SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 – People once visited Saranac Lake for their health.
Pulmonary tuberculosis was the reason. Historians say men and women traveled to the Adirondack village to “take the air” and accept other treatments for life-threatening infections that affected the lungs and other tissues. From the 1890s through the mid-1900s, Saranac Lake became a destination for people from all over the world.
The small community about 145 miles north of the Capital Region is still a travel destination.
Breathing fresh mountain air remains an enticement — along with walking mountain trails, swimming and boating on mountain lakes, and cycling mountain roads.
Saranac Lake’s village covers parts of three towns — Harrietstown, St. Armand and North Elba — and is spread over Franklin and Essex counties. Lake Flower is right in town and Lower Saranac Lake is nearby; so are the communities of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. The Saranac Lake Chain includes Upper Saranac Lake, Middle Saranac Lake and Lower Saranac Lake. All three offer big views of big country, as well as pristine paddling opportunities.
“It’s a very vibrant community with music, history and arts, but the thing we hear over and over again — certainly from our locals, but also our visitors — is the sense of community that is here,” said Rachel Karp, executive director of Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “Whether you’re here for a day, a week or the entire summer, people feel that sense of community.”
Part of Saranac Lake’s charm comes from the relaxing atmosphere for body and spirit. There are also new things to see; Saranac Lake is booming with renovations and updates. In 2018, Saranac Lake received $10 million in New York State Downtown Redevelopment Initiative funds (DRI) earmarked for economic development.
Here are a few recent improvements and announced projects:
- Using DRI funds, the relocation of the Pendragon Theatre; the creation of the Play ADK children’s museum; the expansion of Bitters & Bones restaurant to accommodate a brewery and beer garden; the establishment of a downtown shared office center and public-sector improvements to several local parks and streets.
- The Hotel Saranac — built in 1927, closed in 2013, improved with a $35 million renovation and opened once again in 2018 — might be the most famous landmark. It is now known as Hotel Saranac, Curio Collection by Hilton, and offers 102 rooms and 20 suites. The grand ballroom is a must-see.
- Cleanups of Saranac Lake’s Pontiac Bay and Brandy Brook, and new bathroom facilities at the Lake flower boat launch.
- A $6 million upgrade of the Saranac Lake Civic Center. Interior and exterior upgrades are parts of the plan, with anticipated completion coinciding with the center’s hosting commitments for curling events held during the Lake Placid 2023 World University Games.
- A $2.1 million project, a combination of public and private funding, renovated the 78-unit Lake Flower Apartments. The construction, which was completed last summer, restored the building’s facade and improved energy efficiency.
Saranac Lake recreation options remain the area’s big draw.
“We have the Saranac Lake Six challenge,” Karp said of the challenge to top mountains Baker, St. Regis, Scarface, Ampersand, Haystack and McKenzie. “You hike all six mountains, you get a patch. And there are a number of paddling opportunities as well.
“There are lakes and rivers, you can paddle for miles and miles,” Karp added. “We have a celebrate paddling festival that goes on the whole month of June. But paddling is a three-season sport, so it extends through the summer and certainly the fall as well.”
Winter brings skiing and snowmobiling, and Saranac Lake’s big show, a winter carnival that was first held in 1897. There was no carnival for parts of different decades in the 1900s; the party has been an annual event in Saranac Lake since 1948.
The downtown, like other main streets in Adirondack communities, offers a mix of restaurants, gift shops, clothing stores and art places. The Waterhole tavern is famous for its Thursday night “Party on the Patio” series, which puts bands onstage in a large performance space.
Saranac Lake’s summer market is held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from June until mid-October. A fall market at the Hotel Saranac runs through the end of December. Ice cream lovers must include a visit to Donnelly’s Soft Ice Cream, which offers one flavor a day — always twisted with vanilla. Cash only.
Art lovers can find places to brush and browse. “We have a fantastic art scene in Saranac Lake,” said Brittany Sternberg, a co-owner of ADK ArtRise. “It is a very supportive, welcoming community, whether you just want to look at art or make some art. We have so many options in our area, it’s really very cool.
“We’ve got galleries, we’ve got BluSeed Studios, which has professional studio spaces for people who want to get into ceramics or printmaking, something like that,” Sternberg also said. “Our studio is very beginner-level, whether you are a young person starting out or whether you are 97 starting out. We have drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, sewing — and all of it just very welcoming, very ‘Come in and give it a try.’ ”
History fans can hike to Historic Saranac Lake, the museum that owns the one-time laboratory of tuberculosis treatment pioneer Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Museum visitors will learn about times when people spent their days and nights on wraparound porches built on cottages.
The Saranac Lake routine put people on porches. The afflicted sat in wheelchairs, and more often stretched out on cot-style beds. Doctors and nurses were busy. So were dairy farmers, as whole milk and lots of eggs were part of the Saranac Lake cure diet of high-calorie, healthy foods.
Amy Catania, executive director of Historic Saranac Lake, said the museum is currently comparing the past killer disease to the current deadly virus that remains a threat to world health.
“We have an exhibit we just reopened in a new format. It’s called ‘Pandemic Perspectives.’ It’s an exhibit that really explores some of the many connections between our history as a health resort and what we’ve all been going through with the pandemic today,” Catania said. “That’s been super interesting for people to visit. We have a section where people can leave their own comments and thoughts about the connection.”
Historic Saranac Lake has purchased the former Trudeau home and medical office, located next door to the museum.
“That’s a project in progress,” Catania said, “so we have a lot of work to do on that building before that opens as a museum, but that’s eventually going to be an expansion of our current museum spaces.”
People can find history just by walking around the village.
“We’ve identified 900 homes and buildings in the village that took in patients on cure porches,” Catania said. “You can see evidence of the curing still all around the village, especially in the neighborhood I live in, which is near the Trudeau sanitarium property. Pretty much every house had patients out on the porches all year round, trying to get better in the fresh air.”
Saranac Lake also has connections to the newspaper comics page, the movies and politics. Here are the short stories, from Historic Saranac Lake:
- Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, famous for the long-running “Doonesbury” comic strip, was raised in Saranac Lake. He is the great-grandson of Dr. Edward L. Trudeau and has maintained connections in his hometown. For many years, he designed the button used during Saranac Lake’s annual winter carnival.
- Saranac Lake was used as a location during the early years of the silent film era. A small studio complex was established around 1910; filmmakers also went on location to Lower Saranac Lake, Whiteface Mountain and Franklin Falls. Parts of the famous 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline” were shot in Saranac Lake and the surrounding area.
- According to Turner Classic Films, the 1954 biblical story “The Silver Chalice,” the film debut of Paul Newman, was first seen in Saranac Lake. The town earned the honor by selling the most Christmas Seals — proportionate to population — in a competition with other cities. Stars Virginia Mayo, Pier Angeli and Jack Palance attended.
- In 1859, Apollos Austin Smith — known as “Paul” — opened a hotel on Lower St. Regis Lake. That hotel became famous as “Paul Smith’s,” and Theodore Roosevelt became one of the early guests. Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898, and in 1901 became the 26th president of the United States.
- Summer guests in Saranac Lake have included scientist Albert Einstein and author Mark Twain. Celebrities who spent time in town for the tuberculosis “cure” included singer Al Jolson and baseball pitcher Christy Mathewson, who died in Saranac Lake in 1925.
- 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 1887-88. Stevenson experts say the Scottish writer smoked cigarettes like a fiend; he left burn marks in Mrs. Baker’s sheets, on her wooden fireplace mantel and on a chest of drawers.