The natural environment of the Adirondacks is at the heart of our history as a center for tuberculosis treatment. The fresh air and beauty of the region was believed to restore both body and spirit alike, and thousands came here from around the world in search of the fresh air cure.
Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau first visited the Adirondacks as a young “sport” from the city to hunt and fish at Paul Smith’s Hotel. He fell in love with the pristine setting and the excellent hunting opportunities. Then in the 1870s, stricken with tuberculosis, he decided to return to Paul Smith’s, expecting to die. But during the summer he spent at Smith’s hotel, his health improved dramatically. He credited the natural environment, and eventually he established a sanatorium in Saranac Lake so that others could benefit from the fresh Adirondack air.
For 70 years Saranac Lake grew and prospered as a health resort, becoming very much a little city in the heart of the Adirondacks. Trains came and went some 20 times a day. Main Street grew with many specialty shops catering to the tastes of city people. By the 1930s, when Isabel Smith was curing at Trudeau Sanatorium, the rugged Adirondacks had been drastically re-shaped by logging, railroads, and population growth. But for a city girl, Saranac Lake was a haven in the wilderness. Isabel developed a love of the natural world that sustained her through 21 years sick in bed.
The outdoor life belonged not just to the TB patients. Many year-round and summer residents describe some of their happiest memories as the times they spent outdoors in the Adirondacks. Historic Saranac Lake has documented hundreds of stories about summers at the beloved platform tents, camping at Fish Creek, hunting and fishing, the timeless historic Great Camps, and climbing the High Peaks.
Wilderness author Martha Reben has inspired many outdoor enthusiasts. After a year of unsuccessful curing at the Trudeau Sanatorium, Reben spotted an ad in the local newspaper for a different type of cure. Local boat builder and guide Fred Rice placed an advertisement seeking a patient to guide into the woods. Rice believed that TB patients who were spending their days in the village resting on cure porches would be better served by getting out into the forest. Martha Reben answered the ad and spent much of the next ten years camping in the great outdoors. There she found freedom from sickness and joy in the wildlife around her.
In her book, A Sharing of Joy, Martha wrote about hearing a flock of birds flying over her campsite:
“suddenly I saw, in one of those rare moments of insight, what it means to be wild and free. As they went over me, I was there with them, passing over the moonlit countryside…The haunted voices grew fainter and faded in distance, but I sat on, stirred by a memory of something beautiful and ancient and now lost – a forgotten freedom we must all once have shared with other wild things, which only they and the wilderness can still recall to us, so that life becomes again, for a time, the wonderful, sometimes frightening, but fiercely joyous treasure it was intended to be.”
Photos, from above: Images: Young Alex and Martha Dreyfoos with their mother at the family’s platform tent camp on Burnt Island, c.1937, courtesy Alex W. Dreyfoos, Jr., and The Healing Woods by Martha Reben.