Raquette Lake, NY

The Downton Abbey of America’s Gilded Age

The main building at Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks, upstate New York

The main building at Great Camp Sagamore, in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, was only one of 29 buildings in the “camp,” where the family and guests of multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt vacationed.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

THREE KILOMETRES along a dirt road off Highway 28, about 350 kilometres north of New York City, takes you to Great Camp Sagamore. It is the Downton Abbey of the Adirondacks.

Sagamore isn’t a stone edifice, like Lord Grantham’s stately pile in the British TV costume drama. It isn’t surrounded by manicured lawns. It was built (beginning in 1895) of wooden logs, some a metre in diameter, and it was, and is, surrounded by a wilderness.

But its function was like the Grantham home—or in this case a home away from home. Like the Granthams, the owners here, the Vanderbilt family, and their guests were cossetted by an army of butlers, valets, governesses, chambermaids, cooks, coachmen and other flunkeys. There were often three times as many servants as family and guests when the super-rich vacationed at Great Camp Sagamore.

It was the same “upstairs-downstairs” world as Downton, except that in this case “downstairs”—the workers’ quarters—were half a kilometre away in their own staff village, hidden by a high fence from the people who came here in the summer to breathe the fresh mountain air and pretend that they were roughing it in the forest.

Roughing it, that is, in feather beds, with electricity, indoor plumbing, private cinemas and bowling alleys, eight-course meals and unlimited booze. Today the hoi polloi (that’s you and me) can join public tours and get a notion of what it was like here in what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, the period between the end of the U.S. Civil War and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In that half century or so the American captains of industry and commerce, people with names like J. P Morgan, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Post (of cereal fame) built their “great camps” in the Adirondacks as a summer escape from the heat of New York.

Marjorie Merriweather Post managed to survive the summer on her camp, near Lake Placid, with 85 servants. (Her guests, who occupied some of her 65 buildings, brought their own servants.) At Sagamore, the guide tells us, Alfred and Margaret Vanderbilt had a mere 29 buildings, but they had more lake frontage.

Most of the great camps have been bulldozed into oblivion, but a number live on as upscale hotels or private residences or, in the case of Sagamore, as a non-profit retreat offering residential learning programs and public tours.

Another survivor is Camp Wonundra, the Rockefellers’ camp at Saranac Lake. It’s now The Point, said to be the poshest of the Adirondack hotels, so exclusive that it’s not sign-posted: they give you directions when you have a confirmed booking.

Daily rates at The Point begin at $1,500 per couple, or you can reserve the entire resort—capacity 22 guests—for $23,000 a day, and live as the Rockefellers and their pals did. Sound a tad expensive? Remember the words of J. P. Morgan, another Adirondack summer resident: “If you have to ask the cost, you can’t afford it.”



Great Camp Sagamore is a National Historic Landmark. For more information visit its website at www.greatcampsagamore.org.

For information on the Adirondacks (2.6-million hectares of which is a state park), go to www.visitadirondacks.com.