Given the rapidity with which the automobile spread throughout the Adirondack Park—raising perpetual dust clouds in backwater towns, jamming the streets of hoity-toity resorts and creating instant cities in public campgrounds that multiplied on piney lakeshores from one end of the park to another—this early tableau depicting an Adirondack auto is ironic. Henceforth, cars would be captured by Kodaks during a momentary pause in their clattering gyrations. In a few years they would cease to be novelties, and the vehicle would so change the environment that it would seldom look out of place again.
The first automobiles in the park caused excitement wherever they went. Alfred L. Donaldson, in his History of the Adirondacks, described a car trip by a honeymooning couple from Buffalo who, in 1902, went to Upper Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths and created a trail of havoc: “The puffing and pounding motor spread terror before it and left wreckage and anthems behind it. In spite of many runaways, however, there was no serious accident.” A broadside publicizing the 1906 Glidden trophy tour, a hundred-car cavalcade that passed through Lake George and Elizabethtown on its way from western New York to New Hampshire, warned residents to keep children off the road and confine “dogs, chickens and live stock.” Sponsored by Boston millionaire Charles Glidden, this annual event was designed to promote the durability of cars and the accessibility of good roads. According to Chestertown historian J. Philip Sullivan, when the first local car—a Stanley Steamer owned by the two brothers who ran the Leland House—roared through Warrensburg, a farmer exclaimed, “I just saw the devil go by all alive on four wheels!”
More often than not, “the devil” required a resourceful driver who had the patience of a saint and nerves of steel. Early driving manuals were as long-winded and convoluted as the computer-software handbooks of today, and before the development of reliable transmissions, more powerful engines and the self-starter in 1912, operating a car was a risky business not undertaken without a battery of tools stashed under the seat. Once on the road, you had to endure “rattles and squeaks, . . . the whistling of the wind into the gaping joints of door and window,… the chirrup of small gears and the grinding of large [and] the squealing of brakes,” in the words of one early motorist.
Until the mid-twenties, when enclosed cars became common, long-distance drivers and passengers outfitted themselves in visored caps, goggles, gauntlets, leather coats or linen dusters and scary-looking face masks—although an ad in the 1915 Adirondack Motor Guide for Murine, “a tonic for ‘the Auto Eye’” caused by “exposure to strong winds and dust,” indicated that the wearing of goggles wasn’t universal. For the rare bird who liked to motor in winter, the guide also advertised “Adirondack Foot Warmers”—thick sheepskin-and-wool boots worn over shoes.
Magnifying the challenge were steep, winding dirt roads. Harold Hochschild’s Township 34 provided a firsthand account of the troubles encountered on another early auto trip into the park. When Norman and Howard Scholle piloted a Winton from Williams College to Blue Mountain Lake in August 1906, they broke a spring near Saratoga Springs—necessitating an overnight in Warrensburg for repairs—and had a total of five flat tires. Norman told Hochschild that on one hill, “the road was so bad that we had to take everything out of the car. After we got the car to the top, we had to make several trips by foot to bring up the baggage. On another hill we had to back the car to the top. The gasoline tank, which was under the front seat, fed gasoline to the carburetor by gravity. The grade was so steep that the tank could not feed while the car was going forward.” The men used a U.S. Geological Survey map to navigate the rough stretch from North Creek to Blue Mountain Lake.
A decade later roads in the central Adiron-dacks were still dicey. On one particularly hazardous portion of road between Indian Lake and Lake Pleasant, “many automobiles are stalled . . . and are required to be pulled up by teams,” reported the Indian Lake town board in 1916. Recently several cars have backed down said hill and narrowly escaped injury.” Long Lake historian Frances Seaman says vehicles climbing the steep grade from Long Lake to Tup-per Lake frequently overheated. “My father-in-law had a small truck, and the manifold would get cherry red and the radiator would boil over when he went up that hill,” she recalled. “They had to pull over and let it cool down.” Despite these horror stories, a network of serviceable thoroughfares developed fairly early in the park’s well-traveled eastern and north-central regions. The “good roads” movement, initiated by farmers and bicyclists across the country in the 1890s, gained a local voice in 1910 when the Adirondack Good Roads Association, based in Saranac Lake, published a tour guide informing readers—perhaps a bit optimistically—that “there are good dirt roads all through the Adirondacks, and in many places will be found good stone road built by towns. . . . Except for short distance, there is either State Macadam or well-kept turnpike road all the way from Saratoga to Elizabethtown.” The association devoted itself to “placing signs, giving directions and distances, and also warnings of dangerous turns and crossings.”
Indeed, good roads united Adirondack hoteliers, private-preserve owners, storekeepers and summer residents to an unusual degree, resulting in progressive action, according to an article in the May 24,1916 issue of The Outlook, published in New York. While “farmland districts,… villages … and many cities waited for good roads, … the few roads in the Big Woods were being tuned up to the music of drills, axes, dynamite and whistling and hissing steam road rollers.” By then a ribbon of pavement had penetrated the central Adirondacks, extending from Utica to Raquette Lake via the Fulton Chain of Lakes.
The work went on for years. Motorists traveled over a patchwork of macadam, concrete, brick and “improved”—gravel, crushed stone and oiled dirt—surfaces, as well as the old rutted dirt roads. Because of the “forever wild” article in the state constitution governing the forest preserve, and more specifically, the 1894 provision forbidding the removal of timber, road building on state lands was limited to improvements of existing routes. In 1918 however, a precedent for hewing roads on state land was set when voters approved a constitutional amendment for a highway between Old Forge and Saranac Lake. It was followed in 1921 by a law that allowed the construction or improvement of state roadways in the park—to make public lands “more accessible to all of the people,” to help prevent forest fires and for “policing such preserve for the protection of wildlife.”
Chambers of commerce, hotels, restaurants, local newspapers and motoring guides all vigorously promoted the region’s good roads. By 1910 towns previously accessible only by buckboard, such as Elizabethtown, Schroon Lake, Chester-town and Keene, were inundated with cars. Traffic through Pottersville “exceeded all records” during the Fourth of July in 1914, when automobiles puttered through at the rate of one a minute for eight solid hours, according to the Lake George Mirror. Cottage colonies—entirely dependent upon the new roads—sprung up at Schroon and Tripp lakes. Schroon Lake visitors could commute to the nearest train depot, trolley station or steamboat landing by bus.
A Modern-Day Stage
The prevalence of ads for garages and automotive aids in the pages of the Mirror as early as 1909 reflected the affluence of the summer populace. New York financiers, Charleston judges and Indiana industrialists motored to the mountains in gleaming Pierce-Arrows, Cadillacs, Hudsons, Studebakers and Stevens-Duryeas. Count Casimir Mankowski, an international powerboat-racing champ, put up a garage on his property at Bolton Landing and bought a Packard truck to transport supplies. The Trout House, a Lake George hotel, retained a seven-passenger Packard for day trips to Ausable Chasm, Brant Lake and other nearby attractions. The Lake Placid Club acquired four Stanley Steamer Mountain Wagons, whose thirty-horsepower double-cylinder steam engines were quieter and more powerful than their gasoline counterparts. In 1914 guests could take a short ride on one of the twelve-passenger wagons for fifty cents or rent the vehicle at the exorbitant cost of sixty dollars a day.
After the introduction of the Model T Ford, in 1909, farmers, doctors and middle-class vacationers also took to the road. The automobile struck a special chord of responsiveness in the Adirondacks, both because it was an isolated rural area—outside of the narrow corridors of development along the railways—and a place where people came to commune with nature. In a car, you could breathe the fresh air and smell the balsam, as opposed to watch the forest blur behind the glass of a speeding train window. With their autonomy and greater mobility, autos were a refreshing alternative to rigid railway schedules and stale parlor cars.
“Given bad roads, low speed limits and frequent mechanical breakdowns, motorists averaged under twenty miles an hour. Early observers took this to be an advantage,” wrote Warren James Belasco in Americans on the Road. To pioneer drivers, the car was a nostalgic throwback to the stagecoach. (A convenient difference, of course, was that a trip that took a day by buck-board was but two or three hours by auto.) Many of the first auto-shuttle services between towns and train stations or steamboat landings were called “auto stages.” In a region where actual stagecoaches still existed, the connection was more than metaphorical: ‘”Staging-it’ is one of the jolliest forms of progression through the country,” claimed an article about the Adirondacks in a 1910 issue of The Travel Magazine. (Sometimes a horse-drawn coach came in handy, as illustrated by one stranded motorist’s jottings on a postcard: “We are marooned in North Creek, which we reached yesterday before noon—car on the bum. Expect Mama will go on to L.L. [Long Lake] in the stage this noon. Do not know how long it will take to repair car.”)
The automobile also freed ladies and gentlemen from the claustrophobic routines of the hotel veranda. Rather than deal with stuck-up desk clerks, travelers mingled with folksy natives at tourist homes and roadside stands. They rekindled a kinship with the sportsmen of old by sleeping out in a tent along the roadside and cooking over a campfire, although the Adirondack guide had for the most part passed into legend and become fodder for advertisers. “One finds here the real old-time Adirondack pioneer and guide,” noted a promotional brochure published by the Inlet Chamber of Commerce. “These lovable mountain characters, quaint in their ideas and rich in the tales of the early days, can tell stories of the woods so vivid that the listeners can almost smell the smoke of the campfire.”
Simply by driving through miles of wilderness, motorists experienced the vastness of the park; after 1920 new trails up mountains and into the backcountry blazed by the state provided easy access to the woods. Tour books stressed the magnificent views and then steered readers toward the more civilized parts of the park, but motorists also witnessed firsthand devastation in the wake of unregulated logging. One 1923 tourist bemoaned the “tediously monotonous miles on miles of scrubby forest land over which terrible forest fires had swept in past years” on the way to Tupper Lake.
Another impetus to tour the Adirondacks by car came from the “See America First” campaign, on the eve of World War I, which inspired vacationers—who otherwise would have headed for the Alps or the Riviera—to get out and see the “real” USA. A wartime article in a Utica newspaper described a drive to the Fulton Chain, which, while full of cliched nature descriptions, also mentioned icehouses on the shores of White Lake, “smelly piles of pulp” on freight cars at McKeever and the sawmill and railroad yards at Thendara.
The Great Equalizer
The map was altered in a summer by the automobile,” summed up Henry Longstreth in his 1917 book The Adirondacks. (He preferred to travel on foot, accompanied by a friend and a horse named Luggins.) “A mighty flood of gasoline washed out investments that had taken two decades to grow substantial. It swept comparative wealth back to the doors of the very old proprietors who had been ruined by the railroad and the preserves. Hotels, whose clients had formerly come for the summer, could now only claim them for a night. The backwoods innkeepers, whose only comforts had been bitter memories and a plug of tobacco, began to wear white collars on Sunday.”
The big money of the railroads—the eastern corridor belonged to the Delaware & Hudson while the New York Central had a stranglehold over the western and central regions—began to dissipate; it became more equitably distributed among hundreds of local businesses ranging from bus lines (one of the earliest was the Adirondack Motor Bus Company, founded in Saranac Lake in 1916) to taxi services to tearooms. Every town had at least one and usually
two or three garages offering curb-side pumps, autogenous welding, vulcanizing, carbon burning, spare parts and storage for tourists who wanted a secure place to park their open-air cars overnight. Pereau’s Garage, in North Creek, advertised a “Lunch Room and Ladies’ Waiting Room,” the latter a definite novelty in 1916.
The first garage in Chestertown was practically right in the middle of the main street, according to historian Sullivan. It had two tall, hand-cranked pumps; a gauge on the side of each pump let you see what you were pumping before you cranked again and gasoline flowed into the car’s tank. The gas was delivered by horse-drawn tanker wagon from a storage station in Riparius. Will Lefleur, who owned another garage in Chestertown, sold Fords, which arrived at his establishment in two pieces: the chassis with the motor attached and the body. After a customer picked a color—green, black or gray— Lefleur fastened the body to the frame and delivered the car.
Old-time lodges whose porches had collapsed from disuse suddenly bustled with customers as the road crews came through. Owl’s Head Inn, outside Keene, “reached probably by as many automobiles and vehicles touring the Adirondacks as any hotel in the mountains,” according to the Mirror, also attracted hikers tramping the new trails up the High Peaks. Another popular spot was Under the Maples, in Pottersville. Located on the road to Plattsburgh, this old-fashioned farmhouse was “one of the best types of the prosperous period of fifty years ago when lumber was plenty and houses were built to last for generations,” said the Mirror. Places like Tea Pot Dome, in Eagle Bay, enabled motorists to dance, watch a movie or grab a bite to eat without paying an excessive tab, and roadside shacks with a gas pump out front and a lunch counter inside selling hot dogs, candy and cigarettes provided a quick respite.
Along with fireproof garages for guests, many hotels added grills that specialized in chicken and trout dinners and offered comparatively speedy service for “automobiling parties.” The proprietor of the Hukweem, in Loon Lake, had “the distinction of being one of the few hotel men who can serve meals on short order to hungry automobilists dropping in at any hour of the day or night,” reported the Mirror in July 1914. Residents in every Adirondack town rented out rooms or cabins, often converted from a shack, storage shed or even—in the case of one Lake George couple—a steamboat-repair shop.
Boardinghouses and cottage colonies also vied for motorists’ business. In the twenties, tourist cottages at Adirondack Lodge in Bolton cost four dollars a day, which included a heated shelter for the car. A new type of accommodation appeared in 1926 when H. W. Sisson, owner of a garage in Lake George, built the Adirondack Park’s first motel. Sisson Court, a concrete U-shaped structure, had two wings of eight rooms each, shaded by awnings and connected by a central veranda. Each chamber had steel furniture, a lavatory and adjoining shower, “a new departure from the average room in the north today,” according to the Mirror. Guests could park their cars at the garage next door. Some hotels set up “auto-camping sites” on their property to cater to the growing number of visitors who preferred to sleep out. While many people chose this alternative because it was cheap, well-to-do motorists were also swept up in the auto-camping fad: It was liberating to let down your hair with a crowd of dust-covered fellow travelers in a fanner’s field or roadside clearing, sharing tales of breakdowns and close calls. Comfort was paramount. Campers strapped forty-pound canvas tents, clumsy wooden cots, twenty-eight-inch collapsible wood stoves and thirty-pound refrigerator baskets to the running boards of their cars. They could even tote along a portable summer cottage with polished hardwood floors, rustproof screens, awnings and a ventilating system, in one- to eight-room sizes.
As early as 1912 the Conservation Commission constructed tent platforms—ostensibly for forest-fire fighters—on state land in the Adirondacks. But soon it could no longer ignore the invasion of flivvers filled with campers. In 1920 the agency created the first public campsite at Sacandaga Park, near Northville; a decade later there were twenty-eight campgrounds. Although brush clearing and tree toppling for the erection of roads and facilities such as bath houses on state land seemed to be in violation of forever wild, the commission (predecessor to today’s Department of Environmental Conservation) justified the sites on the grounds of fire prevention: It was better to have campers concentrated in regulated areas with stone fireplaces than roaming—matches in hand—unsupervised in the woods, officials reasoned.
From the beginning the campsites were jammed. In 1926 twenty thousand overnighters flocked to Sacandaga Park and twenty-five hundred trekked to Fish Creek Ponds, near Upper Saranac Lake, which had started out with four fireplaces and one open camp. No wonder Ruth and William Bruce preferred a spot off the road when they set out for the Adirondacks the same year. The couple’s gear included a Field Auto-Kamp tent, double folding canvas cot, camp table and stools, bedroll, stove, collapsible cupboard, suitcase and a fish box that doubled as a cooler. On the shores of the St. Regis River, where they spent the first night, they played cards under a little trouble light pulled out of a socket on the car’s dash and clamped onto the support post of their tent awning. Bill helped wash the dishes, providing Ruth with a reprieve from housekeeping, and on their second night under the stars, they sang and played the banjo.
In more-populated regions of the park, the cacophony of radios competed with the rumblings of engines and the gentle plink of stringed instruments. “More vacationists are expected to take radio outfits along this year than ever before,” reported the Utica Daily Press in its 1924 summer resort guide. “Think how lovely it will be to float along in a canoe, with the radio set, equipped with loud speaker, bringing in music from distant cities!”
For many travelers the essence of the auto tour was accruing mileage, punctuated by stops at attractions. “Left home Aug. 26 went to Fathers. Left there yesterday morning 6:20 reached Lake George 4:30 p.m. 143 miles. We are going up the Lake and up Lake Champlain as far as Burlington tonight. Tomorrow to Ausable Chasm and other points of interest. May go on to Montreal if all keeps well,” scribbled a Lake George motorist on a postcard dated September 2, 1913. “Rode 222 miles Sat and 60 miles Sunday. Gasoline 30 cents a gallon,” wrote a camper at Piseco Lake.
Key to the Highway
Prior to the early 1930s, when the modern state-highway system was completed, navigating around the North Country was no mean feat. Although a numbering system for state and county routes was formulated by the New York legislature in 1921, until late in that decade many highways—some of which were named after prominent Americans, such as the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway linking Malone and Lake Pleasant—overlapped. In the teens, colored symbols—two blue bars over a white one, for example—attached to telephone poles were used to identify major roads. A skull and crossbones indicated a dangerous intersection, while a raised palm meant “stop.” The Blue Book, first published by the Automobile Club of America in 1901, was the early-traveler’s bible. Beginning in the late teens, maps were also distributed by oil companies, garages, tour agents, newspapers and hotel associations. Many of these highlighted so-called “trails” that routed travelers through scenic and historic areas. Glens Falls-based Empire Tours, for example, gave motorists a choice of the Onondaga, Iroquois and Adirondack trails—”all 98 percent state roads.” The printed directions that accompanied these itineraries oriented drivers with a complicated litany of landmarks and warned of dangerous stretches, through which motorists were advised to blow their horns.
From a Trickle to a Flood
By the end of the 1920s, it seemed to many observers that the wilderness—not the automobile—was in danger of getting lost. The folksy vehicle of old acquired a modern, callous side and became impervious to the elements, such as snow, swamps or slopes.
The invention of the bulldozer in 1928 enabled engineers to fill wetlands and straighten out kinks in the roads, obliterating winding paths that had followed the land’s contours; these straightaways ate up huge chunks of forest. With the opening of a highway between Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake in 1929, the final west-to-east link in the central Adirondacks was forged. As sections of road were rerouted, restaurants, hotels and cabin colonies along the old highways gradually went out of business. One casualty was the Red Overall Girls, a Depression-era gas station-cum-lunch counter located at the base of a cliff three miles south of Chestertown, run by two enterprising schoolteachers until it was bypassed in 1940.
The roadside also acquired an unsightly collage of signs. “The clamorous notices of restaurants, coffee-shoppes, chicken dinners, antique dealers, soft drinks and gasoline spotted the tree trunks with the blatant flowers of advertisement” is how ] an and Cora ]. Gordon described an Adirondack route in their 1928 road-tour classic On Wandering Wheels: Through Roadside Camps from Maine to Georgia in an Old Sedan. (Their wanderings led them to a night-time gathering in Lake Placid of the Ku Klux Klan, who raised a light-bulb-illuminated cross to protest the Catholic governor’s bid for the presidency.) A contemporary who hired a horse and buggy to visit the Ausable Club because cars were banned from the premises resented the group’s snobbishness but nonetheless confessed he “was really grateful that those lands had fallen under the management of a private club that was exclusive enough to prevent their being cheapened and disfigured by the sort of tourists who leave tin cans, paper napkins and remnants of pasteboard boxes in their wake wherever they go.”
After the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway opened in 1935, not even the park’s alpine heights were off-limits to cars, and woodland campsites became more popular than ever during the Depression. The number of registered campers in the public campgrounds soared from 37,000 in 1927 to 268,000 in 1930, and streamlined trailers began to appear. Fish Creek Ponds campground was filled with “all manner of roving homes, from sumptuous metal trailers with futuristic furniture and expensive rugs to humble homemade shacks on wheels and travel-stained old tents,” according to the June 1938 issue of National Geographic. “Some weekends the population of this city-on-wheels climbs to around 2,000.”
In the 1940s low-slung motels with concrete walkways and a pool pushed tottering hotels off the brink. Some of the aging cottage colonies also fell on tough times, since the rise of the “couples trade” had earned them unsavory reputations. This was a nationwide phenomenon; FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover publicly lambasted roadside bungalows as “camouflaged brothels.” To strengthen standards of propriety and hospitality, the Lake George Cabin Association listed a code of ethics in its 1948 brochure that not only admonished members to treat customers with “courtesy and consideration” but also to “accept as guests only those whose purposes are legitimate and to take every precaution to see that my Tourist Court is kept morally clean at all times, recognizing that this is quite as important as keeping it physically clean.”
The falloff in tourism that occurred during World War II was more than compensated for by the influx that followed. Returning GIs eager to explore the United States, spend time with their families and enjoy the fruits of the post-war boom transformed a trickle of cars into a stampede. In the early days, natural or historic sites such as Ausable Chasm, Natural Bridge in Pottersville and Fort Ticonderoga were popular stops, but the new crop of young families were the target of a novel kind of tourist attraction—the theme park.
When it opened in 1949, Santa’s Workshop, at the base of Whiteface memorial highway, was the first of its kind in the Adirondacks, if not the nation. Dreamed up by a Lake Placid car dealer as a story to entertain his young daughter during a family vacation, Santa’s Workshop was an instant hit. Its diminutive buildings (sketched by former Warner Brothers cartoonist and toy designer Arto Monaco, who continues to work out of his shop in Upper Jay), resident Santa, free-ranging animals and chunk of North Pole ice proved so popular that on one summer day in 1951 more than 14,000 visitors lined up at the entranceway, creating the North Country’s most massive traffic jam.
At least a dozen other theme parks opened in the 1950s. They transformed Route 9 into a sideshow where the kiddies could experience everything but the “real” Adirondacks—Seminole Indians, alligator wrestlers, Robin Hood, a miniature Renaissance village, jungle tom-toms, Cinderella’s coach, gunslingers, a Gay Nineties street. Phone lineman Art Bensen founded Frontier Town, located in North Hudson, with the idea that it would depict pioneer scenes, but when the Daniel Boone-style coonskins and costumes failed to arrive on time for the opening he picked up cowboy apparel at a nearby store and converted his acreage into a Wild West attraction. Old Forge had its twenty-foot-tall Paul Bunyan at the Enchanted Forest and Lake Placid its cages of mink and foxes—along with a chimp, llamas and “dama dama deer”—at 1,000 Animals.
Some tourist traps didn’t last long. The effect of the Northway—the superhighway linking Manhattan with Montreal, which was completed in 1967—was devastating not only to theme parks but also motels and other businesses located on commercial roads. “Prior to the Northway, we had a lot of people who would go to White-face Mountain, stop at Frontier Town and Thousand Animals in Lake Placid and spend the night” at a nearby motel, commented Robert Reiss, longtime owner of Santa’s Workshop. “Now they stay in Lake George and just come for the day.” The 1973 oil crisis was the final blow, and business hasn’t picked up since, said Reiss. (Other factors that have contributed to the hard times are discount airfares, which enable families to fly economically to Disney World, and a taste for more exciting entertainments, such as roller coasters and giant water slides.)
In the park’s bigger towns, McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, Pizza Hut and other chains have crowded out mom-and-pop motels and roadside eateries. But elsewhere custard stands, diners, home-style restaurants and taverns hang onand even prosper. While an older generation of quirky places has mostly disappeared—particularly lamentable is the passing of Teich’s Trading Post, a 1930s stockaded tavern with a thousand taxidermic specimens, in Eagle Bay—a few historic examples of roadside whimsy survive. The cheery, red-and-white Tail O’ the Pup, on Route 86 in Ray Brook, has been steadily
feeding motorists since it opened in 1945. On Route 28 in Otter Lake, another forties artifact—a scaled-down lighthouse that originally was a restaurant and fronted a cabin colony—continues to turn motorists’ heads. It’s now a private home, but the blinking beacon in the tower still works. Down the
road in Forestport, the Wigwam bar and restaurant, a series of rooms that grew out of an eighty-year-old log cabin, has the tail end of a plane protruding through the roof. It’s no less eye-catching today than it was decades ago, when some entrepreneur seized that special something that would lure a road-weary traveler in for a cold drink and a hot meal.