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Rebirth of the Adirondack healing woods

July 28, 2010
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

The Adirondack region has a long and storied history as a health resort, and for many years it served as a second home for people suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. In modern times, the region has served as a backdrop for a host of adventure-based therapy programs, rehab centers and correctional facilities.

    I attended a meeting recently with a diverse group of people at the Trudeau Institute, on the shores of the Lower Saranac Lake. It was an enlightening, exciting, sad and hopeful gathering. The people came to discuss the Patriot Hills project and to discover what the community had to offer. They also wanted to find out what our returning veterans would need.

    The powerful group featured a General and a celebrity, counselors and clergy, numerous veterans and many members of the local community. Together, they expressed a powerful hope during a powerful meeting. The atmosphere was charged and the process was both exciting and enlightening to witness.

    It was a moving experience to hear their collective stories. It was also interesting to learn about the importance of honoring and serving the proud and valiant individuals who have served. Our veterans have served not just the nation, they have served for all of us.

    The purpose of the gathering was to explore and share resources that may allow Saranac Lake, and the Adirondacks as a whole, an opportunity to reciprocate and honor the brave men and women who have served.

    By the close of the meeting, everyone in the room wanted to give a little something to those who had been willing to give their all.

    It wouldn’t be the first time that Adirondackers have been willing to step up to the plate. Historically, the North Country has been at the forefront of providing for our servicemen and women.

    After the Civil War, the Adirondacks were discovered as “sporting clubs touted the fish-filled waters as essential for national healing.” Wilderness was no longer considered an area to be feared and avoided, rather it was found to be a healthy and restorative atmosphere.

    George Perkins Marsh, considered one of the country’s first environmentalists, was also a scholar of military science and a leading authority on the valuable benefits of outdoor recreation. Marsh, who first worked as a lawyer in Burlington, Vt., and later as a diplomat, believed that wilderness was an integral part of the American democratic spirit.

    In 1864, he published Man and Nature, which is credited with launching the modern conservation movement. The book played an essential role in the creation of the Adirondack Park.

    Marsh believed it was necessary to maintain public access to American woods and waters for everyone to enjoy. Unlike the practice in many European countries, where rivers and wild lands were considered the sole provenance of the elite

    In the 1870s, veterans began seeking outdoor experiences in the Adirondack wilderness in efforts to cure “soldier’s heart,” an affliction first observed in soldiers during the American Civil War.

    The illness, which has been ascribed numerous labels over the years, is still as viable and painful today as it was in the 1870s. It has been called shell shock, battle fatigue, the thousand-mile stare, combat stress reaction, chronic fatigue syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Veterans of foreign wars have been returning home for centuries with the malady. However, it’s effects are more recognizable in current time, as veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are arriving home faster than ever before.

    No longer does their journey home require a months-long exercise in troop ships, planes, trains and automobiles. Many of today’s vets are shuttled from downtown Baghdad to Broadway in less than a week, with little time for decompression and even less time for reintegration. Many of these troops are also citizen soldiers, National Guardsmen and Army Reservists, who return immediately to their jobs, families and regular routines.

    The Adirondack region has been assisting returning vets with the process of reintegration and readjustment to life outside the military for years.

    Whiteface Mountain is a monument to these efforts. The Whiteface Mountain Veteran’s Memorial Highway was established as a venue that would allow veterans to enjoy the view from a mountain summit. It was rededicated to our troops in 1985.

    Designers, concerned with accessibility, constructed a tunnel through the bedrock to enable disabled veterans to access an elevator that would deliver them to the summit of the fifth tallest peak in the state.

    Today, the Whiteface Mountain Veteran’s Mountain Highway is being used for both war and peace. Utilized by many vets for vacation purposes, Whiteface Mountain also functions as a training ground for helicopter pilots practicing high-elevation takeoffs and landings.

    It isn’t the first time that the Park has filled a need for retuning war veterans, and I hope it won’t be the last.

    In the archives of the New York Times, I discovered an interesting article dated April 20, 1922. The piece describes efforts to establish the Veterans’ Mountain Camp on the shores of Tupper Lake.  The facility, which operated from the 1920s until 1965, included both a men’s and women’s dormitory, mess hall, recreation hall, hospital and numerous workshops.

    The facility functioned as a convalescent home for WWI vets and also operated an “Outpost Camp” on nearby Horseshoe Lake. The outpost was accessible from the main complex via a special rail station that took vets to nearby Horseshoe Station.

    At the Horseshoe Lake Outpost, veterans and their families spent the summer season in tents and small cabins, enjoying the outdoor life while swimming, boating and fishing.

    Amazingly, the facility was allowed to violate principles of Article 14, the Forever Wild clause that protects the Adirondack Park. They were permitted to cut trees for the establishment of cabins, a mess hall, and a small infirmary on Forest Preserve Lands.

    Will history repeat itself? I hope so.

The following are excerpts from the New York Times in 1922:

The Veterans’ Mountain Camp

    No sentiment is more widespread or sincere than that “nothing is too good” for the men who were in the war. The Veterans’ Mountain Camp, promoted and largely financed by the New York Department of the American Legion, promises to be almost good enough.

    The need is urgent. There is as yet no governmental Convalescent Hospital. As soon as a patient is able to leave he is discharged and thrown upon his own resources. Few of these are really cured.

    Many of them, especially the tubercular, come back for treatment and are often denied admittance due to a lack of beds. The legion, despairing of adequate aid from government, state or private sources has set about providing it’s own home for convalescent.

    The Barbour Camp in the Saranac region of the Adirondacks is to be acquired with 1,200 acres having a shoreline of 2.6 miles on Big Tupper Lake. The luxurious Main Camp is to be used as an Infirmary for 20 some beds.

    There is the usual equipment of farmhouse, root cellar and barn beside a handsome recreation hall and four large motorboats.

    Log lean-tos are to be built for convalescents, permission having been granted to place them on the lakes and streams of the adjacent forest preserve, with kitchens and mess rooms conveniently located.

    The average stay for patients in city hospitals is about two weeks, but the Legion hopes to extend that time to three weeks. With 100 beds in the open, the Mountain Camp will be able to care for 1,700 patients a year.

    The only condition for admission will be an honorable discharge from the service and genuine need of treatment. Preference will be given to veterans of New York state but when possible, all comers will be welcomed.

    To cover present expenses and provide for gradual enlargement, the Legion has undertaken to raise an endowment fund of $2,500,000. The primary canvass is being made among the Legion Posts, but outside help will be welcome. It is a cause that should appeal to all for whom “nothing is too good” to receive at least adequate treatment for their maladies.

Article Photos

The former men’s dormitory of the American Legion Veterans Mountain Camp on Tupper Lake is now a private camp. The building, which was painstakingly restored to it’s original condition, has earned awards from the Adirondack Architectural Heritage Association.
Photo provided



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