Adirondack Daily Enterprise Weekender, February 26, 1994

Saranac Lake's history in winter fun and games

By JOHN J. DUQUETTE

When Dr. E.L. Trudeau first came to live in Saranac Lake the complete winter sports agenda consisted of rabbit-hunting and fox-hunting. The ski had not yet appeared on the local scene and the snowshoe was a working tool for the guide or the hunter, a means of getting around. A January issue of Journal of the Outdoor Life dispelled the idea that the popular notion is that none but the hardy mountaineer could stand the rigors of an Adirondack winter. The Pontiac Club set out to prove the fallacy of such notions.

In 1896, just 20 years after Trudeau's arrival, a group of young men made up of some local enthusiasts, and possibly some of Trudeau's more ambulatory patients, joined to form the Pontiac Club. The main purpose of the organization being "the promotion of outdoor sports and games, and the encouragement of social intercourse." Their clubhouse was located beside a bay of Lake Flower nestled between River Street and Lake Flower Avenue and quite naturally it became Pontiac Bay.

Two years after the club came into being the members came up with a brand new idea: Why not a Mid-Winter Carnival to ward off the doldrums that usually occurred after the gaiety of Christmas and New Year's holidays? Putting their ideas into action during the winter of 1898 the first carnival was a huge success, and Saranac Lake was on its way to becoming a popular winter sports center. The huge Ice Palace was a major attraction which served as a centerpiece for an impressive list of activities that included competition in all of the major winter sports and games. There were bobsleds, hockey games, ski jumping, costume balls, a parade of floats and fancy skating, but most of all there was speed skating races. The Pontiac Rink played host to international speed skating events that drew participants from around the globe. To further enhance these races Saranac Lake could boast of its local son, Ed Lamy, as being the greatest champion that the sport had ever known.

So much for winter carnivals. Getting back to winter sports in the outdoors for individuals, once the pattern had been set all sorts of recreation became popular. Winter picnics were held at state lean-tos with the participants trudging on snowshoes garbed in fur or Hudson Bay jackets. A roaring fire in the fireplace served up hot coffee and flapjacks laced with maple syrup. The ski had also arrived but in the form of Scandinavian runners with a long single pole to act as a brake on gentle slopes. The Arlberg technique was still years away.

The Pines Club on Moody Pond featured a bobsled run off Mt. Baker and curling on the ice. There were toboggan slides at various locations and at the Ampersand harness races were held on the ice while ski-joring behind horses was another pursuit on the frozen lake's surface. For those who preferred a more sedentary sport there was ice fishing for pike or smelt. All in all, the winter season had livened up.

All of the kudos were being heaped at our village door. A January 1906 magazine ran an article which printed in part: "Time was when the Adirondacks were cut off from the rest of the world in winter, but all of that is now changed. It is less than a 12-hour ride from New York to Saranac Lake, the metropolis of the woods, a thriving village, with good hotels and boarding houses, and stores where every need may be satisfied. As a result, excursions into the woods, with a view to enjoying delights of winter weather such as are foreign to the average city resident, are becoming more numerous every year.

"In no other town or village in the state is there such systematic and successful effort made for the promotion of winter sports as in Saranac Lake. It has a permanent organization and directing agency, represented by the Pontiac Club, which has been in existence for eight years. The club provides for and maintains a fine outdoor skating rink, which is open every weekday and evening, and in addition, a clubhouse, warmed, and with suitable conveniences, in charge of a superintendent."

What the article failed to mention, in regard to the skating rink, was that the one-sixth-mile oval and the hockey rink in the center were both illuminated by electric lights shining from poles set in the ice. In addition, music from a loudspeaker floated out over the rink from the clubhouse to add to the pleasure of skating under the lights; what could be more romantic?

Some free advice was being offered for the uninitiated city-dwellers who were planning to come to the mountains to enjoy winter sports. Canadian snowshoes could be purchased for $2.50 and the necessary moccasins could be had for anywhere from $1 to $3.50. Two pairs of heavy wool stockings should be worn inside the moccasins. In addition to snowshoeing there is also "skeeing" and the skee is described as "a narrow, smooth piece of wood, several feet in length." In Norway there were "skee" jumpers noted for their dexterity and by 1918 our own Saranac boys were ski jumping from a platform on Blood Hill above Lake Flower. The late Russell Demerse was one of the brave lads to tackle this sport

The term "patient," when applied to the many sufferers of tuberculosis, was certainly applicable as they lay in their cure chairs on outdoor porches in subzero weather while their fellow brethren romped in the snow. Disciples of Dr. Trudeau certainly displayed patience while taking the cure during that era when Saranac Lake was noted as a renowned health center. Perhaps their one bright moment each day occurred at breakfast if they were patients at the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium where a dietary menu for those not confined to bed read as follows:

Breakfast

Fruit

Two breakfast foods

Steak (four limes weekly)

Chops (two times weekly) with fried fish, or ham, bacon, or sausage.

Potatoes

Tea, coffee, milk

Cocoa and raw eggs when ordered by the physician

Add baked beans and apple pie and the menu would match that of the lumberjack!

As confidence increased among the more athletically active adherents of winter sports the snowshoers turned their eyes to the mountains. Climbing the nearby peaks during the summer months was enjoyable, so why not give it a try in the winter? The snow made the climb slower and certainly more arduous but the challenge made it interesting while the views could be exhilarating. Most of these attempts in the early 1900s were of a one-day duration but some of the brave would pack sleeping bags and spend a night in one of the state lean-tos. To their credit the local boys were more prudent in respecting the vagaries of winter weather than the hikers of today. There is no record of search parties braving Mt. Marcy to locate lost parties and there were no helicopters to hover over the High Peaks. Those were truly the "good old days."