Overview of Great Camp Sagamore
Great Camp Sagamore is an authentic 1890s, 27-building National Historic Landmark--the dream retreat of the Alfred Vanderbilt family and the working families in support. It is the Adirondack exemplar of the American creation of the wilderness fantasy. It is the only Great Camp where you can stay overnight in the original buildings and enjoy one of our programs. Check our calendar of programs under "Experience & Stay"
For over 150 years, the Adirondack Park has provided a “forever wild” setting for people seeking refuge and renewal from the cities of the northeast. The Adirondack region of New York State, roughly the size of Vermont, resisted large scale settlement and development because of the harsh climate and poor soil. The Algonquin to the north and the Iroquois to the south hunted and fished but did not reside there; the colonial-era trappers went in to the area for fur and left. Farmers struggled to survive. Beginning in the 19th century however, mining and, more significantly, logging threatened the state’s economic interests. To contain the growing devastation, save the northern forests and their critical-to-transportation watershed, the Adirondack Park was created in 1892. The state owned lands within the Park boundaries, about half the total area, were (and are) held as Forest Preserve. This great natural region, then, was protected just as the cities of the northeast grew large at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The creation of the Adirondack Park played a central role in the story of America’s romance with the wilderness.
Adirondack Great Camps, as they are now called, were the first places in America where wilderness was used as the setting for recreation; entire village economies were established to support them. Little known even today because of their remote locations and promise of escape, great camps were the baronial retreats the Gilded Age bankrolled in the Adirondack mountains, lakes, and woods. Of the several dozen great camps originally built, only Sagamore operates as an independent, not-for-profit dedicated to education. Still authentic to its original, rustic, vernacular architecture, Sagamore preserves 27 wood and stone buildings in two adjacent complexes. The workers’ complex boasts barns, workshops, living quarters, a schoolhouse for the children of the Vanderbilt employees and a blacksmith shop with working forge. The bark-covered structures of the guest complex include six sleeping cottages and lodges, a dining hall that can seat nearly 100, a boathouse, and bowling alley. With expanded humanities programming at Sagamore, more visitors, volunteers, service providers, and employees will learn about America’s history and experience the life of a great camp.
Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks, Inc. is an independent non-profit 501c3 corporation dedicated to the stewardship of Great Camp Sagamore and to its use for educational and interpretive purposes. Our mission is to “foster understanding, care and respect for nature, people and their critical interdependence.” Sagamore interprets the political, economic, and cultural history of human interface with this ‘wilderness’ region according to its vision “to become a place where broad and diverse audiences gather to use these unique buildings and natural setting to explore and understand Adirondack culture, environment and our relationship to both.”
Sagamore’s programs explore the role of Adirondack wilderness in the creation of America’s national identity; it is the only residential great camp program available to the public. The architecture of Sagamore and the divided disposition of 27 restored buildings embody the economic divisions of the Gilded Age. The guest camp, in romantic, haute-rustic style, is clustered around a pristine, wilderness lake, while the workers’ complex, in vernacular style, is camouflaged in the woods. Today, orientation, interpretive exhibitions, workshop and activity spaces, staff lodging, the shop, café and parking for the daily guided history tours are located in the workers’ camp; as visitors proceed along the rocky, outlet river, the lakeside guest camp is revealed: century-old bark-covered cottages, the iconic chalet-lodge, dining hall, boat house, bowling alley and tennis courts. The guest camp houses people in residence for educational programs. Sagamore Institute is committed to gently using its century old buildings and site for the public, and to examine American culture and history through the lens of this extraordinary wilderness site.
William West Durant (1850-1931) built great camp complexes in the Adirondacks starting in the late 1870's. Emulating the power and fame of his father, Thomas C. Durant, General Manager of the Union Pacific Rail Road, William acquired lands in the Central Adirondacks. Over fifteen years, young Durant installed telegraph lines; built roads, churches, a post office; promoted resorts for friends and family. He constructed dams, dredged channels, commissioned a fleet of steamboats, and built the shortest standard-gauge railroad in the world.
Durant’s great camps and similar enterprises created a new, American way of inhabiting the Adirondack region. The great camps embody the 19th century’s uniquely American romance with nature. National and state park development, private lodges, and hotels all capitalized on the romantic, back-to-nature movement exemplified at Sagamore. The sophisticated camps were Gilded Age rehearsals for public destinations erected in national parks by the CCC and WPA in the 1930s. Sagamore was Durant’s best. It is a premiere example of the 19th century’s “Rustic Style,” widely celebrated and imitated. Durant’s rustic style, dependent on nature’s own stone and wood, spread throughout the Adirondacks as the mountain retreat counterpart to Newport’s neo-classical “cottages.”
Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest young men in the United States, acquired Sagamore within four years of its 1897 completion. Although Alfred died a hero in 1915 on the Lusitania, the Vanderbilt family led by his widow Margaret Emerson actively used Sagamore for 54 years, and in so doing, created a sizeable economic, social, environmental, and cultural impact that resonates today.
America’s romance with “wild nature” is still captured at Sagamore. It has been honored and celebrated often: with National Historic Landmark designation (2000), with the Save America’s Treasures official project funding (2000), with the NYS Millennium Arts and Business Partnership Award (1999), with the Upstate History Alliance Commendation for presentation and preservation of history (2001), and with the Adirondack Council’s 1993 Heritage Award. In 2010, the State of New York recognized its importance by creating an Historic District to protect it and its neighboring great camp, Uncas. Sagamore has been featured on PBS’s The Adirondacks (2008), A&E’s America’s Castles, on Bob Vila’s Home Again, on HGTV’s Adirondack segment, on Today, on CBS Evening News for its Grands Camp, in Robert De Niro’s movie The Good Shepherd, and in countless news and magazine articles, most recently including Martha Stewart in 2011 and Yankee in 2015.
Sagamore’s Facilities Conservation Policy states that all buildings are equally important; its workers’ complex, set out-of-sight, gives unique, extant evidence of the resources required to create the illusion of “roughing it.” Preservation funding has been obtained in equal measure for the bark-covered Vanderbilt guest buildings and the utilitarian, red board and batten Vanderbilt workers’ buildings. Visitors today use the same spaces that the Vanderbilts and the workers did. Thousands join the daily history tours annually. 2,000 more guests actually live-in for educational adult and family programs. Grandparents and their grandchildren come for weeklong camp sessions on wilderness culture, Road Scholar life-long learners take courses about the Adirondack’s ecology and history, and families have reunions at Sagamore. Day visitors and residential program participants alike come to investigate century-old ways of being in the wilderness and their bearing on the present.
Sagamore’s Main Lodge and resident learners complex, made famous through the Vanderbilt years of entertaining, have been copied as the “prototypical Great Camp” by the National Park Service for its own lodges, by other architects building the rustic style in every corner of America, and recently, even by Disney as the template for its Wilderness Lodge in Florida. Sagamore is an exceptional setting to study, learn and experience America’s philosophical constructions of the “wilderness ideal.”
From its incorporation in 1975 as an education center, and reincorporation in 1993, as approved by the New York State Education Department, Museum Division, the Sagamore Institute has operated camp at its Raquette Lake, NY, site. The actions of Sagamore with respect to operations, care, and development of the property, are bound by an Indenture made among Sagamore, the State of New York, and the Preservation League of New York State (1986). Several essential facility and organizational capacity building steps have since been implemented to allow growth of interpretive activities:
Historical Structures Report was completed (1993); Facilities Conservation Plan and Policy approved by the Board (1995);
Two sizeable grant awards for historic preservation, Save America’s Treasures and NY Environmental Protection Fund, along with several other grants funded major structural consolidations; Sagamore was named a National Historic Landmark (2000);
Sagamore By-Laws were updated and approved (2000) and the 1992 mission of Sagamore was revised (2008) as a result of Board and staff planning sessions.
After seven years of negotiation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, an Historic District has established a protective perimeter around the two adjacent Durant great camps, Sagamore and the privately owned Uncas (2010).
The Sagamore Institute has a committed staff, many at Sagamore for over one and even two decades, an active Board of Trustees, long-term partnerships with humanities and other educational organizations, and an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers who execute many common and skilled tasks during three work weekends annually. Volunteer work weekends began almost thirty years ago. The electric power company, National Grid, has held 15 such weekends, to bring and keep the site up to code. Seventy people in residence for each May, June or October weekend constitute the equivalent labor of 52 weeks work by one employee, provide otherwise unaffordable, supervised, repair and service, and have a lot of fun.
The Board of Trustees operates within By-Laws to oversee operations; the founding Trustees have cycled off or over to Emeritus status. The transition from the founders has been successful with a mix of Park and out-of-state residents, corporate managers, educators, and historic preservation experts on the Board. In anticipation of establishing an endowment for interpretation, the Board has initiated an Ambassadors program, instituted planned giving, and expanded its cultivation of donors through visits, tours, and events.
Thirty percent (33%) of the permanent staff of twenty-one is dedicated to humanities interpretation: the executive director, associate director/historian and five historic interpreters. Other faculty on staff (33%), teaching crafts, music and outdoor programs, ground their courses in Adirondack culture, environmental studies and Sagamore history. Note too that the operations staff (34%), housekeeping, food service, and caretaking, are constantly conversing with resident learners and daily history visitors about their hands-on experiences of Sagamore history. We have recently created a behind-the-scenes DVD featuring our site and systems caretaker.
Sagamore contract faculty (active and retired college teachers with PhDs and MFAs) teach weekend and week-long, residential courses such as: Mountain Music & Dance, Kayaking in the Adirondacks, Boreal Birds, Digital Nature Photography, Plein Air Painting and educational courses focusing on the history of the region. Grandparents' and Grandchildrens' Camp sessions in July and August introduce an intergenerational curriculum using outdoor, historical, crafting and musical activities. One of the most popular of these programs is “The Illusion of Roughing It,” a basic great camps course that teaches Gilded Age history and uses both Sagamore, the Vanderbilt Great Camp, and neighboring Great Camp Uncas, that once belonged to J. P. Morgan. All residential courses include room and board, the daily history tour, time for relaxation and reflection, and the opportunity to experience the same woods and waters that Durant did in 1897. All courses for the upcoming season are described on the calendar.
Sagamore hosts in-residence, long-standing, annual, educational conferences such as Skidmore College's Orientation Program (SCOOP) for entering first-year students; New York State Art Teacher's Association; the Upstate History Alliance (Museumwise) combined program to concentrate on programs for directors, curators, and/or educators in turn; and Arts and Healing for women with chronic diseases.
The eight, skilled traditional artists who demonstrate for the historical tours use the original workshops for their crafts and ground their demonstrations in historically documented practice. Demonstrations have been underwritten for nearly two decades by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), which has renewed its support for the next three years.
Audiences for the guided, interpreted walking tour of the 27 buildings are history-curious: camping families, seasonal visitors and their guests, fans of the Adirondack Park, enthusiasts of national historic landmarks, educators, scholars, and people interested in seeing specific artisan presentations. Most visitors are from a 700-mile radius although license plates from all states and Canada can be seen in our parking lot.