You may have heard of “glamping,” a trendy way for the glitterati to experience the wilderness without sacrificing any of the luxuries of a 5-star resort, but did you know that this practice has actually been around since the mid-nineteenth century? After the 1869 publication of William H. H. Murray’s popular Adventures in the Wilderness; or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, fishing, hunting, and camping in the Adirondacks seemed to be exactly the type of respite Americans in a newly industrializing society were looking for. The Gilded Age captains of industry found the quietude of the Adirondacks to be the perfect escape from the heat and pollution of the city, and they began building Great Camps to be used during the early summer season.
While the rest of the population set up camp, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans set up Great Camps, sprawling multi-building compounds on the shores of the many lakes of the Adirondack region. These buildings were designed to blend into the natural landscape, and a new Adirondack architectural style developed with the use of log construction, native stone work, and decorative elements created from twigs and branches. While the style offered the appearance of a humble woodland life, the homes were outfitted with the latest modern technologies, such as flushing toilets and running hot water. The compounds included separate building for the families themselves, visiting guests, and of course the staff required to both maintain the property and fulfill the owner’s every need. Amenities such as tennis courts, bowling alleys, and boathouses were also commonplace to keep everyone entertained.
The first Great Camp was built on Racquette Lake by William West Durant, son of the founder of the Adirondack Railway Company. Begun in 1876 and called Camp Pine Knot, it was the first of four Great Camps built on Racquette Lake by Durant: Camp Uncas, later sold to J. P. Morgan; Great Camp Sagamore, purchased by Alfred G. Vanderbilt; and Camp Kill Kare. Albany banker Robert Pruyn built his Camp Santanoni in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks and hosted such illustrious guests as President Theodore Roosevelt. The Point Resort was the summer home of William Avery Rockefeller on Upper Saranac Lake.
During this same time, many of America’s best painters were also drawn to the Adirondack region for its unspoiled beauty and ruggedness. Martin Johnson Heade, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John Frederick Kensett, and William Trost Richards were just of few of the men who made the trek—without the help of private railroad cars—into the wilderness to set up their easels and paint en plein air. Their resulting canvases are now in museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Today, thanks to the Adirondack Architectural Heritage, ten of the remaining camps are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. One of these, Great Camp Sagamore, still hosts overnight guests and offers programs to learn more about the Adirondacks and the history of the Great Camp period. But if you’re more inclined to truly experience the gilded life, book a room—or the entire private boathouse—at The Point Resort.