barnum. Yes, yes. I wasn’t actually there. However, our little hamlet was the pass-thru to Paul Smith’s famous resort once upon a time. And after the railroad came in and the train station was built, our hundred-yard-hamlet was the station stop for the hotel, guests being taken the final two miles by coach. 

When we took down our unfortunate old house, we found a little something underneath it. The foundation, beams, and log joists from an very, very old log cabin. From photos, we were able to see that the house dated to at least 1915. But underneath, the original structure was much older. Before the 1880s, the only real structures were a few trapper cabins along the main road. Perhaps the solution to the mystery lies there.  There’s been a dwelling here on this old road a really long time. So, you see, all those folks really did pass within a few feet of our door. 

Town-wise, we’ve had John Burroughs, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Marjorie Merriweather Post moved in down the street, summers only. Calvin Coolidge was here, using Miss Post’s camp as a Summer White House. I imagine one or two of them must have cast a shadow on our old front porch, being as the village store has always been next door. 

True, the “new” Grange Hall (built in the 1930s) is now a good friend’s antique store. And the old Legion Hall has been turned into a beautiful house and studio. But most of the original building are gone. History disappears so easily. I used to idealistically think that I was not someone who would ever tear down a 130-year-old house. But, I’ve learned that a house is not good just because it’s old. Still, I felt a little bad about that; taking down the oldest house left.

I’m comforted a bit when I think about the fact that the original cabin foundation is now a rock wall along the front. And I have sixteen of those 150 year old logs from the original cabin structure. They’ll end up in our house, or maybe a nice, tough barn. I certainly can’t let that old trapper’s hard work go to waste.

Those rocks and logs belong to the property as far as I am concerned; and they’re staying right here.


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My Old Haunts

I have a Halloween confession to make. I know a lot about ghosts. Or, I suppose, ghost theory.

Ghost LadyI read a lot of these real-life ghost story books. Have read ’em for years. You know – those things along the lines of Haunted Northern New York and Ghosts Among Us. (The latter is by Leslie Rule, the most readable ghost re-teller, for my money.) Most of the American books tend to be straight retellings, however, I find that the British books also include a lot of ghost theory. I’d expect no less from Great Britain, where they take their ghosts very seriously. I’m totally into it. When it comes to particularly active haunts in my home state, I’ve even visited many of the sites. Yep, I’m totally a Ghostie.

One of my favorite theories is the Stone Recording concept, which makes total sense to me. In a nutshell, the theory is that somehow stone (and perhaps other materials) can retain especially emotional moments of the human experience, and can replay these moments when triggered. This is just one type of “haunting.” This theory explains these particular ghostly experiences as really more akin to a movie being replayed, on a constant loop.

For all my years ghost hunting, I’ve had but one single, clear experience. But you’re in luck – It was just a few months ago, and it involves our new Adirondack home. As you might guess would be the case, the Teardown Theory works in tandem with this whole Stone Recording thing. When you tear down an extremely old home, energy from the past is released.

ghost_picture_1I was sitting in the cabin one day, mid-teardown. Sitting with laptop in lap, the front door was open, and I could look out to the backyard and towards the old house. It was unusually calm and quiet, and a bit of movement caught my eye. I usually look up pretty quickly, always wanting to catch a view of a neat bird or a chippy. And right there, in the middle of the space between the cabin and the old house, was a thin older man working on something atop a sawhorse, with a small girl at his side. Her clothes seemed to be 1930s or so, and he had the look of a classic flannel-and-overalls farmer.

He was clearly entertaining the child, or explaining to her what exactly he was doing. It’s very difficult to explain exactly what this all looked like. Yes, it was sort of filmy and washed out, and I do believe I actually saw it, but at the same time, I felt like it was more of an impression. It lasted the five or eight seconds that I was focused on it. At the point when my rational brain asked itself, “Am I really seeing this,” it was gone.

Do I think I saw a real “live” actual pair of ghosts? No. Not at all. Do I think we triggered a replay from the past? I sure do.

There are a few stages in the area on which I might like to do a show next year. I’m considering writing a score for a new play based on diaries from tuberculosis patients at Trudeau’s old Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. These three spaces I have in mind? Totally haunted by my way of thinking, and built during the era specifically to serve TB patients. They all have that sort of thick, dusty atmosphere that makes you totally think, “Well, something’s going on around here!”

We’ll see if the spirits are with me.


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A New Deal for the Adirondacks, at 4,810 feet

I have an interest in Adirondack History, I have an interest in tourist attractions, and I like to go looking for photos. I’ve posted about the history of the Whiteface Memorial Highway before, but being as it’s opening for the season this Friday (Thanks for the word, Bill!), I thought the time had come around again.

Whiteface Mountain is not the tallest peak in the Adirondacks, but it is perhaps the most celebrated – for the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and for the Scenic Highway. There are lots of amenities offered by the big ol’ Ski Center, but they have big, fancy websites for such things. We’ll stick to history today. The Scenic Highway is pretty awesome. Seriously. Yes, yes – We’ve all done these tourist drives before. How different could it possibly be? Well, let me tell you. It’s spec-freaking-tacular. What a nice gift we received from The New Deal.

Whiteface Highway construction, early 1930's

Dedicated to the men and women of the First World War, the scenic highway to the summit was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. The highway runs eight miles up the mountainside – all carved, coaxed, and blasted out of granite. The road was officially opened July 20, 1935 in a ceremony featuring New York’s former Governor, by then President Roosevelt. At you reach the top of the highway at the end of your awesome drive, you’ll reach your penultimate destination – Whiteface Castle. The castle was built from the granite excavated during the highway construction, and serves as a high-in-the-sky Visitors’ Center.

Whiteface Castle Construction ca 1935

The castle now holds a gift shop, restrooms, and a snack shop. However, I’m told there was more of a proper restaurant here at one point. Maybe before the advent of wraps, paninis, and portable fast food. I’m assuming the castle must also contain offices and such – it looks big from the outside, but the public space inside is limited.


From the castle, you can hike up to the summit, or you can enter a 424-foot long tunnel (which is pretty cool in itself) taking you directly into the stone belly of the mountain. At the end of the tunnel, there’s an elevator ready to whisk you 276 feet to the summit. Well, maybe not exactly whisk. Takes a while to rise 27 stories.


At the dedication, Roosevelt said, “What I have seen today in this wonderful drive makes me more enthusiastic about four little words than I ever have been before. Those four short words are these, ‘It can be done.’ … I wish very much that it were possible for me to walk up the few remaining feet to the actual top of the mountain. Some day they are going to make it possible for people who cannot make the little climb to go up there in a comfortable and easy elevator.” Roosevelt’s elevator was completed three years later.

In addition to you, me, and whoever else visits the summit, the tippy-top of the mountain has been home to another visitor since 1961. The Weather Station. In fact, if you take the elevator, you’ll come up right inside the building that houses the Weather Station’s Observatory.

The Weather Station is part of the University of Albany‘s Atmospheric Science research facilities. Obviously, the building takes a beating, weather-wise, being on the top of a mountain and all. It was recently restored by a company that specializes in historic properties. Over the years, wind-driven rain had made its way inside the shingles, but now the old pile is high-and-dry, quite literally.


Of course, Whiteface Mountain is mentioned in the same breath as Lake Placid quite frequently. The mountain (and especially access to it) is actually not in Lake Placid. Not by a 13-mile long shot. It’s in Wilmington. (Wilmington residents get a little fussy about that. Rightfully so. You go, Wilmington!) All the same, do give the mountain a visit, and spend some money in both towns. Love that famous Wilmington cheese.


You too can snap that classic shot – Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Whiteface Memorial Highway 2009 season is May 15 to October 12. Hours are 9am to 4pm daily. Vehicle and driver: $9.00, each additional passenger: $5.00 each, children under 6 are free.

Thanks to the Wilmington Historical Society for the great 1930s construction photos!


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