Tuberculosis patients sought relief at Saranac Lake

During the late 1800s and into the first half of the 1900s, people from all over the world came to S

Cool mountain breezes are still an attraction in Saranac Lake.

But the only things they relieve these days are sweat and stress. Tourists come to swim, ski, sun and saunter in the Adirondack community of 5,000 residents about 145 miles north of the Capital Region, between the villages of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.

Others come for the history. Saranac has several buildings that were once sites for great notions and great people.

Taking the mountain air used to be a bigger deal. During the late 1800s and into the first half of the 1900s, people from all over the world came to Saranac Lake for treatment of tuberculosis — an infection of the lungs and other body tissues.

Jacob Smith Moody was one of the first settlers, in 1819. Hunting and fishing were also good for the health, and the handful of early residents hosted and guided sportsmen who wanted to try the woods and waters. Logging was another early industry.

‘Fresh air cure’

By 1876, according to Saranac Lake historians, 700 people were living in the area. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was one of them. Trudeau had tuberculosis, and thought his stay in the north cured his disease. He decided to spread the word; people were soon coming to town to spend their days — and nights — on wraparound porches built on cottages. Great camps, popular in other Adirondack locations, also surged in Saranac Lake. Winter carnivals, which began in 1898, helped attract more guests.

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Amy Catania, executive director of museum Historic Saranac Lake — which owns and occupies Trudeau’s old home base, the Saranac Laboratory — said the idea behind the “fresh air cure” was simple.

“The thought was that by being out of the polluted cities, out of the close quarters that people were living and outside in the fresh air, that was a healthier environment,” she said. “They knew that it wasn’t curing the patients; early on they knew tuberculosis was caused by a germ. There was research being done here to find a way to kill the germ, which eventually was antibiotics. That treatment wasn’t discovered here, but we think some of the science that went on here led to that cure.”

The Saranac routine put people on porches, sitting in wheelchairs and more often stretched out on cot-style beds. Doctors and nurses were busy. So were dairy farmers.

“It was fresh air, rest, eating high-calorie, healthy food,” Catania said. “Six to eight glasses of whole milk a day, lots of eggs. We had dairies surrounding the village that produced a lot of milk. The whole village grew to accommodate the tuberculosis cure.”

Residents opened their homes to people who wanted to breathe easier.

“Pretty much any old house you see with a porch, and most of them had porches, took in a patient,” Catania said. “That’s what made Saranac Lake such a unique place. It was really the whole village caring for the patients.”

More landmarks

There are other historic landmarks in Saranac Lake:

— In 1945, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók spent the last summer of his life in Saranac Lake, writing his Third Piano Concerto and Viola Concerto. His modest cabin remains standing.

— Saranac Lake’s Union Depot was built in 1904 by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, linking the passenger operations of the Chateaugay Railroad from the east, and the New York Central Railroad from the west. Adirondack Scenic Railroad now operates the service to and from Union Depot.

— Harrietstown Town Hall — Saranac Lake’s elegant government center — features a large clock tower topped with an Adirondack-themed weather vane. It was built in 1928.

The laboratory where Trudeau did his work is open to visitors summer through fall. Replicas of original cabinets are on the walls, old science glass and tools are on shelves and in display cases. The doctor’s legacy in Saranac continues; the Trudeau Institute employs 100 researchers and is known for its studies into infectious disease and immunity.

Another famous visitor was 19th century author Robert Louis Stevenson, whose mark on the area can still be seen — literally — in Mary Baker’s farmhouse.

Stevenson, author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island,” rented rooms in the Baker family home during the winter of 1887 and 1888.

Stevenson experts say the Scottish writer smoked cigarettes like a fiend; he left burn marks in Mrs. Baker’s sheets and on her wooden fireplace mantel and a chest of drawers.

“Maybe he thought the 50 bucks a month for rent was too much,” said Mike Delahunt, curator of the Stevenson Cottage.

Stevenson was in Saranac Lake for the air. He had pulmonary problems, and became a Trudeau patient.

“People started coming here to see the place as soon as he left in 1888,” Delahunt said.

The furniture Stevenson used, like his bed and the desk at which he used to write, are still in place. “The big Stevenson museums drool over the stuff that’s in here,” Delahunt said. “We have his penny whistle, the ice skates he used, his last quill pen and pewter inkwell from Samoa.”

Stevenson died in 1894. Memorabilia later came from Lloyd Osborne and his sister Belle. Some came from the Bakers, like the autographed copy of “Treasure Island” that 15-year-old Ralph Baker received as a Christmas present in 1887.

The book, Delahunt believes, is one reason Stevenson remains relevant — especially during a time when the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series has become so popular.

“A lot of today’s popular imagination about pirates goes right back to ‘Treasure Island,’ ” he said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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