William F. Cooper, known as Caribou Bill, came to Saranac Lake about 1910 and set up a small studio complex on Edgewood Road. He had traveled here from Seattle, Washington, via Washington, DC, and New York City, purportedly by dog sled, having started out to circumnavigate the globe by dog sled in fulfillment of a ten thousand dollar challenge by the Nome Sweepstakes Association. By 1915, Martin moved the operation to Port Henry, and the site was taken over by livery owner Dan Buckley, who continued to rent it to film companies; he proved to be an incompetent dog handler, though.
The movie set represented an Alaskan village, comprised of some log cabins and false-front buildings. Locals (and their horses) were hired as extras and stunt actors. Margaret Morgan, mother of Dew Drop Morgan, had a roll in The Great Mail Robbery, filmed in 1912. In 1918, local skating star Ed Lamy appeared as a stunt double for the actress Norma Talmadge in the silent film DeLuxe Annie. Alice Brady, the head waitress at the St. Regis Hotel, acted as a stunt double in 1921, going through the ice of Moody Pond in place of Martha Mansfield. Harry Duso executed a spectacular dive from the cliffs of Bluff Island in Lower Saranac Lake mounted on a horse and wearing a dress, doubling for Pearl White in a Perils of Pauline episode.
The set was a tourist attraction in the summer months.
Bill Cooper died in 1935.
Chateaugay Record, July 23, 1937. (From the Northern New York Library Network)
Many Arctic Movies Made In Saranac Lake Village
That Saranac Lake, which has had a varied and picturesque career as a lumber town, a recreational resort and a health center, was once a thriving motion Picture center is a fact little known to many of its present day residents although it is only 25 years since the films of the early days were made in the village.
Such spectacular films as "When a Man Sees Red," "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "Hearts of Exile" starring Clara Kimball Young and Edmund Breese, were all made in Saranac Lake. A few of the early stars who worked there were the Farnum brothers, Norma Talmadge Alice Brady, Pearl White, Harold Lockwood and Lou Tellegan.
The film companies, most of which were then located in Fort Lee, N. J. and in New York city, first began sending location companies to Saranac Lake early in 1913.
The advent of the motion picture companies into Saranac is attributed by most of the residents who remember them, to "Caribou" Bill. The fame of "Caribou" is still a part of the saga of the Adirondacks although Bill himself left the mountains 20 years ago. "Caribou" claimed to be an Eskimo.
It is certain that "Caribou" knew much of the Eskimos and their way of life. A man with great physical strength, he created a sensation in 1912 when he started on a dog team trek from Alaska to the eastern coast of the United States. It was the first time that the stunt had ever been tried against time and as the hardy driver mushed eastward he became increasingly good copy for the American newspapers.
Regarding his personal endurance it was said that Bill could outrun his toughest dog and could travel for days without food.
At the conclusion of his trip the motion picture companies added his personality to the movies. He accepted an opportunity to go into the pictures and picked Saranac Lake as a likely place for the background of the country he was familiar with.
Thus began a three year period when the "Alaskan huskies and their famous driver, Caribou Bill," were a common sight in most of the early pictures dealing with northern regions, and at the time many were shown, as the hard and bitter life of the "frozen north" as portrayed in the poems of Robert W. Service was a favorite with movie makers.
"Caribou" Bill built an Eskimo village on Edgewood Road where Ampersand and Lake street meet. It was a replica of the dwellings of the Eskimos. The huts and streets of the village have long since disappeared and today there is hardly a sign to indicate that region was once the center of a thriving industry.
Many of the residents of Saranac were used in the pictures as stunt men and extras.
Probably the biggest picture ever filmed in the village was the "Shooting of Dan McGrew." The picture took hundreds of extras for several of the scenes and practically everyone in the village willing to act was used in the filming. Saranac bar tenders played the tough, hard-bitten Nome bar keeps, while many, of the dancing girls and waitresses were recruited from among the youngsters of the village.
When the war came in 1917 the fad turned to war pictures and the demand for "Arctics" dropped to the vanishing point. The companies sent their location crews to the mountains less and less. Likewise the demand for "Caribou" Bill and his huskies ended.
Shortly after the war the companies began moving westward to Hollywood. "Caribou" lived in Saranac until about 1919 when he moved to Plattsburgh and attempted to build a studio there. The attempt ended in a failure and finally the famed husky driver packed his sack once more and moved westward in the hope of finding a place in Hollywood.
He never did. Two years ago he died in Seattle penniless and all but forgotten.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, December 27, 1956
By EDDIE VOGT
(While Eddie Vogt is on vacation, this column is being written by guest writers. Today's is by Francis B. Cantwell.)
Sled Dog Racing
The first dog team ever to appear in Saranac Like, or for that matter in the Adirondacks as far as I know, was brought here by W.F. Cooper, otherwise known as "Caribou Bill." He came here about 1910 and located a Klondike type camp on Edgewood Road, with dog kennels, log cabins and sheds and engaged in renting his dog team and Alaskan equipment to motion picture producers who needed winter scenery and an Arctic setting for their productions. Whole pictures were produced here and were taken at Caribous camp, and on Lower Saranac Lake and Whiteface Mountain and also on the streets of this village.
Edmund Breese. a famous actor of that day, filmed the "Shooting of Dan McGrew" and other pictures at Bill's camp. It was visited by many tourists in the summer months Doris Kenyon, a sister of Raymond Kenyon, known as Doc Kenyon of AuSable Forks, made pictures here with one Milton Sills, whom you must remember in the silent movies.
The husky dogs were one of the main attractions. They were large ugly Alaskan Malemutes, pulling a two hundred-pound sled that would carry four or five people and driven by Bill in reindeer skin parka, fur hat and red sash and a six gun holster strapped to his waist He was no counterfeit and came here direct from Seattle, claiming to have driven these dogs or their ancestors directly overland by Montana, Dakota, Michigan, Ohio into New York and thence to Washington. D.C.. with a message to the President. He was accompanied by a dog driver named "Harry Boone," a small colored man, well known about town and who later was hired by Joe Weber of theatrical fame as a call boy in a New York theater. Harry always said that he did the "mushing" as it was called, while Bill rode the "sleepers" from town to town With advance billing for the act, which was put on with slides, as an illustrated lecture by Bill in a long-tailed Prince Albert frock-coat with diamonds in his red tie.
All old-timers here will remember the dog team on Broadway in Saranac Lake.
About 1915 "Caribou Bill" succumbed to the lure of a Chamber of Commerce offer from Port Henry. He moved there by baggage car with his dogs, sleds, six guns and paraphernalia. He established another motion picture camp between Port Henry and Mineville which could have been called Dead Man's Gulch. Silent movies were made there for a time. The actors put up at the famous Lee House in Port Henry. Cooper is said to have ultimately gone to Hollywood.
The log cabins and camp on Edgewood Road were later operated by Dan Buckley, well-known Saranac Lake livery owner. He bought a young, green dog team in Montreal or the wilds of Quebec, Canada, and for a couple of years tried to revive the ancient glory, glamor and atmosphere of the "Lure of the Yukon" in the Adirondacks. There was plenty of ice, icicles and snow but no one could drive the dogs. Walter Weir and myself took them out a few times for exercise on the Lower Lake, but they got fat and logy from too much meat, and were not broken well enough to drive in the village. Mike Egan and Ed LaBounty were in their gory at this time with spanking, fancy teams of horses, tiger and buffalo skin robes and "jingle bell" red sleighs, and dog teams had no chance.
At about this same time the famous Jacques Suzanne from Ft. Lee, N.J., arrived on the scene in Lake Placid. He had been a professional dog trainer and driver for Commodore Peary on some of his expeditions to the North Pole. He built and established a "Sure Enuff" dog camp and mushers headquarters and artists studio at Lake Placid. Here began a real headquarters for sled dogs, wolf dogs, Siberians, Alaskans. Russian Wolfhounds, malemutes and Chihuahas or any kind of a dog, both winter and summer. He worked out of the Lake Placid Club and his own camp. He carried passengers for hire. He kept photographers busy. Sunday supplements ran his pictures. He helped greatly to introduce dog driving here as a sport. He paraded in our Winter Carnivals with the queens. He is still going strong.
In the early days of this pastime, Dr. Beverly Sproul, Dr. Joseph D'Avignon Sr., Clark Hayes, a game protector and guide, and Dexter Sears of Lake Placid had fine dog teams.
A new breed of dog appeared known as the Siberian husky. They were small, quick, intelligent and gentle sled dogs, used by Leonard Sepalia in his famous races in Nome, Alaska. It is said that the last 60-mile lap of the '"Serum to Nome" drive, was made by him with a fine team of Siberians, originally bred in "Siberia by aboriginals and brought over to Alaska, for the "Nome to Candle four hundred mile race."
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, October 14, 1986
When Saranac Lake was 'Hollywood' of North
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o-love, the lady that's known as Lou . . ."
-- Robert W. Service
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
No, not in the Yukon wilds of Robert W. Service but right here in Saranac Lake! Up at Caribou Bill's place on Edgewood Road a movie company was filming "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and quite a few of the local boys were trying to get in the act. Some of them did: Walt Weir, Clint McDougal, Fred Bailey, Claud Lamy and Walter Kelly just to name a few.
William F. Cooper, alias "Caribou Bill" came to Saranac Lake the hard way. He drove a dog sled from Alaska to the east coast in a race against time.
This feat gained a good deal of publicity which attracted the attention of the early motion picture companies which, prior to the advent of Hollywood, were located in New York City and Fort Lee, N.J. Just as westerns later dominated the industry, in 1913 the gold rush days of the Klondike and Yukon were all the rage. For Caribou Bill this was a golden opportunity, and he planned to cash in on his own background after a life in the frozen north.
Selected Saranac Lake
Bill selected Saranac Lake as an ideal setting to portray winter scenes Featuring drama of the frozen north without having to move cast and camera to far off Alaska. He built a pseudo-Klondike gold rush camp on Edgewood Road near where the LaPan Highway now crosses. His buildings were unique in that there were no back doors. Each had two "fronts," one might represent a saloon on face one and a trading company or frontier hotel on face two.
This bit of ingenuity not only saved construction costs but also consolidated the action. One might say that, although Bill himself was a straight shooter, his camp was two-faced. Another innovation was the manufacture of a magnificent display of giant icicles suspended from his own cabin roof. One of the film crew directors had told Bill that he required a good show of icicles to provide proper background for a scene that he was planning to shoot. On each cold night Bill would climb to his roof and dribble water down from the eaves to cultivate his icy crop.
Fate's cruel blow
When his crystal spears nearly reached the ground, the director was satisfied and he said to Bill, "Fine, we'll run the film tomorrow." Happily Bill retired to his polar bear skin sofa where he settled down to enjoy a red hot novel. Just then fate decided to deliver a cruel blow.
A young man from the village happened by and when he spotted those giant icicles the temptation was just too much. Seizing a stick for a club he proceeded to demolish Bill's pride and joy with great gusto. Upon hearing the commotion Bill made a mad dash for the door and when he saw what was happening, he let out a roar that could be heard all the way to the Yukon. In his early days among the gold rush camps Bill had amassed a complete repertoire of cuss words which he currently implemented with newly invented expletives to fit the occasion. The air turned blue! The hapless youth dropped his bat and took to his heels never to visit Bill's camp again.
Dressed in all his furs, Caribou Bill was a familiar sight while driving his dog sled about the village and many a local resident enjoyed a ride behind the huskies on the ice of Lower Saranac Lake. He kept a sizeable kennel of the malamutes at his digs and the dogs, together with their famous driver, were featured in many of the early film productions. One local man who was not thrilled about the situation was Charlie Kingman who lived nearby. His sleep was often interrupted by the howling of the dogs. One dark midnight Charlie slipped down and opened the kennel gate releasing the entire pack. It took Bill several weeks to roundup his huskies.
Movie stars here
Among the movies that were made here, in addition to "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," were "When a Man Sees Red," "Hearts of Exile," and "The Sin Woman." Appearing in these silent films were such stars as Norma Talmadge, Pearl White, Clara K. Young, Harold Lockwood, Edmund Breese, and the Farnum Brothers. Of the local bit players and stunt men who saw action, Walt Weir was the one most in demand since the handsome police officer was also an expert horseman. Working with Walt were Fred Bailey, Clint McDougal, Claud Lamy and Walter Kelly while the goldrush mob scenes gave countless village residents a chance to get in the movies, albeit as extras. During the filming of "The Sin Woman", Weir was called upon to drive a team of galloping horses, drawing a cutter, over an embankment (at the Betters' farm on Kiwassa Road) to crash at the bottom. On the seat next to Walt was Fred Bailey, dressed as a woman to pinch hit for Irene Fenwick, the picture's heroine. The stunt went off pretty well as planned with Fred being thrown into the snow, clear of the wreck, but poor Walt was dragged a considerable distance before he could manage to bring his horses under control. Quite naturally all such activity caused a stir of excitement in the village and when a filming was forecast there would always be a ticket-free audience in the wings.
One such episode is reported by Seaver Miller Rice, a nonagenarian and former resident of the village during the movie days, recalling a hilarious incident that took place at Bluff Island. The scenario consisted of an escape by the hero and heroine who were being chased by a pack of wolves across the snow-covered ice of Lower Saranac. The part of the "wolves" was being played by Caribou Bill's malamutes and the plot called for an avalanche of snow to fall on the dogs while the victims escaped. An elaborate contrivance had been constructed next to the ledge face on the island which was designed to release the avalanche. A trough was camouflaged with two rows of evergreen trees and at the very top an immense pile of snow was held back by a control gate. "Tige" Martin was hired to operate the release mechanism when a signal was given. He climbed to the top of the bluff well armed with a quart of liquid stimulant to ward off the cold and took his place next to the chute. As the time approached for the main event Tige had finished most of his anti-freeze. Suddenly the signal was given but poor Tige could not get the gate to open. Frustrated he gave the release bar a violent kick, lost his balance and fell into the trough where, after a rapid descent, he landed on top of the pack of "wolves." The excited dogs worked him over pretty well before Caribou Bill could call them off. There is no record of the expletives that Tige uttered as, tattered and torn, he retreated from the scene of his ignoble experience. One might readily surmise, however, that he did not depart singing "There's No Business Like Show Business."
Reputation was earned
Although Caribou Bill's Klondike camp was a masquerade, his reputation was genuine. He delivered the mail by dog sled in Alaska for 20 years before coming east in 1912. He was a friend of Jack London, the famous author of such novels as: "The Call of the Wild, "White Fang," and "The Sea Wolf." London was a sailor turned gold-seeker for the Klondike rush and the two contemporaries had much in common. Bill was over six feet tall, possessed great physical strength and it was said that he could outrun his dogs in the snow. For several years he lived among the Eskimos and learned to spend days on the trail without food. This unique background, which embodied the flavor of the frozen north poems of Robert W. Service, made Caribou Bill a favorite of the film makers. Together with his fur-draped sled and magnificent team of huskies, he made many appearances in the movies made here between 1913 and 1917.
World War I brought a sudden end to these activities, but Bill stayed on until 1919 when he moved to Plattsburgh where he opened a new studio. This venture failed as the industry was moving toward Hollywood. Packing up once more he went west to seek further film fame, but the movie moguls had shifted their interest to war pictures. War pictures were followed by the popular cowboy movies and the wilds of the Yukon lost out to the wild, wild west.
Bill moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he died in November of 1932. Thus ended the colorful career of the man who brought movie making here during an almost forgotten era when Saranac Lake was "Tinsel Town U.S.A."
See also: Silent Films