Upstairs/Downstairs at Sagamore

by Maria Bucciferro | From the Archives, October 1990

Word that Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr. had gone down with the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May of 1915 shocked the staff at Sagamore Lodge, the Vanderbilts’ fifteen-hundred-acre Great Camp near Raquette Lake.

“Everyone stopped short in their tracks and mourned,” recalls eighty-two-year-old Margaret Collins Cunningham. She was seven years old at the time of the tragedy, the daughter of the camp’s caretakers. “It was a very sad day. Mr. Vander­bilt was well liked by everybody. He was tall, well built, handsome. He was a very good friend as well as the boss of my mother and father.”

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr., who will be seventy-eight in September, has no memories of his father. But he does remember Margaret, “the young black-haired girl,” and her father, Richard, who carried him around Sagamore in a pack basket when in­jury and illness made him too weak to walk.

Though the Vanderbilts’ and Collinses’ paths diverged in 1924, when Margaret’s parents opened a place of their own in Blue Mountain Lake, the two families shared their lives, and Alfred and Margaret shared a childhood, at Sagamore. Their stories are intertwined like the twisted twigs of the rustic furniture that fur­nished the Great Camp they all called home.

Alfred Vanderbilt Sr. bought Sagamore from its architect, William West Durant, in 1901. That same year, he married his first wife, Elsie French; in fact, they honeymooned at the camp. The marriage ended in 1908 (amidst charges of Alfred Sr.’s infidelity), but in 1911, Alfred Sr. married again, this time taking Margaret Emerson McKim, the heiress to the Bromo-Seltzer fortune, as his bride. The wedding took place in Surrey, England. Alfred Jr. was born in London the follow­ing year, and his brother George was born there in 1914.

The family lived in England for the first two years of Alfred Jr.’s life. There, his father pursued his favorite hobby: show horses. The family then moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, and later finally settled on Long Island. But no matter what location the Vanderbilts called home, Sagamore would always remain their special retreat.

Margaret Cunningham’s father, Richard, grew up on a farm along the Hudson River in North Creek and was on the crew that built Sagamore, in 1897. Her mother, also named Margaret, was a teacher from Chestertown. Richard and Margaret were married in 1901 (the same year as the ill-fated Vanderbilt/French nuptials), and were hired by Alfred Sr. as the caretakers for Sagamore, in 1902. In January 1908, while her employers were embroiled in divorce proceedings, Margaret Collins took a three-week “vacation” from her duties at Sagamore to give birth to her daughter. It was one of the few breaks she had while working at the Great Camp.

Sagamore was a place far removed from the world in its early days. Young Alfred rode in the “Wayfarer,” his father’s private railroad car, from Lenox to Raquette Lake, where two matching teams of horses would pull the Vanderbilts’ custom carriages the remaining four miles to the settlement. The Vanderbilts’ Great Camp was like a self-sufficient village in the wilderness, with a staff of artisans to produce furniture, hardware and food. It even, for a time, had its own school, housed in a cottage that was formerly used for the help. Margaret Cunningham remembers that one of her cousins, from Cor­inth, was the teacher.

Corn and potatoes were grown across the lake from the camp, where there was a cow pasture, and sheds for milking in the summer and for making maple syrup in the spring. “We loved maple-sugar time,” says Margaret. “When the syrup wasn’t all boiled down, we’d make jackwax. We’d put [the syrup] on the snow to harden into a brittle, thin candy.” She recalled that Mrs. Vanderbilt wanted the maple syrup to be as lightly colored as the maple table in her dining room.

Life at Sagamore operated on two levels: upstairs/downstairs and up the hill/down the hill. The Vanderbilts and their guests inhabited the main lodge and cottages on the peninsula on the lake; the workers’ enclave was up the hill, where there were barns for horses, cows and carriages, and shops for the blacksmith, painters and carpenters. A lettter written in 1913 gives an idea of the staff required to run Sagamore. It reads, “Help who will arrive at ‘Sagamore Lodge’ Monday eve.: Butler, 2 Footmen, 1 Chambermaid, 2 Laundresses, Chef, 2nd Cook, Kitchenmaid. The other footman, 2nd chambermaid and mother kitchenmaid will arrive Wednesday.”

Richard Collins was in charge of the outside maintenance of the camp, which grew to include twenty-nine buildings. Margaret Col­lins took care of the inside. While Mrs. Vanderbilt played croquet on the lawn that she insisted be mowed each morning by eight o’clock, Mrs. Collins was busy overseeing the cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing for the Vanderbilts, their fifteen or so personal servants, an average of thirty, but sometimes as many as fifty, guests and nearly twenty resident staff members. Margaret Collins raised her own five children in her spare time; she and her family lived in four rooms over the kitchen until a separate building for the help was built up the hill sometime around 1913.

Life at Sagamore couldn’t have been more bucolic than it was in 1915, when the sinking of the Lusitania suddenly shattered the calm.

Alfred Jr. was just two and a half years old when his father drowned off the Irish coast. Thirty-eight-year-old Alfred Sr., who could not swim, was last seen giving his life jacket to an old woman and help­ing children into the lifeboats, which carried only 761 of the Lusitania’s nearly two thousand passengers to safety. (When Alfred Sr.’s death was confirmed, Margaret Vanderbilt halted the construction of a large sports center at Sagamore; a new men’s camp was later built on part of that foundation.)

Two years later, in 1917, tragedy once again struck the camp. A horrific carriage accident killed Sagamore coachman Johnny Hoy, and nearly killed Alfred, his brother George and their nurses. Alfred still remembers the incident vividly.

“I was about five years old, and my younger brother and I had gone up to Sagamore while I was recovering from mastoiditis. We were out for our afternoon carriage drive around the lake. The coachman, myself and the nurse were in front and my brother George and his nurse were in back. A birch tree fell and killed the coachman. It knocked my head open, and broke both my knees and the ankles of my nurse.”

Margaret Cunningham remembers the stillness of that August after­noon. Alfred’s mother was playing croquet when the team of horses, carriageless, rushed back to the barn. One of the nurses shouted across the lake for help.

Johnny Hoy’s widow stayed on at Sagamore as cook for the men’s camp (and Margaret’s schoolmate, Elizabeth Hoy, didn’t have to move away). Margaret remembers her father carrying Alfred around in a pack basket well into spring as he recovered from the accident.

But despite the misfortunes, Margaret and Alfred have grand memories of life at Sagamore.

Margaret still has a gold heart and chain from one of Alfred’s birth­day parties. She remembers that he ordered the chef not to cut the spaghetti so that he could watch his young guests struggle with it.

Alfred recalls that the only automobiles present at the camp were the toy cars owned by the Vanderbilt children. “No cars were al­lowed in any of the camps until the late forties and early fifties,” says Alfred. “We took the train and were met by horse and carriage.”

During the winter, the sleighs that met the train at Raquette Lake would be filled with fur robes, bearskin coats and heated bricks, Margaret says. When a party was being held at Sagamore, the road to the camp would be lit with torches.

Winter was a favorite time of both Margaret and Alfred. They remember riding the toboggan slide onto the lake and bobsledding on the snow-covered roads between the camps. Margaret especially liked skijoring—being pulled on skis behind a horse-drawn sleigh.

In the summer the Collins children would take the Vanderbilt boys on hikes. “They were nice kids,” says Alfred. “They’d take us on picnics and cookouts — they were much better woodsmen than we were. We didn’t know anything.”

The pictures in Margaret’s photo album capture her and her brothers fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and feeding their pet fawn. The photos show the hard work, too: shoveling snow off the camp roofs, cutting ice from Raquette Lake. But unlike her parents, Margaret wasn’t buried by chores; setting the bowling pins at Sagamore’s open-air bowling alley was one of her favorites. (“After dinner everyone would bowl,” Alfred recalls.) Arranging colored pins in pincushions for the guests’ rooms was another duty Margaret remembers.

“I probably did the same amount of work all twelve- to fifteen-year-olds do—not much. I didn’t have any job I had to do, only the tasks I was assigned by my parents,” says Margaret.

While her oldest brother, John, had to go live with relatives in Cor­inth to attend high school, Margaret and her brothers drove a buggy to the new school in Raquette Lake. There were three students in her graduating class: her brother Dick, who was class president, her brother Pat and herself. “We all had an office,” she recalls.

Alfred went to private schools, but spent about five weeks a year at Sagamore, from mid-July to Labor Day, and also came up to the camp for Christmas when his father was alive.

In 1922 the Collinses bought a Great Camp of their own — the former Duryea camp on Blue Mountain Lake. They left Sagamore in 1924 to operate The Hedges as a guest hotel.

“When we moved to Blue Mountain Lake, my father told Mrs. Vanderbilt that he wanted to buy something that was his own so he could turn the key and take my mother and himself off for a change,” Margaret says.

Alfred recalls that the Vanderbilts’ lives also took a new direction in 1924, when his mother pooled some money with a few friends to buy steeplechase horses.

“My mother picked a winner and that hooked her,” Alfred remembers. Her father built her a racing stable outside of Baltimore, which she named Sagamore.

Alfred, after attending Yale University for a year and a half, also caught the horse-racing bug, and he decided to leave the school. “My mother thought I was making a terrible mistake,” he says.

When Alfred was nineteen years old, he bought his first racehorse, which won $725 in eight races. Three years later his horses ran in 569 races and won $303,705. In 1935 and 1953 Alfred was the leading money-winning thoroughbred owner in the country. His horse Native Dancer was named Horse of the Year in 1954. It was in that same year that his mother gave Sagamore to Syracuse University.

The Great Blowdown of 1950 had caused heavy damage to Saga­more. “We lost a lot of trees,” Alfred recalls. “Mother called us together and said, ‘Are any of you going to keep this up?’ No one was.”

Alfred Vanderbilt Jr. was twelve years old and Margaret Cunningham was sixteen when their paths parted in 1924. More than six decades later, in 1986, Margaret and her brothers stopped by Alfred’s box at the Saratoga racecourse to say hello.

“He remembered me at once and invited me to his box,” Margaret recalls. “He always asked for every one of us individually. The Vander­bilts were real people,” she says.

Alfred relived more of his own history that same summer when he, his son Michael and their good friend Anne LaBastille visited Sagamore. Alfred and Michael marked their initials and heights on the door frame where, Alfred says, “Mother used to back me up to the wall with a flat book.”

Today, Alfred has reduced his racing stable from eighty horses to six, and he’s having trouble reading the racing program. His eyesight has deteriorated in the past year or so from macula degeneration. “There’s nothing to be done, it’s the aging process,” he says. The binoculars in his box are for his guests.

Margaret still comes up to Sagamore from North Creek several times a year to give friends and family a personal tour.

Both Alfred and Margaret planned to return to the camp this year, to experience a small taste of their pasts and in the process prove that sometimes the lines between upstairs and downstairs are inex­tricably interwoven. Despite the plain differences between a million­aire’s son and a caretaker’s daughter, Sagamore was a home to both.

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