NEWCOMB - The Adirondack Park is well known for its natural places: vast forests, quiet backcountry ponds and rugged High Peaks.
On Monday, Feb. 20, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens made an effort to point out a sometimes forgotten aspect of the Forest Preserve: the parts built by humans.
Martens led a ski party of about 15 people 5 miles into the remote woods to Camp Santanoni, a refurbished great camp built in 1893 on the shore of Newcomb Lake. The sojourn came during the second of three weekends in which the public was invited to tour the insides of the rustic buildings normally shuttered during the winter months.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens takes a break during his ski to Camp Santanoni on Monday, Feb. 20.
The open houses are a cooperative effort of the DEC, Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the town of Newcomb and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry's Adirondack Interpretive Center.
Talking to a collection of people that consisted mainly of reporters, fellow DEC employees and AARCH members, Martens said that he wanted to let people realize the Park is not just a wilderness area.
"Personally, I've always been a huge proponent of the cultural resources in the Park," Martens said. "I obviously want to do everything I can as commissioner (to show that). This open house weekend is one example of that."
The state got Camp Santanoni and the surrounding land in 1972 as a gift from The Nature Conservancy, which had recently purchased it from the Melvin family, the first major venture for TNC's new Adirondack Chapter. The Melvin family sold it after one of its members, 8-year-old Douglas Legg, disappeared into the woods and was never seen again.
Prior to the Melvins, the great camp was owned by the Pruyn family, who had it built. Robert Pruyn was a wealthy Albany banker fascinated with agriculture, and his wife Anna was interested in nature. At Santanoni, they both got what they wanted.
The camp consists of three sets of buildings: the gate lodge complex, farm buildings, and the main camp situated on Newcomb Lake.
The farm buildings are located about a mile into the ski trip, which follows an old carriage road. The main lodge is another 4 miles in.
After skiing to the camp, Martens and his ski party filled one of the smaller structures called the Artist's Studio. Inside the stone building, Martens again addressed the crowd before breaking into conversation with Tupper Lake resident Michael Frenette, a carpenter who has spent 15 years restoring the camp buildings. Other people sat on benches, sipping warm beverages as a woodstove heated up the room.
Frenette remarked about the great number of people who had visited the camp during the weekend. Forest Ranger Delbert Jeffery estimated about 200 people had skied or snowshoed the property Saturday through early Monday.
After a lunch period, the group took a tour and listened to a short history lesson from AARCH Executive Director Steven Englehardt, who also noted that $1.7 million has been invested into the camp buildings over a 15-year period.
"This is a huge achievement to get to this place," he said. "Now we have something that we can really encourage the public to visit in a more active way."
That wasn't always the case.
For the first two decades of its ownership, the state let the buildings deteriorate. Their future remained in flux because they were located on the Forest Preserve, similar to the situation that occurred in recent decades with fire towers throughout the Adirondacks.
Eventually, in 1990, AARCH, Newcomb and the Preservation League of New York State led a movement to preserve the buildings. The state endorsed this concept two years later, and in 2000 created the Santanoni Historic Area.
Since 1998, the Friends of Camp Santanoni - which includes DEC, AARCH and Newcomb, among others - have provided financial support and volunteers to do things like run open houses.
"Without a friends group, DEC just wouldn't be able to do it because we don't have enough resources to put into facilities like this," Martens said.
Now the DEC is hoping the investment and restored Great Camp attracts visitors to it and the nearby town of Newcomb.
"It's great for DEC to be helping this historic landmark stay here and let it be valued and used by the public," said DEC Region 5 Director Robert Stegemann, who was also part of the trip. "This is kind of eye opener for the public to be able to come in and see and realize it's here."
The next open house at Santanoni is the weekend of March 17.