Durant reached high, sometimes too high, in developing Great Camps

Recently I reread “Durant: The Fortunes and Woodland Camps of a Family in the Adirondacks,” by Craig Gilborn. Published in 1981 by North Country Books, in cooperation with The Adirondack Museum, it’s still an essential read for anyone interested in the early development of the Adirondacks, and especially in the establishment of so-called Great Camps.

The story begins with Thomas Durant, educated as a physician, but later a principal driver behind the Transcontinental Railroad. In an era of unbridled audacity, when canals spanned the Northeast and the Rockies had been crossed by trains, it wouldn’t seem much of a challenge for him to build rail lines through the Adirondacks. He built a spur from Saratoga to North Creek, with plans to complete a route to Ogdensburgh.

His son, William West Durant, educated in Europe and privileged throughout his youth, saw his own vision of what could happen in the Adirondacks. He looked to build housing that would attract the wealthy – sort of an “if you build it, they will come.” Both he and his father initially set their sights on development of the Raquette Lake region.

One couldn’t be faint of heart to deal with the mix of laws and chicanery that characterized Adirondack land dealings in the 1800’s. Terms like “adverse possession” mingled with issues of property title. (Remember, land ownership issues near Raquette Lake are still being dealt with via a constitutional amendment on the ballot for New York residents in 2013.) The Durants, especially Thomas, had managed to wheel and deal plenty while building the Union Pacific lines across the country. In time, they amassed significant Adirondack holdings.

Around 1876 William began building his first camp. Named Pine Knot, it became something of a two-decade work in progress. Along the way, he ended up with a pattern that would serve him well in constructing later projects. William made use of both local materials and local labor. At first, log construction was the norm. He may have seen bark-covered walls on some shanties built by noted guide Alva Dunning. That technique, combined with concepts more akin to a Swiss chalet, led to a distinctive Adirondack rustic style.

Durant further experimented with birch-bark veneered ceilings, stone chimneys and fireplaces, and covered walkways between buildings. For the interiors he added peeled log beams and unique specimens of twig furniture. Gilborn quotes historian Alfred Donaldson with writing, “Before it was built there was nothing like it; since then, despite infinite variations, there has been nothing essentially different from it.”

In 1895, Durant sold Pine Knot to another railroad baron, Collis Huntington. Today, the property is owned by the State University of New York College at Cortland, which uses it as an outdoor education center.

Durant’s designs did evolve. He began adding log towers at Camp Cedars. At Berkeley Lodge, built for President Benjamin Harrison, those towers are octagonal in shape. Camps Uncas and Sagamore, his two most elaborate accomplishments, were built with a unified overall plan in mind. The former was sold to financier J. P. Morgan, the latter to Alfred Vanderbilt.

Unfortunately, Durant’s personal and financial troubles cut short his career in the Adirondacks. Family disruption took a heavy toll. His sister Ella took him to court about irregularities in dispensing funds left in their father’s estate. She won a large judgment, which was confirmed on appeal. William lacked the funds to pay her.

Durant had a habit of overreaching when it came to his development plans and overextending when it came to money. He depended heavily upon support from Collis Huntington when times got tough. After Huntington died, William was left without good options.

The writing can be a bit dense when the author recites lists of architectural details. However, more than a hundred photographs help to reinforce the descriptions. Reading required a bit of flipping back and forth from text to pictures, as the latter are grouped together in sections. Durant did not build Kamp Kill Kare, yet the author allotted a full nine pages to that complex. Otherwise I have few complaints.

To fully understand what might be called the Adirondack rustic aesthetic, one must visit such examples as Camp Sagamore, near Raquette Lake, or Santanoni, just outside Newcomb. Until then, “Durant: The Fortunes and Woodland Camps of a Family in the Adirondacks” can serve as a comprehensive introduction.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.