Camp Santanoni worth trek to Adirondacks

Let’s face it, your invitation to a friend’s Adirondack Great Camp didn’t get lost in the mail. But
Camp Santanoni intern Janell Keyser repairs a kitchen window at the Great Camp in the Adirondacks on Aug. 9. (Stephen Williams/Gazette Reporter)
Camp Santanoni intern Janell Keyser repairs a kitchen window at the Great Camp in the Adirondacks on Aug. 9. (Stephen Williams/Gazette Reporter)

Categories: Schenectady County

Let’s face it, your invitation to a friend’s Adirondack Great Camp didn’t get lost in the mail.

But you can still visit one of the last of those Gilded Age “camps” that were used as wilderness retreats by some of society’s most wealthy members in the final decades of the 19th century, and all it will cost you is a little legwork.

Situated on Newcomb Lake, Camp Santanoni was the pride and joy of Robert C. Pruyn, an Albany banker, investor and toymaker, and his wife, Anna. The guests invited to their Adirondack retreat included future president Theodore Roosevelt, who was photographed having shimmied up a tree branch there to touch a porcupine. The camp was named for Santanoni Peak, a High Peak visible across the water.

New York state has owned the 12,900-acre property since 1972. The camp buildings deteriorated during a 20-year state debate about whether to restore or demolish the camp, which is five miles from the nearest paved road, once it was part of the state Forest Preserve. But since the early 1990s, the only Great Camp in public ownership has been the subject of an ongoing restoration effort involving the state, the nonprofit organization Adirondack Architectural Heritage and the town of Newcomb.

During the summer, graduate student interns work on painting, window repairs and other projects at the rustic main camp. One of them leads a tour of the multi-structure camp several times a day for whatever visitors may be around, every day through Labor Day. All you have to do is get there. And considering it’s in the Adirondack backcountry, it’s pretty easy.

A gravel and dirt carriage road leads from the camp’s Gatehouse Complex off Route 28N to the main lodge, five miles into the interior. I recently took the trip the old-fashioned way — bipedally, with a pack on my back — and reached the lodge in about 90 minutes. Motorized vehicles are verboten, but mountain bikes are cool, and one can get you there in about a half-hour. A family group including a recalcitrant 10-year-old pedaled past me on the way in, and were later seen enjoying a water’s edge lunch. You can also arrange a horse-drawn wagon ride by calling Newcombe Farm at 518-639-5534.

Newcomb Lake, covering 446 acres, is home to loons and other wildlife. The public has free access to canoes and rowboats at the camp’s boathouse, if the weather is good enough for paddling.

But there are options for those less ambitious, too. Visitors don’t even have to get out of their cars to see the gatehouse in Newcomb, which was once the entrance point to the vast Pruyn estate. About a mile into the hike, they will pass the remains of the estate’s dairy barn, destroyed by a suspicious fire in 2004. The creamery, a gardener’s residence and several other buildings from the working farm still remain, though. The state’s long-term plans for the property include eventually rebuilding the barn as a  visitor center.

The main lodge is constructed of 1,500 logs of local timber, in many cases from whole logs. The lodge is really several buildings, linked together by a single 16,000-square-foot roofing system and an enormous wraparound porch that offers multiple ways to gaze out at Newcomb Lake, quite possibly catching a glimpse of the elusive loons. If you’s lucky, you’ll hear their evocative calls, too.

The lodge was built in 1892 using a design philosophy that emphasized closeness to nature much more than some other Great Camps did. Its design was influenced by what Robert Pruyn learned of Japanese religion and architecture when he was a teenager in the 1860s living in Japan, where his father was Abraham Lincoln’s U.S. minister.

Robert Pruyn died in 1934, his wife in 1939. For a while a family trust owned the property, and it fell into its first period of neglect. In 1953, law partner and banker brothers Myron and Crandall Melvin of Syracuse bought it and did a lot of restoration work. In 1971, though, Myron Melvin’s young grandson, Douglas Legg, disappeared during a visit to Camp Santanoni, and a monthlong search by 1,000 volunteers found no trace.

The Melvins never returned. They sold Camp Santanoni to New York state the next year. The camp is a National Historic Landmark.

The entrance is on the north side of Route 28N, about a half-mile west of the Newcomb Central School.

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