Adirondack Great Camp: The Santanoni Preserve

Editor's Note: This is the second of two posts submitted by Stef, the erstwhile author of the now-defunct Excelsior! Ever Upstate blog. Thanks go to her for donating her informative posts on the Third Onondaga County Courthouse and this one on Adirondack great camp Santanoni.

During the summer between your first and second years as a historic preservation grad student at Cornell, it is highly suggested that you take on an internship with a preservation-related organization. I landed a dream-come-true sort of position with Adirondack Architectural Heritage last summer (2005), living in the Gate House of and working at the Santanoni Preserve in Newcomb, NY.

Here is a bit of a blurb about Newcomb from my final report to AARCH:
If you aren't familiar with the Adirondacks, the town of Newcomb may come as a bit of a shock to you. As a native Upstater, I was well aware of the sort of hidden nature of Newcomb. There is no gas station, no supermarket, no discotheque, no hipster coffee shop, no sushi. What you will find in Newcomb is a town with no real business center, instead, it is stretched for a few miles down 28N. You can get ice cream and snacky-type food at Scoops and pick up yours and Santanoni's mail right next door. You will thrill at Bissell's store, but do not plan on doing all of your shopping there. Most of your grocery shopping will probably be done at the North Creek Tops (and you will find a shopper's club key tag in the desk drawer), with an occasional run to the Long Lake Stewart's or their small grocery. There is also a diner/general store just a short ways down the road from the Camp entrance as well as the Newcomb House across the street from the entrance if you are in need of libations.

So, I think I am making the point that there is very little in Newcomb. That, of course, is why spending the summer in Newcomb is so special. You will have managed to hide yourself away in a tucked-away little town and then go even further back into the woods, to a place that, while it has the story of a blockbuster movie, is still a secret to many.

Usually, AARCH has at least two interns working at the Preserve every summer, providing interpretation to visitors and working with the master timber framer and his crew on rehabilitation and conservation projects. However, due to a number of circumstances, I was the lone soul in 2005. In some ways, I wish there had been at least one other intern with me so that I could have learned from them and we could have certainly gotten more things done. However, I feel that I had a unique experience that I wouldn't trade away.

As I mentioned, the Preserve has an amazing history. It was built for Robert Pruyn, a prominent Albany banker, and his wife, Anna, to provide their family with one of the rustic getaways that were eventually dubbed the "Great Camps" of the Adirondacks. Santanoni was one of the first, with its construction taking place around the same time as the creation of the Adirondack Park in the early 1890s. The history of the Pruyn family's time at the camp is fascinating enough, as you trace their story from the era of Victorian elegance through to the extended family continuing to visit the camp in the more utilitarian post-war 1950s. The Japanese influence of the camp's design as well as the innovations in wilderness farming are enough to satisfy a historian's appetite.

Santanoni also has another more tragic chapter, though. The Pruyn descendants eventually sold the camp in the early 1950s to the Melvin family of Syracuse, also prominent business leaders. The Melvins enjoyed the camp until 1971, when one of the grandchildren, a boy named Douglas Legg, went missing and was never found. There are many rumors and speculation surrounding his disappearance, some completely ridiculous (stolen by band of roaming hippies), some cruel ones involving the boy's mental state and his uncle, and some plausible. I was lucky enough to speak with one of the New York State Troopers who handled the case and he related a story which I believe is the most likely of all the scenarios, involving the boy making his way over to the other side of Newcomb Lake and, due to heavy brush, disappearing from the sight of searchers. The state police were contacted by a former soldier in the 1990s who told them of a hunting trip he had been on in the late 1970s. He and a friend thought they may have come upon the boy's body, but were not aware of the story at the time and it was only when the camp came back into the news due to AARCH's efforts that they learned about Douglas Legg. Another search took place, but no evidence was found. The thing I find frustrating about the more salacious stories is that I don't think many people realize just how disorienting and difficult the terrain can be in the area. Just north of Newcomb is the High Peaks area and we've all heard about adults getting lost in there.

Truly, though, it is a tragic story and also led to the deterioration of the site as the Melvins sold the camp and it eventually ended up in the hands of the state. And so began the delicate balancing of caring for a historic site and managing a wilderness landscape.

I could go on for many more pixels about my time at Santanoni (and maybe I will in future posts), but for the moment, I strongly urge anyone with an interest in the Adirondacks, wilderness, architecture and/or preservation to visit the Santanoni Preserve. It is a truly unique site, a National Historic Landmark, and a place that needs much support right now as it finds its new identity (which is, indeed, a topic I should come back to). I am more than willing to answer any questions you might have about visiting, or you can contact AARCH for more information. Another great resource is the book Santanoni: From Japanese Temple to Life at an Adirondack Great Camp by Robert Engel (the first Santanoni intern), Howard Kirshenbaum, and Paul Malo.

(FYI - If you've read the York Staters at all, you probably know that Natalie and Jesse both worked at Sagamore, another Great Camp located in Raquette Lake [two Sagamore-ites did come visit Santanoni while I was there, I don't recall their names though]. I recommend taking a trip next summer to both camps to compare and contrast their stories.)

By Stef


NYCO said...

It's been a long time since I was up in Newcomb. I only ever would go near there on the way to see the Tahawus blast furnace. I really think Newcomb deserves the title of "remotest Adirondack burg."

My father was a guide for the State Troopers during the Douglas Legg search in '71. This was because he had spent a lot of time camping in the area when he was a kid. It was treacherous terrain, no question, because of a huge windstorm (hurricane remnant?) that had caused a big blowdown of trees in either the '30s or the '50s. The blown down trees had become overgrown with vegetation and as a result, in some places you could be walking on top of them and suddenly slip down and disappear. Because of this the searchers were unable to fan out as efficiently as they might have.

NYCO said...

Forgot to add about the search - It was a huge media circus at the time, and lots of people (my dad and his friends included) headed up there to help (or "help," as it were). The problem is that there was no one agency coordinating anything, and as a result, you had many hapless volunteers in danger of wandering off and getting lost themselves. My dad was put in charge of a group of these volunteers and he said he was mainly concerned with getting them back out of the woods before dark.

The Douglas Legg search was a wake-up call and I think they finally settled on one agency or protocol for organized searches in NY after that.

Natalie said...

NYCO - Who was Douglas Legg?

I remember one of our first days over at Sagamore, we took a hike with our boss to get a sense of the landscape around camp, and to see the remains of human activity that were now returning to a 'wild' state. We came across some clearings - one was an old farm field, some others were from logging in the 70s, but the last one was the place where police and volunteers had set up camp while searching for the shallow grave of Sara Ann Wood. Sara Ann Wood was the first and biggest kidnapping that I remember, it made every parent nervous about turning their kids loose outside.

Perhaps there's some bizarre great camp/missing person connection...

Stefanie Noble said...

NYCO - Wow... Thanks for your thoughts and your dad's story.

I'm pretty sure that Douglas Legg (he was one of the grandchildren of the Melvins, the second owners of Santanoni) and Sara Ann Wood are/were the largest search operations in the Adirondacks and the regions surrounding them. And Lewis Lent was tried in Herkimer (where I grew up) and that whole circus is indelible in my mind.

Phil said...

Stef, great photos. I'd like to hear more about your time at Santanoni.

I participated in the search for Douglas Legg in 1971. It was amazing how quickly rumors and speculation about what happened to the poor kid developed. One of the most vicious was that the family staged the whole thing in order to raise the value of the property. I never did see the logic in that one! I always thought he drowned: there is plenty of water and wetlands close by. As I recall, he went missing while walking from the beach to the main house.

The storm referenced above was in November 1950; it caused much damage in the high peaks but wasn't as bad closer to Newcomb. It's been known ever since as the Great Blowdown; it generated considerable constitutional controversy when the New York Attorney General issued an opinion permitting salvage work on the Forest Preserve.

Since 1971, I've hiked in to the camp several times, though not recently. It's a fascinating spot.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember the search for Robert Potter of Fayetteville, NY in the late 60's ? He was hunting, an outdoorsman and "lost". I vaguely remember by father going up to search for him. Do you remember any details or where I could look for any articles ?

Ken said...


I'm interesting in learning more about the Japanese influence on construction of Santanoni. Do you know if Charles Pruyn's diaries or correspondence are available?



Anonymous said...

I also participated in the Legg search and remember going out onto a bog with a State Trooper against my advice and ended up pulling him out of the bog he sunk up to his arm pits in. At one time there were almost 3000 people in the wooded area looking for him and never found a sign. There have been several people lost in the high peaks area that were never found. One of the good things that did come out of this was that it brought our attention to the need of professional search and rescue. Moved to the Tahawus area in 1949 and felt in 1975. Lots of great memories and times.

Anonymous said...

What if Douglas Legg is still alive, living in the North Woods? Perhaps he lives like Thoreau, with no formal address, in a hut.

novalee518 said...

My wife and I visited Santanoni in the fall of 08. We went on a day trip "orientation" of the camp with the Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). AARCH is dedicated to preserving the irreplaceable architecture, historic places and communities of the Adirondack Park (AP).
The AP was created in 1892 by the State of New York amid concerns for the water and timber resources of the region. Today the Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined. The boundary of the Park encompasses approximately 6 million acres, nearly half of which belongs to all the people of New York State and is constitutionally protected to remain “forever wild” forest preserve. The remaining half of the Park is private land which includes settlements, farms, timber lands, businesses, homes, and camps.
The AP itself is AMAZING and offers many opportunities to explore the NY people seldom know anthing of. This is the "upstate NY" few people, including NY residents, know very much of. Learn more by doing a "GOOGLE" search of the AP; better yet, plan a trip there.
For more information on Santanoni, google AARCH, visit www.aarch.org or call 518-834-9328.
P.S. It's larger, more diverse and more interesting than Disney World. And, like Disney, "you can't do it justice in one day".