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Historic crown jewel

History buffs have long known the Newcomb area to be a destination rich in heritage. One of the crown jewels of the region is Great Camp Santanoni and the Santanoni Preserve. In 1892 Robert and Anna Pruyn of Albany, New York, began construction of their dream retreat deep in the Adirondack wilderness. Pruyn was president of Embossing Company, a major toy manufacturer of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Pruyn also served as a member of the NYS Board of Regents and for 46 years was also President of National Commercial Bank of Albany, now known as Key Bank. He and his staff became very successful investors in that time period. He was a member of the extended family of the famed Finch Pruyn paper company, holders of vast tracts of land around Hamilton and Essex Counties, a large portion of which have been purchased by New York State and added to the Adirondack Park landholdings. The Robert Pruyn family enjoyed the Santanoni Preserve for well over 50 years.

Prior to its purchase by a land conservancy group and ultimately New York State in 1972, the Pruyn’s Santanoni Preserve included nearly fifty structures on almost 13,000 acres of land. After leaving the Gate-house just off route 28N in Newcomb, the 5-mile dirt road leading to the main camp traverses some of the most beautiful forestland in the Adirondacks and crosses several streams, ultimately ending at the main compound on the shore of Newcomb Lake. The compound included an experimental farm located approximately 1 mile into the road leading to the main house. The farm provided most all of the food served at Santanoni, including bacon, ham, milk, beef, and a wide array of vegetables and fruit. Many of the original farm buildings are still standing and in relatively good condition and are slowly being stabilized and preserved. They include a creamery and smokehouse as well as farm foreman’s residence and others. The cattle barn burned to the ground on July 13, 2004, in what was suspected to be an arson fire.
Here's what's left of the cattle barn:

The main complex

The central lodge is a grouping of six separate buildings—the main living and dining lodge with two bedrooms upstairs; four sleeping cabins with a total of seven bedrooms; and a kitchen and service building with seven staff bedrooms. All these were connected by a common roof and porch. The porches alone occupy 4,000 square feet of space. 1500 spruce trees were used in the massive log structures. Santanoni is an amazing example of rustic Adirondack Architecture and classic log construction.
Surrounding the main lodge on the lake shore are a boathouse and an artist's studio. In the woods behind the main lodge was another caretaker's home, a workshop, an ice house, and an assortment of service buildings. A little farther away, on the road from the farm, were two more staff houses and another horse and carriage barn. Many of these structures are unfortunately no longer standing.

Santanoni is designated as a State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) has been directly involved with its restoration and protection as well as interpretation of the preserve. AARCH offers several tour opportunities with interpretive guides throughout the year, including three during the winter.

AARCH tours

In September, as part of the Teddy Roosevelt Weekend, AARCH offered a weekend of guided tours. We jumped on board for the Sunday morning wagon ride and tour. The best part — it was free this weekend! If you’ve never been, it’s a great way to get to the camp if you aren’t inclined to hike, bike, or ski the approximate 10-mile round trip on the road. The rather large group gathered on Sunday morning at the Santanoni Gatehouse, just off route 28N. We were greeted by none other than Teddy Roosevelt!

(Greetings by none other than Teddy Roosevelt!)

Two wagons soon arrived, one drawn by two imposing Belgian draft horses, the other by a spectacular trio of Haflingers — an Austrian breed, the smallest of all draft horses. To arrange your own wagon ride into the preserve you can contact Newcombe Farm at 518.639.5534.

As we loaded in the wagon, everyone was excited at the prospect of a quick way to get to Santanoni Great Camp. My husband and I had ridden our bikes in several years before. It was a great ride, although if you’re out of shape be advised … there is a long downhill on the way in that is just so much fun. However, when leaving on the return, that long downhill becomes a looooooooong uphill!! It’s not so much steep as it is long - about a mile or two. Once we got going in the wagon we hadn’t realized that the horse-drawn wagons go a LOT slower than a bicycle does. In reality it took nearly two hours to get to the main camp. Given that the average human walking speed is 3.1 miles an hour, one could conceivably walk those 5 miles a bit faster than riding in a wagon. Don’t get me wrong, the wagon ride was pretty cool, but if you are capable of walking the 12 miles round trip, and you don’t really want to sit for two hours, it might be faster. We did stop at the location of the farm buildings for about 10 or 15 minutes to explore that area, so that added some time to the trip in.

The ride in

At any rate, the wagon ride was beautiful and we actually got to look around more because we weren’t speeding along on our bikes watching the road for bumps that could land us in the ditch if we weren’t alert. The primarily deciduous forest was awash with sunshine on this spectacular mid-September day, causing dappling and dancing starburst lighting on the trees and little brook that follows the road. As we approached the main camp area, we crossed a stone bridge, allowing us views up into the Duck Hole (great for paddling we are told - if you can get your boat there), and out onto Newcomb Lake on the other side. Along the road in that area were a couple of very nice grassy campsites (first-come, first-served, and free) complete with stone fireplaces and picnic tables.

Put this on your bucket list

Visiting Great Camp Santanoni should be high on everyone’s list of things to do. The ongoing restoration and stabilization is, of course, a work in progress. The buildings are open round the clock all summer until around Columbus Day, when they start closing and shuttering them for winter. You can walk through and see the buildings any time you arrive there. The main floor of the main house, the boathouse, the artist studio, and two of the buildings at the farm location are all open for exploring. Yes, there are rules for visiting - respect the historic buildings and treating them as an historic site should be treated. The big one is you can’t sleep in the buildings. There are other guidelines as well that you can find on the AARCH web page about Santanoni Preserve.
If you go, bring a lunch and drinks as it’s a pretty full 6-hour (or more) trip to fully explore and enjoy the experience. There are picnic tables on the main lodge porches for enjoying a meal in shade and comfort. Take time to wander through the buildings and imagine yourself enjoying a summer vacation here in the early 1900s. Skiing the road in winter offers a completely different perspective. Read this blog about the winter ski experience.

The boathouse

One of the best parts of the compound is the boat house, which was restored in recent years from very poor condition. Inside the boathouse are several canoes, a rowboat, and a single kayak that are available for use by anyone -— again, first-come, first-served. There are life jackets and paddles at the ready for exploration of Newcomb Lake. Definitely take advantage of this wonderful amenity! We didn’t have time to do so on our visit, but we’ll go back for this. Exploring Newcomb Lake by boat is not easy without these boats - it’s a very long carry to get your own boat in there.

(Inside the boathouse - the small fleet of boats available for anyone to use on a first-come, first-served basis.)

Our AARCH guide clued us in to the fact that the westerly-facing location and design of the house utilizes the late afternoon sunlight, which lights up all the rooms facing the lake in the late afternoon. So that’s a great time to visit just for that reason. Many design features were created based on observations Robert Pruyn had made of Japanese architecture while traveling in Japan with his father when he was 14. The experience influenced his lifetime fascination with Japanese culture and art and influences many aspects of the Preserve structures.

Below are several photos from around the main camp area, both inside and outside the buildings.

(Looking at the main camp from the shore of Newcomb Lake)

(View of Newcomb Lake from the front of the main camp)

(Fireplace in main lodge of Santanoni)

(The expansive porches of Santanoni occupy over 4,000-square feet - this is only a small portion!)

(Refrigeration and walk-in cooler. Room on left was the smoked meat storage. It still smells like bacon!)

(DEC Historic Preservation employee Jennifer Betsworth (green sweater) gave the tour and history of Santanoni)

(This corner of the front porch is dedicated to painting restoration by summer interns)

(The upper porch roof construction allows sunlight in to bathe the interior and porch areas in late afternoon light)

A sad ending to private ownership of Santanoni

The history of private ownership of Camp Santanoni has a sad ending. A family by the name of Melvin, from Syracuse, NY, purchased the estate in 1953. In 1971, the Melvin and extended family members were gathered at the estate for one last time before the property was to be sold to New York State. On July 10th some of the family, including 8- year-old Douglas Legg, a grandson of one of the Melvins, set out on a hike. Douglas was supposedly improperly dressed for the outing and was sent back a couple hundred yards to the camp to put on long pants and proper shoes. He was never seen again. One of the biggest manhunts in New York State history ensued, with no results. To this day, there has been no trace of Douglas Legg found.

For a complete history of the Santanoni Preserve, visit the AARCH website. There you can download a pdf file: “A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni”, which includes a detailed history of the compound. The AARCH site also has a map for you to explore.

If you plan a winter trip to Santanoni, read this blog about skiing the wagon road to the camp. It's just as beautiful in the winter. AARCH conducts winter tours on three weekends during winter: Martin Luther King, Presidents' Day, and mid-March.

(Skiing the wagon road to Santanoni is a beautiful way to spend a day in winter!)

Plan a weekend or weekday overnight to visit the rich historic destinations in and around Newcomb. Explore the area's lodging options and make your plans soon!

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