Great Camps of the Adirondacks: A Grand Life in the Wilderness
By Donna K. Keesling
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, wealthy families vacated their New York City homes in the summer for cooler, healthier climes. They built “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island and what are now known as great camps in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. An appealing aspect of the camps was their remoteness and inaccessibility. At their Newport homes, every move they made was reported on. At their Adirondack camps, the families were out of the “public eye” and their lives were private.
Great camps, a term that was coined in the 1980s, were built in a remote location for a single family. Each building – all built of natural, indigenous materials – had a separate function. The camps typically contained a workers’ complex for people who maintained the camp year-round. Most importantly, the camp was self-sustaining with its own water source, farm, and gardens.
William West Durant established the great camp prototype by reshaping Pine Knot, his father’s camp, and creating Uncas, Sagamore, and Kill Kare. According to author Harvey H. Kaiser, Durant’s “simple design took the best features of the Adirondack early log cabin and combined them with the decorative features of the long, low Swiss chalet, making a building style that blended perfectly with a woodland or lakeshore setting”.
William West Durant was the son of Dr. Thomas C. Durant, general manager of the Union Pacific Railroad. Thomas Durant bought nearly one million acres in the Adirondacks and also built a railroad line to North Creek, New York, opening the Adirondacks to development. His son was enlisted to help develop the Adirondacks land. Collis P. Huntington, one of the builders of the Central Pacific Railroad, provided financial backing and helped to attract other socially prominent, wealthy people to the Adirondacks.
By the middle of the 20th century, many of the great camps sat idle. Their owners and their heirs were no longer interested in spending the summer at camp, and for some the cost of maintaining the camp compound was a burden. Many of the camps were donated to institutions. Some of the camps became part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and were lost because of the “forever wild” stipulation of Article 14 of the New York State Constitution. This provision requires that land in the state’s two forest preserves, the Adirondacks and the Catskills, remain natural and undeveloped. When a great camp became part of the forest preserve, the state was not allowed to repair or maintain the buildings. In the 1970s and 1980s, preservation groups began to lobby to save some of the camps.
What follows is detailed information about four of Durant’s camps: Pine Knot, Uncas, Sagamore, and Kill Kare. Each camp has survived and has been preserved in a different way.
Camp Pine Knot, the first of Durant’s great camps, was built along the shore of Raquette Lake. In 1876 Thomas Durant had started building a camp in the log style typical of regional hunting shanties. William took over the construction in 1877. Durant’s “log construction, with split-log veneer over conventional framing and the structural long components visible on building exteriors, became one of the accepted characteristics of the rustic style” according to author Harvey H. Kaiser. When it was finished in 1890, the camp consisted of twenty-seven buildings which “melded terrain-conscious site planning, indigenous Adirondack materials, and sophisticated design influences.” In 1895, Durant sold Pine Knot – including 200 acres of property, buildings, and furnishings – to Collis P. Huntington. Additional structures were added to Pine Knot after Huntington purchased the camp.
For most of the fifty years following Huntington’s death in 1900, Camp Pine Knot sat unused. In 1947, Huntington’s son Archer and his wife Anna gave the 201-acre site and historical buildings to SUNY Cortland, one of the campuses of the State University of New York system. The camp was renamed Camp Huntington (officially Huntington Memorial Camp at William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education) and continues to operate as an outdoor and environmental education center, offering activities including hiking, cross country skiing, canoeing, and kayaking. The camp, accessible only by boat in the summer and by ice road during the winter, accommodates seventy people in dormitory style and historic buildings.
In 1893 Durant undertook his most ambitious project to date – Camp Uncas on Mohegan Lake. Uncas, completed in 1895, was built on a 1500-acre private preserve. Uncas was constructed of spruce from surrounding hillsides and granite that was locally quarried. The camp was comprised of twenty buildings, serving various purposes. There were four distinct complexes at Uncas: farm, family and guest quarters, dining, and service. Following financial difficulties, Durant sold Uncas to financier J. Pierpont Morgan in 1896. Although Morgan visited the camp infrequently, he made improvements to the camp including a pump house for sewage and a powerhouse for electricity.
Camp Uncas was used by the Morgan family descendants until 1947, when it was sold to Margaret Emerson who owned nearby Sagamore. Margaret Emerson donated Uncas to a cancer research group, Damon Runyon Fund, for use as a retreat center. Uncas had a number of subsequent owners including Herbert and Margaret Birrell, who opened it to the public. The Boy Scouts of Rockland County, New York bought the camp in 1965 and used it for ten years. By the end of their ownership, the buildings needed repair and the grounds needed restoration. In 1973, the Boy Scouts agreed to sell Uncas to New York State to be incorporated into the State Forest Preserve. The camp was in jeopardy of being demolished under the “forever wild” provision. Due to a state moratorium on land purchases, the sale did not go through as planned. Preservationists Howard Kirschenbaum and Barbara Glaser purchased the building and sixteen acres for their own use. Camp Uncas was subdivided when Kirschenbaum and Glaser divorced in the 1980s. In 2015, Kirschenbaum put his part of the camp, which includes the main buildings, up for sale.
Sagamore was the third and final camp that Durant designed for himself. It was constructed during the years 1895 through 1897 on a 1500-acre site along Shedd Lake. The three-story main lodge featured a center front-facing gable and long balconies, resembling the chalet that Durant built at Pine Knot. Due to financial difficulties, Durant sold Sagamore to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1901. Alfred was the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the chairman and the president of the New York Central Railroad. Vanderbilt later hired William L. Coulter, a Saranac Lake architect, to expand the camp. In 1911, Alfred married Margaret Emerson McKim. Tragically, Alfred died in 1915 when the Lusitania was sunk. Sagamore was directly willed to Margaret upon Alfred’s death. Margaret continued to expand the camp so that when it was complete there were forty buildings. She vacationed at Sagamore until 1954, when she gave the property to Syracuse University.
Camp Sagamore suffered from years of deferred maintenance under the ownership of Syracuse University. In the mid-1970s, the buildings and land were sold to New York State. Under the “forever wild” provision, the state was required to demolish the buildings. The Preservation League of New York State lobbied to save the camp by offering the buildings “by bid to a non-profit that would preserve and use the camp in a compatible manner with its wilderness setting.”Preservationists Barbara Glaser and Howard Kirschenbaum submitted the winning bid and founded the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks. The Sagamore Institute owns approximately 18 acres of the original 1,526 acres and all the buildings on that land. The remaining acreage is owned by the State of New York and managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation as a public forest preserve.
Throughout the summer and early fall, visitors can stay overnight in the Great Camp Sagamore buildings, including the Sagamore Lodge. Multi-day programs are offered which include Adirondack arts, music, history, and outdoor education. This summer and fall, a program entitled “Durant’s Gilded Age Camps” offers participants an opportunity to stay at Sagamore and visit Pine Knot and Uncas.
In 1897, William West Durant sold one of his holdings to Timothy Woodruff, lieutenant governor during Teddy Roosevelt’s tenure as governor of New York. On this site Woodruff built Kamp Kill Kare, the fourth and final great camp designed by Durant. Alfred G. Vanderbilt, owner of Sagamore, bought Kamp Kill Kare in 1913 and sold it a year later to Francis P. Garvan, a New York City prosecutor. When a fire destroyed many of Kill Kare’s buildings in 1915, Garvan and his wife Mabel enlisted architect John Russell Pope to rebuild the buildings. Pope and designer Charles Hiscoe elevated the Garvan’s “rustic oasis into an Adirondack showstopper” according to Adirondack Magazine writer Annie Stoltie.Kamp Kill Kare was owned by the Garvan family until 1982 when it was sold to a private group.
Kamp Kill Kare, renamed Lake Kora by Marc and Jacqui Palmer who purchased the property in 2005, is now a luxury resort. At Lake Kora, you can experience “roughing it” in the Adirondacks by reserving the entire estate for up to twenty-four guests for approximately $25,000 per night.
The first camp owners entertained guests from all walks of life in elegant style. The great camps provided a multitude of recreational activities including water sports, bowling, tennis, and croquet. But most importantly, the camps afforded their owners and guests an escape from their hectic lives. Alfred G. Vanderbilt III states that when carriages approached the entrance to Sagamore “the travelers would have felt the deep, healing peace of the Adirondacks.”
 Beverly Bridger, Great Camp Sagamore: The Vanderbilts’ Adirondack Retreat (Charleston: The History Press, 2012), 20.
 Gladys Montgomery, An Elegant Wilderness: Great Camps and Grand Lodges of the Adirondacks 1855 – 1935 (New York: Acanthus Press, 2011), 33.
 Harvey H. Kaiser, Great Camps of the Adirondacks (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982), 75.
 Montgomery, 11.
 Harvey H. Kaiser, Great Camps of the Adirondacks: Revised and Enlarged Second Edition (Boston: David R. Godine, 2020), 62.
 Montgomery, 55.
 “Camp Huntington” SUNY Cortland, accessed June 20, 2023, https://www2.cortland.edu/off-campus/outdoor-education-facilities/raquette-lake/camp-huntington/.
 “JP Morgan’s Adirondack Great Camp Uncas,” Franklin Ruttan, accessed June 20, 2023, http://www.jpmorganadirondackgreatcamp.com/history.htm.
 Montgomery, 139.
 Beverly Bridger, “A Short History of Great Camp Sagamore,” Great Camp Sagamore, accessed June 20, 2023, https://www.sagamore.org/about.
 National Historic Landmark Nomination: Sagamore Lodge, May 16, 2000, PDF file, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NHLS/76001221_text.
 “Durant’s Gilded Age Camps,” Great Camp Sagamore, accessed June 21, 2023. https://www.sagamore.org/july-programs/durants-camps-july.
 Annie Stoltie, “Inside Lake Kora, a Gilded Age Great Camp Turned Luxury Resort,” Adirondack Life, June 2022, accessed June 20, 2023, https://www.adirondacklife.com/2022/06/07/inside-lake-kora-a-gilded-age-great-camp-turned-luxury-resort/.
 Bridger, Great Camp Sagamore: The Vanderbilts’ Adirondack Retreat, 13.