First Visits

Illustration by Mark Wilson

From Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, Benjamin Harrison to George W. Bush, the Adirondacks has irresistibly drawn commanders in chief to the lakes and mountains. Some have come to pursue manly adventures; others have landed here to study flora, fauna and former battlegrounds. They’ve gone mountain biking, swigged local brew and even carried on the vital affairs of government in splendid isolation.

George Washington strode—for the first time—into Fort Ticonderoga in 1783 to see for himself what role the bastion might play in the new nation. Eight years later two future presidents roamed the ruined fort with the eagerness of heritage tourists.

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison left sultry Virginia for their celebrated 1791 northern tour they were hoping fresh air would cure their bilious attacks and debilitating headaches. Jefferson noted the sugar maple trees, pesky flies and woodland flowers in his nature notebook. Seeing Lake George proved not only healthful but captivating; Jefferson wrote to his daughter, “Lake George is without question the most beautiful water I ever saw.”

Civil War hero and 18th president Ulysses S. Grant spent the final chapter of his life in a cottage on Mount McGregor, where he could see the mountains ringing Lake George. Terminally ill with throat cancer, he feverishly scribbled his memoirs, hoping publication would rescue his family from utter destitution. His friend Mark Twain took care of Grant’s manuscript, which became a posthumous best-seller.

Grover Cleveland was a frequent flyer at Saranac Inn; as a bachelor he hunted and fished there and launched his married life with a woman half his age in a cabin on the shore of Upper Saranac Lake. Paparazzi spoiled the initial honeymoon in Maryland so the remote Adirondack setting was perfect for the couple.

Benjamin Harrison adored Old Forge, where he could relax out of the public eye. In 1896 he bought a peninsula on Second Lake for his rustic castle, Berkeley Lodge, which he enjoyed until 1901.

That’s the year Adirondack history hounds mark as Teddy Roosevelt’s midnight ride to the presidency. (Prior to this momentous occasion he was no stranger to the Adirondacks: in the 1870s he compiled a list of summer birds he had spotted near Paul Smith’s Hotel.) In September 1901 the vice-president was vacationing at the Tahawus Club, near Newcomb, and  ventured up Mount Marcy with guides and friends. Though he knew William McKinley had been shot by an anarchist in Buffalo a week earlier, the president seemed to be recovering. But he took a turn for the worse and Roosevelt was summoned off the trail. A succession of horses and drivers hauled  him at breakneck speed to North Creek, where he learned he had become the 26th president.

William Howard Taft, who succeeded Teddy Roosevelt, presided over the 1909 Champlain Tercentenary and also enjoyed golf at Bluff Point.

In 1926 Calvin Coolidge spent 10 weeks at White Pine Camp, on Osgood Pond, making the remote string of lakeshore buildings his summer White House, complete with entourage, limousine and that technological marvel, the telephone.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt—as New York’s governor—was no stranger to the Adirondacks. He launched the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway in 1929 and opened the first Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games in 1932. On September 14, 1935, as President Roosevelt, he dedicated the finished toll road that climbs the state’s fifth-highest peak.

Camp Topridge has hosted an array of political leaders and captains of industry since the sprawling, eclectic assortment of buildings on Upper St. Regis Lake was begun in the 1920s. Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post brought in ambassadors and potentates for square dances and boat rides; current owner Harlan Crow has entertained Supreme Court justices and both George Bushes with old-time music, fireside chats and backroad bike rides.

Bill Clinton celebrated his 53rd birthday in Lake Placid on August 19, 1999. Following First Family cones at Ben & Jerry’s, an enthusiastic young woman offered her shirt for an autograph—only to whip it over her head. Secret Service agents bundled up the flasher, but that titillation wasn’t the only Adirondack souvenir scored by Mr. Clinton: he liked Ubu Ale, from Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, so much he had three cases sent to the White House.


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