Life on Lower Saranac Lake: Mark Twain in Saranac Lake
In year's past Saranac Lake managed to attract its share of famous visitors and in the field of journalism there were no greater names than Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. Both came to spend a season in our community, Stevenson for a winter and Twain for a summer. During Stevenson's stay his every minute activity was recorded for posterity but of Twain's visit very little information exists. Practically the only remaining memento of that historic event is the cottage where the author vacationed, known locally as the Mark Twain Camp.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, together with his wife and two daughters, came to Saranac Lake in June of 1901. It is a possibility that George V.W. Duryee had arranged for the rental of the John Kane camp on Lower Saranac Lake because Clemens wrote to him from New York City, "Over on the other side of the river, opposite the Riverside Inn, I saw an old fashioned yawl, a perfectly safe boat and not upsettable in any ordinary seas. If that boat is to be had, I shall be glad to rent it when we come." This would indicate that Clemens had been to Saranac Lake prior to his vacation. Duryee was a local real estate dealer who specialized in camp sales and rentals and the two men shared correspondence.
Everyone knows how Clemens assumed the pen name of Mark Twain but very few know that he named the Kane Camp "The Lair." In one of his letters the author wrote, "Everybody knows what a lair is, lairs do generally contain dangerous animals, but I bring tame ones to this one." On a certain day a package was delivered to the Lair with the following address:
|Mr. S.L. Clemens|
|Lower Saranac Lake|
It was stated that Twain accepted the misspelling with great glee. Perhaps the formula for his great literary success can be found in one of own maxims, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water." The author found water directly below his rustic porch at The Lair, which was located on the south shore of Ampersand Bay at the eastern tip of Lower Saranac Lake. All of his outgoing correspondence bore the one word "Ampersand" as a letterhead rather than the postal designation of Saranac Lake.
Mark Twain and his wife, Olivia, and daughters Clara and Jean, at the Camp. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 31, 1990
In a letter to his old friend, Rev. Joseph H. Twichell, Twain wrote: "I am on the front porch (lower one-main deck) of our little bijou of a dwelling house. The Lower Saranac Lake edge is so nearly under me that I can't see the shore, but only the water smallpoxed with rain splashes for there is a heavy downpour." Next the Mark Twain brand of wit becomes evident with, "There are beautiful little tan colored impudent squirrels about. They take tea, 5 p.m. (not invited) at the table in the woods where Jean does my typewriting, and one of them has been brave enough to sit upon Jean's knee with his tail curved over his back and munch his food. They come to dinner, 7 p.m. on the front porch (not invited). They all have one name, Blenner-hasset, from Burr's friend, and none of them answer to it except when hungry." Perhaps it might be considered audacious to correct the dean of writers but his "squirrels" were most certainly chipmunks. Red Squirrels, for reasons known only to themselves, have never been so friendly with humans. (The Rev. Twichell had married Samuel Clemens to Olivia Langdon at Elmira on Feb. 2, 1870.) With Sam and Olivia at camp were their two daughters, Jean and Clara. The only newspaper allowed at The Lair was the Adirondack Enterprise which, at that time was a weekly. Apparently Twain wished to escape from wordly troubles during his vacation and left orders that no dailies were to be delivered.
In a literary journal, The Bookman, for January, 1924, there appears an interesting account by Rev. Walter H. Larom, Pastor of St. Luke's Church in Saranac Lake. The minister had been assigned the task of requesting the author to speak at a fundraising event for the library. Fearing that he might be stopped at the front door, Larom decided to approach the Lair by water so with a companion he came to the camp by canoe. To his surprise he was greeted warmly by Twain and invited to the "main deck" where he was treated to a discourse on the beauty of their surroundings even before he could broach his subject. When finally Larom made his request the author exclaimed "No! No! No!, I hate the platform, it scares me." Walking down to the dock with his disappointed caller Twain showed an interest in the canoe. Larom explained about all the canoe trips that could be enjoyed along the connected water-ways throughout the region. As the minister and his companion started to paddle away the author said "I see that all of the work is taking place in the bow and in the stern. If I were to go along I would prefer the middle seat."
Twain was very observant and from his seat on the porch he took notice of the graceful Adirondack guide boats that plied the waters of the bay. Expressing an interest in their construction, he was introduced to Fred Rice, a local builder of the exquisite craft, and the two men spent many visits discussing the intricate details of spruce ribs, pine planking, and cherry gunwales. Perhaps Twain was wondering how such a boat would fare on the Mississippi.
Directly across the bay, on the north shore, was another camp which 14 years earlier had played host to Twain's friend Robert Louis Stevenson. Arriving early in October of 1887 the famous Scot avoided all social activity with one exception. He enjoyed visiting the Louis Ehrich camp on Lower Saranac Lake because of the informal atmosphere which prevailed. The camp was later purchased by the Haase family and became well known as Pinehurst. Twain and Stevenson had frequently visited in New York City, and it is remotely possible that Stevenson could have mentioned Saranac Lake to his friends. In any event Mark Twain thoroughly enjoyed his stay and even expressed a desire to return for another summer but, unfortunately, it didn't happen.
On September 19, he wrote to his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Duryee, "Hail and farewell. It has been paradise to us all summer. One doesn't need to go to the Swiss lakes to find that condition."
It would be impossible to cover a biography of Mark Twain in this limited space but it might be of interest to touch on the several years prior to his coming to Saranac Lake. This period of his was interspersed with both great joy and great sorrow.
In 1868 Mark Twain came to Hartford, Conn., to approach the American Publishing Co. with his latest volume The Innocents Abroad and he was delighted with the city. Three years later, a year after his marriage to Olivia, the couple moved to Hartford. Here he met Charles Dudley Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe and leased a house in what was called the "literary part" of Hartford so as to be near his new friends.
Since both he and his wife were convinced that this was where they wanted to live they bought land on Farmington Ave. and proceeded to build a new home. The design of the house was so elaborate as to cause much raising of eyebrows and even drew editorial comment in the Hartford Daily Times with: "it is one of the oddest buildings in the state ever designed for a dwelling, if not in the whole country." It was three stories, with tall chimneys, endless gables, porches abounding, and high peaked roofs. Some referred to it as Mark Twain's practical joke. The author had a passion for billiards and on Friday evenings his friends would gather in the new billiard room where the host had installed a massive table with black and gold legs. After hours of play the room would reek with layers of smoke. Twain, an avid cigar smoker, once wrote that "excessive smoking is more than one cigar at a time."
Three children were born to Mark and Olivia, all daughters — Clara, Jean, and Susy. It was a happy family that settled in at Hartford and the author had reached the peak of his literary achievements. It was in the billiard room, which also served as his writing den, that he turned out such all time favorites as, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi. It was unfortunate, indeed, that Mark Twain's business acumen did not match his writing ability. He continually invested in pie-in-the sky schemes that were doomed to failure. His one major fiasco, that cost him $300,000, was his persistent involvement in the invention of a typesetting machine that turned out to be a white elephant.
In 1891, Twain decided to take the family to Europe where they could live in a more reasonable setting while awaiting an upturn in their fortunes. It did not happen. In April, 1894 Mark Twain's publishing house went bankrupt and he decided to go on an around-the-world lecture tour to recoup his losses. Olivia and Clara went with him while Jean and Susy remained in Hartford. The global trip began with a departure from California for Australia and continued in a westerly circuit that terminated in London where the family intended to settle for a while. Jean and Susy were preparing to join them when Susy was taken sick at the very point of departure. Stricken with spinal meningitis, Susy suddenly died in the Hartford house and her mother refused to ever enter the home again. Twain visited it only once while it was vacant and in 1902, the year after their coming to Saranac Lake, the Hartford Courant carried an ad offering "Mark Twain's Home For Sale."
Today, while travelling on Rt. 84 between Hartford and New Britain, one can read a highway sign inviting the tourist to visit the Mark Twain House now open to the public. In Saranac Lake the tourist is encouraged to visit Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage — but where is the Mark Twain Camp?
On the shore of Ampersand Bay, between Lake Street and Algonquin Avenue, the Mark Twain Camp is quietly occupied by Jack and Carmen Drury. There might even be a few chipmunks still sharing the premises.