How a Blue Mountain Lake Great Camp Became an Artists’ and Activists’ Retreat

by | October 2022

photograph by Carrie Marie Burr

The driveway’s easy to miss, a stony track off a small highway in the middle of the Adirondacks that takes you through the woods and over a bridge, past the caretaker’s house and barns, before climbing through a field and around to the great house on the lake, 12 rooms where artists and activists from around the world gather for monthlong retreats—a hideaway in the wilderness to think, talk and create. This is Blue Mountain Center.

It’s the last four-week residency of the year, early October, but the weather feels much later, a cold gray mist swirling up from the lake. The director of the center, Ben Strader, has gathered the new residents on the porch for the start of what he calls his walkabout tour. Many of the arrivals have never heard of the Adirondacks before, much less visited, and Ben hopes his tour of the grounds and its history will give them a sense of the place, an introduction to the land and the people who lived before them.

Among the group are a writer from Oakland working on prison reform and a filmmaker from Puerto Rico helping hurricane victims. There’s a Black writer from New Haven writing about a murdered family member, and a white couple from Chicago, union organizers writing their memoirs. There’s an Indian-American writer who runs the Unicorn Author’s Club and a poet who runs the Soul Fire Farm, south of Albany, who’s also a founding member of the hip-hop group Climbing Poetree.

A large wood house

Eagle’s Nest. Photograph by Carrie Marie Burr

They’re standing on the porch of the great clubhouse, built in 1899 by William West Durant, the centerpiece of what he dreamed would be a hundred great  homes around Eagle Lake. Down the long front lawn to Eagle’s shore, past where the Casino and the Post Office used to be, are the docks where Durant’s steamboats once landed, when it was possible to take the overnight train from New York City and land in Eagle’s Nest the following afternoon, time enough for a round of golf before cocktails on the great porch.

To the right of the porch, across the small stream, the group can see the house known as the Gray Cottage, where the mining executive Harold Hochschild used to live. Harold’s father bought Eagle’s Nest in 1904, out of the bankruptcy of Durant, and though Harold spent much of his time in Manhattan, managing his company’s wealth of African holdings, it’s in the Adirondacks where his greatest legacies live—from writing Township 34, the invaluable history of the area, to founding the Adirondack Museum (now Adirondack Experience), in 1957, and chairing the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, whose findings paved the way for the Adirondack Park we know today. But Harold’s most enduring contribution to the world might be his least known: the repurposing of Eagle’s Nest into Blue Mountain Center.

Ben leads the group down the lawn to the lake and he begins his story, not with the great men of history who lived there, but with the residents we don’t know, the Indigenous people who interacted with the lakes and forests for thousands of years, before it was ever called a park.

One of those people was Mitchell Sabattis, an Abenaki man who knew well the lands around Eagle’s Nest. Mitchell was one of the most sought-after guides in the Adirondacks, leading “sports” through their new country’s wilderness.

It was likely Sabattis who guided the surveyor Ebenezer Emmons on the first recorded expedition into the area, in 1840. By the time Emmons was finished he’d named lakes after his wife, his companion’s wife, and his companion’s mother. None of those names lasted. Other men came to rename them.

Hochschild’s book Township 34 gives innumerable pages to all the people whose names became places. The writer calls his book “A History, with Digressions,” and his chapters meander like one of Emmons’s expeditions, stopping here to tell a tale, then getting lost in another, then finding another story forward. The township he describes covers less than 39 square miles, from Rock Lake to Raquette, but the history he gives us is a universe, exhaustively researched and eminently readable, full of passion for those who built it and fairness for how they lived.

The first residents of Eagle’s Nest are a mystery to us, despite the numerous pages Hochschild spends trying to find them. Two land transfers from the 1850s mention 100 cleared acres, a cabin and a barn on the site, and no details about the inhabitants. Hochschild finally posits that the land was a stop on the Underground Railroad, cleared at the behest of Gerrit Smith, the wealthy abolitionist who deeded more than 100,000 acres of his holdings to African Americans. Whoever lived at that stop didn’t stay.

There is no mystery about the next resident of Eagle’s Nest, and Hochschild’s description of the dime novelist Ned Buntline is as fantastic as any of Ned’s books. Six dates of birth are claimed for Buntline, each of them a dark and stormy night. What followed was a life of riots and duels and serialized marriages. Ned fought in the great wars of his time, and attached himself the rank of colonel, even though the private probably never came close to a battle.

In Kentucky in the 1840s Buntline became the leader of the xenophobic group The United Sons of America. He left there after killing a Mr. Robert Porterfield, who accused him of being too friendly with Mrs. Porterfield. A few years later Buntline was sentenced to a year in prison for starting the Astor Place Riots in New York City, in which 23 people were killed. Two years after that he was indicted for causing an election riot in which several more citizens were slain. Some say it was this case that pushed him to escape to the Adirondacks. Hochschild thinks it more likely he was sent by his publishers, to cut down on his drinking.

Not long after he settled in the cabin, he married his housekeeper Eva Gardiner, who died in childbirth a year later. The next year, Buntline was married again, to Kate Myers, of Chappaqua. She left him shortly after having his child, as soon as the spring thaw made it possible.

It was Buntline who named the land Eagle’s Nest, and the water it fronts Eagle Lake, after the pair of predators that had also settled there. He buried Eva and the baby in the corner of the property. Forty years later her body was exhumed by the next resident of Eagle’s Nest, W. W. Durant, while planning his golf course.

William West was the son of Thomas Durant, whose Union Pacific built the eastern leg of the Intercontinental Railroad. Thomas tried to build a line through the Adirondacks, from Saratoga to Sackett’s Harbor, but only made it 60 miles before running out of money. His Adirondack Company went bankrupt, though Thomas held onto its property, 300,000 acres the state had given away for six cents an acre—lands his son inherited.

Hochschild’s book is dedicated to W. W. Durant and one can see why. He dreamed big and built his dreams, no matter the cost. His first Great Camp he called Pine Knot, based on the Swiss chalets he’d seen in boarding school, with details you didn’t find in the woods, like a piano built into the wall. Pretty soon all his rich friends wanted one—the problem was his camps always cost more than he could sell them for. He built Sagamore, then sold it at a loss to Alfred G. Vanderbilt. He built Uncas, sold at a loss to J. P. Morgan. Then came his dreams for Eagle’s Nest, in which he poured every cent he had left.

His Country Club opened in August 1900, with an eight-piece orchestra brought up from Utica and one of golf’s immortals—Harry Vardon—hired to play there. To get to Eagle’s Nest his guests would leave the main rail line in Old Forge to take a private train to Raquette. There they’d ride a steamboat through the Marion River to board the mile-long train he had built, the shortest in the world, to get them to another steamboat to carry them the last three miles to Eagle. While Harry Vardon played, Durant waited for the money to come in. It never did.

Hochschild gives plenty of reasons for Durant’s demise, one being the typhoid epidemic of 1903, which started in the workersquarters at Eagle’s Nest, and closed the Prospect House, a resort on neighboring Blue Mountain Lake. Durant’s last hope collapsed when his greatest benefactor died. Thomas Huntington, leader of the Southern Pacific, had promised to cover the interest on Durant’s ballooning debt, but died at Camp Pine Knot before he could write the check.

Hochschild spent 30 years working on his Township 34. He’d finish his days at the office with long evenings sealed in his room in the Gray Cottage, searching through tax rolls and maps. Days off he was out interviewing locals, including Durant, who was managing a hotel in North Creek, dreaming of his next big break. His history is perhaps richest for the respect he gives not just the Durants and Morgans and Vanderbilts, but the men and women who cooked and drove and cut and built for them. By all accounts that I’ve seen, that respect was returned. The Adirondack Experience museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, has many oral histories of those who knew Harold, from his longtime cook, Evelyn Thompson, to locals who attended his parties, or served with him on the Park Commission, and in one way or another they call him great, all of them grateful for having known him.

The only record I found of anyone not loving Harold Hochschild comes from the one who likely loved him the most, and struggled the most to show it, Harold’s only son, Adam. In his 1986 book, Half the Way Home, A Memoir of Father and Son, Adam recounts his abiding fear of his father’s disappointment, his fight for light in the great man’s shadow. Harold Hochschild ran a multinational mining company, and hosted parties attended by ambassadors and ballerinas. His life was organized to the minute, including a swim every evening before dinner, across the lake and back, with one of his servants rowing behind him. But later, confronted by the silence of his son at dinner, he didn’t know how to reach across the table between them.

In the book, Adam describes a visit with his father to one of the company’s copper mines in Zambia. What he remembers most are the Black miners, “the whites of their eyes standing out in grimed faces beneath helmets, in the heat, thousands of feet below the earth.” On the surface was a street called Hochschild Crescent, but underneath, the men were making less than a dollar a day: “How many black miners died,” Adam asks, “to make life at Eagle’s Nest possible?”

Adam takes another trip to Africa with his father. He’s in college now, and instead of going home with his father, he travels south to Cape Town. There he meets Patrick Duncan, a young white man of privilege, who runs an anti-apartheid newspaper. Duncan, the son of a cabinet minister, has been jailed three times for his convictions. “Unlike me,” Adam writes, “he was not weighed down by a sense of guilt, or by the effort of trying to deny his origins. He was driven only by a burning passion for justice.”

The following summer Adam returns to work for Duncan’s newspaper, against his father’s wishes. Two years later he’s volunteering as a civil rights worker in Mississippi. He gets a job for Ramparts magazine, covering student strikers, war resisters, the street battles in Chicago. He leaves Ramparts in 1976 to co-found Mother Jones magazine, whose masthead still proclaims, “Smart Fearless Journalism.”

Adam’s memoir ends true to its title, with both men meeting half the way home. In the late ’70s, late in his father’s life, they began talking about the future of Eagle’s Nest. Adam didn’t want to live there, and Harold, a writer like his son, came up with the idea of turning it into a writers’ retreat. Adam liked it too, but he wanted something more from the place, and he knew the person who could do it.

He met Harriet Barlow in 1979, working together for the Citizen’s Party. Harriet had a history of community building, and came up with an idea for the property, a retreat not just for artists, but activists and organizers and cultural workers as well, creating individually, and making change together. For 37 years Harriet stayed as director, feeding and watering the idea of Blue Mountain Center (BMC). The work continues today under Ben Strader and his assistant, Nica Horvitz.

I came to BMC in August of 2000. I’d been a paramedic for many years in New York City, and had just published my first novel, about a first responder with severe PTSD. I lived in the Gray Cottage for that month and shared a bathroom with a couple from Milwaukee. She would eventually win a MacArthur grant for her work creating theater pieces from the oral histories of dementia patients. He was making a documentary about the survivors of the Attica prison uprising.

I first heard about BMC from a coworker, Maggie Dubris, a paramedic, poet and lead guitarist of Homer Erotic, an all-women poets’ band that was a regular event in downtown clubs back then. Maggie wrote her first novel at BMC in the 1980s. At another residency there, she collaborated with a graphic artist to create The Dust Zone, a book risen from the ashes of September 11th. She’s now working with a composer she also met at BMC. They wrote an opera together, based on her recent book, Brokedown Palace.

BMC was closed to residents in 2020, but that didn’t stop it from working. Ben’s assistant that year, Sawyer Cresap, was there just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. With no residents to look after, she began calling local community leaders in Hamilton County, asking, “What can BMC do?” She put together an organization called Hamilton Helps, finding ways for local agencies to work together and share resources. It’s the kind of thing BMC people are good at: writing grants, building a website, and as Sawyer puts it, greasing the wheels of partnership. 

Her first question was, “How do we make sure locals have enough to eat?” With the help and direction of Brenda Valentine, of the Indian Lake Development Corporation, they coordinated four meal distribution sites, raised money for a freezer, disseminated food vouchers and distributed masks made by local crafters. Much of this was made possible by a grant from the Adirondack Foundation, whose CEO, Cali Brooks, was once an assistant director at BMC.

One of the stops on Ben’s walkabout tour is the BMC garden, located not far from where Ned Buntline buried his wife Eva, on the first fairway of Durant’s golf course. In the corner is a memorial honoring all of the previous BMC residents who’ve died. Ben takes the time to read their names. One of the new arrivals raises her hand. “Are you going to read my name when I die?” she asks. “Yes, we will,” he says.

What I remember best of my time there isn’t the woods that inspired me nor the words I wrote, but our conversations at the long dining room table. Blue Mountain Center has produced more than its share of MacArthur awards and Pulitzers, but for me, the real hero is the place itself—a community of smart and fearless people like Maggie and Sawyer, all striving to make the world a better place.    

Joe Connelly is the author of the novels Bringing Out the Dead—made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese—and Crumbtown. He lives in North River.


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