Short winter days with fewer hours of light to lure us out and about bring more opportunities to cozy up indoors and read. Here are descriptions of two books from our winter reading list, one fictional and one factual, that will immerse you in a bygone era when upper-class entrepreneurs first made the Adirondack wilderness accessible and alluring to other affluent families.
Have you ever imagined living during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and participating in the early wave of recreational forays into beautiful but remote regions of the country? Historical fiction can be an effective way to transport yourself to time periods that capture your fancy, and the recent (2015) book Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga by Sheila Myers promised to do just that by weaving a fact-based tale about the family that spearheaded the incursion of metropolitan aristocrats into the Adirondacks of New York.
Living amidst elegant European surroundings, learning multiple languages with the finest tutors, mastering horseback riding and marksmanship, hobnobbing with sophisticated patricians, journeying to exotic foreign lands to hunt big game, and lavishly entertaining peers in the finest hotels were formative experiences in the early life of William West Durant (1850-1934), the man who would later be credited as conceiving and popularizing the now iconic Adirondack Great Camp architecture and indeed, Adirondack style itself.
The book begins in 1873 in England where William, his mother Heloise and sister Ella had been living as expatriates since 1861 while the head of the family, Dr. Thomas Durant, was back home in America focusing on building the Union Pacific Railroad. Finances were never stable for the family – for the tycoon Durant, huge assets were accompanied by huge risks, such as those entailed in building a transcontinental railway. Thus we learn in Part I of the book that the general economic downturn in the U.S. (“the Panic of 1873”) and questionable investment strategies had left Durant close to ruin. This halted the free and frivolous life of William, age 24, and the social pursuits of Ella, age 20, and their entire European idyll.
Ever the entrepreneur, Thomas Durant called his family back to New York to reduce expenses as he embarked on his newest scheme. He had used the family’s only solid asset, $200,000 gained from selling Heloise Durant’s inherited land in New York City, to purchase thousands of acres in the Adirondacks. Inspired by an 1869 book (Adventures in the Wilderness by W.H. Murray) about the spirit-enhancing effects of camping and hunting in the Adirondack wilderness, he intended to build a railroad to bring people from New York City to the Adirondacks. The railway, planned to extend eventually into Canada, was also planned to serve Durant’s timber harvesting, iron ore extraction and lakefront property development enterprises. William was to lead the initiatives of the new Adirondack Railroad Company from an office in New York City and a lumber mill and home in North Creek, NY, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
While the opening segment of the book establishes the backstory for William Durant’s introduction to the Adirondacks, it is also unfortunately when disappointment as a reader sets in. The author marches along to a prescribed factual chronology of events in the lives of the Durants without indulging in the rich period details that characterize the best historical fiction. Although she does sketch the harsh demeanor of Thomas Durant, the powerlessness of Heloise, the frivolity of William and the poetic temperament of Ella, character development is secondary to timeline advancement. The result is an awkward concoction of scenes, both among the Durant family and between the younger Durants and their friends and sweethearts, peppered with stilted dialogue that does not convincingly emanate from or reveal the inner lives of the characters.
Part II introduces a jarring and ultimately distracting aspect of the book that also prevents it from quite reaching its potential to fully immerse readers in the late 19th century world of the Durants. The narrative hurdles ahead to the year 2010 to introduce a 28-year old graduate student named Avery who is doing research on Saw-Whet Owls on the site of William Durant’s first camp in the Adirondacks, on Raquette Lake.
The backstory is that ownership of Durant’s Raquette Lake compound, called Camp Pine Knot, was transferred to The State University of New York at Cortland in 1948 and has been used as an outdoor education center ever since. So the fictional Avery is representative of many actual students who have lived, worked and studied at Camp Pine Knot (now called Camp Huntington after the family who acquired Pine Knot from the Durants in 1895 and ultimately donated the buildings and 201 acre site to SUNY Cortland).
Avery is living in a cottage called Camp Kirby that is set off from the main Camp Pine Knot complex, but which is also owned and used today by SUNY Cortland. It is named for Minnie Everette Kirby, the daughter of a Durant family friend whom legend has it became the mistress of William Durant.
Whether Durant had the camp built for Kirby as a location for their trysts, or if it was simply a hunting camp already on the property when the Durants acquired it, is open to speculation. But the author runs with the historically unsubstantiated notion that Durant and Kirby were lovers by having Avery find Minnie’s 1893 tell-all diary wrapped in canvas in a crevice at the base of a pine tree that she is examining for signs of owl habitation.
Chapters taking place in the summer of 2010 are interspersed throughout the remainder of the book as Avery reads Minnie’s diary and begins her own affair with a handsome local carpenter named Jake whose great-great grandfather was tutored by Minnie Kirby. The entire intrigue is built around the fact that it takes Avery all summer (!) to find snatches of time to read the diary, the discovery of which she decides to keep as her own secret. What Minnie’s fictional diary reveals, and what ultimately happens to it and to Avery and Jake, are simply not exciting or important enough to distract the reader from the main narrative progression of the book.
Yet Part II also introduces the book’s strongest sections – those portraying William’s introduction to and time spent at Long Point on Raquette Lake, his interactions with local guides, the creation of Camp Pine Knot, and the subsequent visits to that wilderness outpost by the rest of his family and other genteel guests.
Myers convincingly depicts the arduous pre-railway journeys to Raquette Lake from New York City, as well as from the less distant town of North Creek, in scenes describing William Durant’s five-day journey there in the winter of 1876 as well as the family’s summer treks via stagecoach and guide boat. We meet some people who really did play roles in the Durants’ life, such as the guide Charlie Bennet from whom they acquired land, and the eccentric and reclusive guide Alvah Dunning. The story also includes fictional characters such as members of an Iroquois family, Issac, Ike and Louise Lawrence. Louise evolves from making fur mittens for William to becoming the Camp Pine Knot cook and ultimately William’s true love.
The young Ike Lawrence is also a vehicle for portraying the clash between the cultures of privileged urbanites and subsistence-living locals. When Heloise and Ella Durant first visit Raquette Lake in 1877 they bring trunks of clothing and provisions such as tinned caviar, biscuits, fine wine, port, cigars and cheese. One of the guide boats, overloaded with people and gear, gets swamped rounding a point into a headwind on Raquette Lake, sending Ike overboard. When he is hauled back into the boat, a pack full of wine is lost to the water instead, highlighting the challenge and questioning the necessity of importing luxuries into the wilderness.
A conversation between Ike and Heloise explores similar terrain. When Ike says he likes to hunt, fish and trap, Heloise asks, “So you like sport then?” Ike responds “Sport ma’am? I don’t know about sporting, but I do know I like to eat,” thereby emphasizing the difference between two cultures’ views of hunting as a form of recreation and as a means of survival.
Myers does not continue to deepen the theme of cultural contrast, however. The book might have been stronger if she had forgone the 2010 storyline in favor of painting a nuanced profile of a local family whose skills allowed Durant to build and furnish his great camps, such as with characters based on the rustic craftsman Joe Bryere and his wife Mary.
William Durant is intriguingly portrayed as being comfortable in both cultures – in fact often happier living the simple life of a woodsman than among his elite peers. As a hunter and excellent marksman, it is believable that he could hold his own and have interests in common with the local guides and trappers. Perhaps camping on Raquette Lake truly did free his spirit and creative mind for design and architecture, despite being reluctantly and frequently drawn back to the city to attend to his father’s shaky and complex business initiatives.
As the book progresses it touches on many other details of the Durants’ years in the Adirondacks. A photo shoot at Camp Pine Knot by renowned photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard to “showcase all the Adirondacks has to offer in sport in leisure” really did take place, and reveals Thomas Durant’s genius as a marketer. He strategized that showing well-dressed guests reading on a rustic porch, eating in open air dining pavilions, and strolling on groomed pathways would attract wealthy rusticators to whom he could sell land, and who would then clamor for a railway to transport them to their homes in the woods.
The book briefly juxtaposes the extravagant development in the region, such as William’s cousin Frederick Durant’s 300-room Prospect House built in 1881 on Blue Mountain Lake, with the stirrings of the conservation movement that would lead to the establishment of the Adirondack Park in 1892. In one scene, William and Frederick meet the surveyor Verplanck Colvin (the real Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey) during his stay in Blue Mountain Lake while on business for the State of New York. Colvin disdained the river damming and dredging the Durants were undertaking to allow steamboat passage between Blue Mountain Lake and Raquette Lake, as well as the denuding of forests for lumber. Myers portrays this encounter as the first time it had occurred to William Durant that his father’s massive initiatives to gentrify the wilderness had negative environmental consequences.
William continues to move forward on his father’s behalf, however, and gradually envisions and then creates the decentralized camp complex on Raquette Lake which would become Camp Pine Knot. Modeled after European hunting lodges William had visited in his youth, Pine Knot had multiple structures* for dining, sleeping and recreation, each with good sun exposure and views of the lake and connected by paths along which guests would necessarily engage with one another and the outdoors. All of the buildings were constructed and trimmed in a rustic style using whole logs, twig and bark ornamentation, and local stone to create a primitive ambience that complemented the natural surroundings.
Another essential detail of Durant family history woven throughout the book is the fractious relationship of both Ella and William with their father, and the growing schism between Ella and her brother. These are important elements of the Durant story, as Ella’s estrangement from her family eventually plays a large role in her brother’s downfall.
But the book ends before William Durant’s complete undoing. We do see Thomas Durant’s businesses and finances unravel when the Adirondack Railroad Company goes bankrupt before yielding a return on a six million dollar investment. As Thomas Durant’s health is failing, William’s mother arranges her son’s marriage to Janet Stott to solidify their allegiance with a prominent family.
Despite the financial debacle, William is optimistic in December 1883 when the book ends. He believes that the steamboat, land, and mining assets that his father managed to transfer to his mother to save them from creditors in anticipation of his death, would bring the family back, once again, from the brink of financial ruin.
Myers drew her book’s title from a line written by James Fenimore Cooper in Last of the Mohicans (the same book that inspired Durant to name one of his great camps after a central character, the Mohican Uncas): “History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes in an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.” While Myers’ book imbues historical facts with imagined details and personalities, the Durants’ real historical legacy is not at all imaginary. William’s Great Camp developments in particular stand as important innovations in American architecture and vacationing traditions that are still thriving in the Adirondacks and similar remote regions around the country.
Although not a literary masterpiece, Myers’ book does succeed in animating an historical time period and the role of an influential entrepreneurial family within it. The book also inspired us to learn more about the Durants’ actual enterprises in the Adirondacks by turning to a factual treatise on the family. Thanks to prior immersion in Myers’ character portrayals, we could read additional vibrancy between the lines of the nonfictional account.
[*Camp Pine Knot structures that were built from 1877 through 1900 (including those erected after Durant sold Pine Knot to the Huntington family in 1895) were: Swiss Chalet, Servant’s Cabin, Huntington Cabin, Maid’s Cabin, Trapper’s Cabin, Recreation Hall, Durant Cabin, Caretaker’s Cabin, Guide’s Cabin/Telegraph Office, Pump House, Blacksmith’s Shop, Carpenter’s Shop, Carriage House, Kirby Cabin, Privy, Durant Privy, Smoke House, Water Tank Tower, Well House, Woodshed, and the houseboat “Barque of Pine Knot”]
The book Durant: The Fortunes and Woodland Camps of a Family in the Adirondacks by Craig Gilborn (1981) is the perfect accompaniment to Myers’ fictional book about the Durants. Gilborn, a former Director of the Adirondack Museum, presents valuable historical information gleaned from the Durant family archives and related photographs from the Museum’s collection.
Gilborn’s careful scholarship combined with excellent writing and organizational skills shape a book that is engaging despite the weight of historical facts and details it includes. While the depth and breadth of information he has assembled about the Durant family can be overwhelming, the book is especially digestible in small bites or by flipping between the photo pages and segments of chapter text that relate to each image.
Gilborn’s book extends well beyond the purview of both Myers’ 1873-1883 timeframe and her focus on Thomas Durant’s immediate family to include the private camp and public resort developments of the extended Durant family and their associates into the early 20th century. Gilborn chronicles a boggling array of ambitious business initiatives involving the development of land, timber, iron, railroads, steamboats, real estate, and tourism infrastructure all revolving around the Durant family, and amazingly occurring over the course of a few decades.
This book also covers events in William West Durant’s life after Meyers’ book leaves off in 1873. Whereas Myers focused on the genesis of Camp Pine Knot, Gilborn’s book goes beyond that project to describe Durant’s creation of his subsequent Great Camp masterpieces – Uncas and Sagamore.
From there, however, Durant’s story becomes a sad one in which his own unbridled spending and poor business decisions, combined with larger societal factors and a protracted law suit by his sister Ella (over being denied her rightful share of their father’s estate) bring about his economic downfall. In later life this talented and visionary man scrambled to make a living in such humble occupations as managing Adirondack guest houses owned by men who were once his employees, and raising mushrooms in Maine.
We recommend reading Gilborn’s book not only as supplementary source material and a sort of sequel to Myers’ historical fiction, but also as a portrait of the amazing architectural and cultural history of rustic traditions in the Adirondacks. It is also a valuable case study in the ambition for wealth and its privileges that drove real estate development and momentous social change in late 19th century America.