When the NFL Summered in Saranac Lake

by | February 2022, History

image courtesy of the Adirondack Research Room, Saranac Lake Library

For a handful of Augusts, Saranac Lake was the summer home of professional football in the Northeast. Between 1946 and 1951, the Philadelphia Eagles and then the New York Football Giants held their training camps in the village. The National Hockey League’s New York Rangers also prepared for their 1949–1953 seasons in Saranac Lake.

Saranac Lake had long been a home away from home for people struggling with the devastation of tuberculosis. Philadelphia Eagles owner Alexis Thompson, too, found the crisp air of the Adirondacks invigorating. Thompson, a one-time Olympic hopeful in the bobsled who represented the US in field hockey at the 1936 Olympics, had spent a considerable amount of time in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake as part of his training for international competitions. Thompson was a member of the four-man bobsled team that competed in the 1939 World Championships and may well have participated in the 1940 games in Sapporo, Japan, had they not been canceled due to World War II. Thompson, grandson of one of the founders of Republic Steel, con­tented himself with buying his way into the National Foot­ball League. Initially, Thompson bought the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1940 from Art Rooney, who then purchased a majority interest in the Philadelphia Eagles. They swapped franchises the following year.

After the restrictions and rationing of World War II ended, Thompson made Saranac Lake the site of his first significant investment in the Eagles franchise. In 1946, he bought a languishing estate on Lake Street that overlooked the high school and the village’s municipal fields on Petrova Avenue. Thompson named his new estate “Eagles Nest” and remade it into a veritable resort. The facility could accommodate 70 people, had a full dining room, hotel-quality kitchen, and recreation room. For several years, Thompson made his private quarters in the basement available to the US bobsled team, who stayed at Eagles Nest during their training. All told, Thompson spent $50,000 on the estate, which had formerly been a tuberculosis cure cottage.

Amid the comfortable environs, Philadelphia Eagles coach Earle “Greasy” Neale remade his team into world champions. The Eagles had been good when they first got to Saranac Lake. Philadelphia finished second in the NFL’s Eastern Division in 1944 and 1945 and did so once again in 1946, their first year at Eagles Nest. In 1947, the Eagles won their first Eastern Division championship and followed it up in 1948 with their first NFL title. While in Saranac Lake, Neale installed the “Eagle Defense,” an alignment that evolved into the 4-3 defense. (The addition of a third linebacker to the defensive package gives a club more flexibility to either rush the passer or employ an additional defender in pass coverage.) At the same time, the Eagles assembled an em­barrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball, including league-leading rusher Steve Van Buren, gunslinging veteran quarterback Tommy Thompson, and speedy receivers Pete Pihos and Jack Ferrante.

Locals and tourists delighted in the presence of one of the NFL’s elite teams in town. Intersquad exhibitions featuring the 60 or so players seeking spots on the roster drew standing-room-only crowds that numbered in the thousands. Locals watched practices and rubbed shoulders with the players in the village.

The summer of 1948 proved to be the Eagles’ last in Saranac Lake. Thompson suffered an acute case of appendicitis that forced him to miss his franchise’s greatest triumph, a 7-0 upset victory over the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL Championship Game. In early 1949, he sold his Eagles to a Philadelphia syndicate known as the “Happy Hundred,” but kept the team’s former retreat in Saranac Lake.

Professional football returned to Saranac Lake for the summer of 1949, as the New York Football Giants, another perennial football power, brought their training camp to Eagles Nest. Thompson convinced his friend Tim Mara, the Giants founder and principal owner, of the virtues of a summer spent toiling in the heart of the Adirondacks. When Mara, longtime Giants coach Steve Owen, several dozen prospective players, and several dozen members of the New York sporting press trekked north to Saranac Lake, they brought a decidedly more carnivalesque atmosphere to the North Country than the comparatively sedate Eagles.

Large numbers of well-wishers greeted the train that brought the Giants and their motley entourage to town. The blow-by-blow of training camp life was followed closely by daily newspapers. Several of the players were legitimate celebrities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. New York’s ruggedly handsome quarterback, Charlie Conerly, was a noted man-about-town in Manhattan. Conerly later became even more famous as the “Marlboro Man.” Kyle Rote, the number one pick in the 1951 NFL Draft, had finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy and spent several seasons as one of the country’s best known amateur athletes before ever playing a down in the NFL.

The Giants, too, proved highly successful during their tenure in Saranac Lake. New York won its division in 1950 with a 10-2 record and finished second in 1951 with a 9-2-1 mark. But the good times didn’t last.

In February 1952, the New York Giants announced that they would not return to Saranac Lake. The team’s 1952 exhibition games were mostly in the West, forcing the team to move its training camp as well. Eventually, the Giants made a brief return to the Northeast in the late 1950s, spending three summers at St. Michael’s College, in Winooski, Vermont, before heading back to the tri-state area, where the team has had a succession of summer homes.

Memories of Saranac Lake’s gridiron boys of summer faded over time. In 1953, an ailing Thompson sold Eagles Nest to a pair of local businessmen. In 1954, he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 40. Saranac Lakers Ken and Georgia Murphy purchased the estate in 1959. The Murphy family still owns the property, which includes many vestiges of its days as a pro-football retreat. In 1968, Saranac Lake built a new high school on Canaras Avenue, leaving the municipal fields where the Eagles and Giants practiced to the stewardship of the elementary and middle school. In 2017, the village found a way to honor its pro-football past with the addition of the Philadelphia Eagles to the town’s Walk of Fame. Strangely, the New York Giants, one of the most popular teams in the Adirondack region, have yet to be honored for their summers in Saranac Lake. 


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