I apply the brakes just a tad as the car hugs the downhill S-curve – getting closer. The wheels straighten out and I sprint for the sign. Up ahead on the right, there it is – the golden letters on brown wood canvas inviting us to enter Golden Beach State Campground. We whiz by, thankful for the guidepost that alerts me to the prize. Just a thousand feet. There! As the trickle of Death Brook drops into the lake, the trees part and I can see the sun glinting on the waves of South Bay. I am here.
My trip from our home in Western Massachusetts has ended when I see the water. A simple three and a half hour drive. Ok, my wife insists the trip is not over until we unload the car, pack the boat at Burke’s Marina, traverse the lake, unload the boat and schlep everything into the cabin. A five-hour ordeal in her mind, but my blood pressure has lowered and serenity floods my mind and heart the minute I see the water.
Be it 3.5 or 5 hours, our trip is nothing compared to the arduous travels our ancestors took to reach these shores.
In 1862, George Hornell Thacher first travelled to the region, guided by Mitchell Sabattis who maintained a camp at Crane Point on Blue Mountain Lake. 1 At this time, the railroad to North Creek and the stage road from North Creek to Blue Mountain Lake did not exist. Access to Blue Mountain Lake was only from the north, down from Long Lake. The trip from Albany took between three and four days.
The Adirondack Museum has a description of a trip made by Miles Tyler Merwin, founder of the Blue Mountain House, which indicates the travel route that GHT likely followed. 2 On day one, he would have taken the train from Albany to Glens Falls, then a stagecoach similar to one shown below to Minerva. On day two, he would have travelled again by stagecoach to Long Lake and spent the night.
From Long Lake to Blue Mountain Lake he would have taken either of two routes, each one potentially lasting more than a day in travel. We do not know whether Mitchell Sabattis led GHT through the arduous South Pond route to Blue or the longer yet easier water route via Raquette Lake to Blue.
Click on the map and open to full screen to see an animation of these presumed routes.
If we are to believe John Boyd Thacher, GHT’s son, it is more likely that Sabattis chose to go via Raquette Lake. JBT wrote the following in a letter published in Forest and Stream magazine in 1874.
“From Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake there is a more direct route with four miles of “carry” but even the guides will take the longer and all-water route.”
If JBT was right, it is even conceivable that GHT camped on Indian Point during his passage to Blue a full fifteen years prior to owning the land.
Of course JBT had an easier trip of only two days in 1874, which he chronicled in his letter.
Blue Mountain Lake, Adirondacks, Café Hathorne, June 15, 1874
Already has the winter of our discontent yielded to glorious summer in these parts, and the faithful tide of tourists and sportsmen is setting in toward the woods. Doubtless from now till November snows will your desk, drawers and basket be filled with letters concerning the delights and joys here experienced.
We do not know of any easier of more accessible entrance to the North Woods, especially to the New Yorker than the route we have taken and always take, no matter at which point we may eventually aim. Leaving Albany at seven o’clock in the morning on the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad, we connect at Saratoga with the Adirondack Railroad, reaching North Creek, its northern terminus, at about noon. Thence by stage to Dick Jackson’s, a distance of nineteen miles, where we spend the night. This is the last place on the route where one can experience the comforts of a good hotel, although there is soon to be one opened at Wakely’s on the Cedar River.
Bright and early the next morning a buckboard wagon will take us to Blue Mountain Lake, a distance of twelve miles, over a road that has never been submitted to the process of Macadamization. You remember it was one of Macadam’s theories that a bog was preferable to a hard bottom in constructing his roads. There is plenty of substratum of that nature here.
At Chauncey Hathorne’s shanty will we find a smoking hot fish-chowder in thirty minutes after we tear ourselves off the buck-board, and, in fact, it were no bad idea to consume a goodly portion of this time in gradually performing this operation. About twenty minutes is the average time allotted for accomplishing this in safety.
See the complete letter as published in Forest and Stream magazine. 3 The letter begins at the bottom left side of the page.
Click on the map and open to full screen to see an animation of his presumed route.
From 1879 to 1893, the route to Blue Mountain Lake continued to be via train to North Creek; however a shorter stagecoach ride out of Indian Lake brought people to Blue along what is now Route 28. Those travelling to Raquette Lake would take guideboats, and in later years steamboats, that flowed from Blue Mountain Lake through Eagle Lake and Utowana Lake (the Eckford Chain) and the Marion River into Raquette Lake.
In 1893, the railroad was extended from Utica, NY, to Thendara Station near Old Forge. From that year until 1900, there were two paths to Raquette Lake. Some still chose to take the train to North Creek, stagecoach to Blue Mountain Lake and by water through the Eckford Chain into Raquette Lake. Others approached from the West; they would take the train to Thendara and then go by steamboat and buckboard through the Fulton Chain of Lakes to Raquette Lake. If their final destination was Blue Mountain Lake, they would reverse the previous route from Raquette Lake through the Marion River, Utowana Lake and Eagle Lake into Blue Mountain Lake.
In 1900, the Raquette Lake Railroad was built to extend the rail lines from Carter Station (just north of Thendara) all the way to Raquette Lake Village. In the same year the Marion River Railroad, the shortest full gauge railroad in the world, was built to transport travelers and their luggage the three-quarters of a mile of the Marion River Carry. 4 Travelers would take steamboats from Raquette Lake Village to the end of the Marion River.
They would then board the train for the short trip to the landing of the steamboats of the Eckford Chain (Utowana, Eagle, and Blue Mountain lakes).
The photo above by Seneca Ray Stoddard serves to authenticate the following two photos taken by members of the Thacher family traveling on the Marion River Railroad in the mid-1920s.
At this time, those travelling to Blue Mountain Lake preferred to take the train all the way to Raquette Lake and travel by steamboat into Blue Mountain Lake, thus avoiding the long stagecoach ride from North Creek. It was now possible to reach Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake in only one day of travel from Albany and even from New York City.
In 1929, the auto road was built between Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake and brought to an end the Marion River Railroad. The Raquette Lake Railroad and the steamboats of the region ended service in 1933. 5
Getting to the lakes was never the end of the journey. Our daily trips from cabin to mainland have changed as well. My father told us stories of my grandfather rowing a couple of hours to the village every day in his guideboat.
As a boy, I would sit in the bow of a 17 foot aluminum fishing boat, holding the bowline as we bounced and crashed against the waves – water spraying my face for the forty-five minute ride powered by a 15 horsepower Johnson outboard. Fifteen minutes marks the duration of my kids’ trips from our cabin to the Raquette Lake Village dock in our Four Winns 190 Horizon speedboat. I think my kids are missing out. (They don’t.)