Albert Einstein: almost under the lake
SARANAC LAKE – This year’s Winter Carnival theme, “Under the Sea,” reminds us of stories about world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein who, during his visits to Saranac Lake, almost ended up under the lake. Einstein loved to sail, but he didn’t know how to swim, and more than once he capsized in his sailboat and had to be rescued.
Sightings of Einstein on Lower Saranac Lake were a frequent occurrence. Reporter Richard Lewis wrote, “Natives of the Saranac Lake area declare that Prof. Einstein is an expert sail boater, but expressed apprehension for him while he is on the lake, for neither he nor his sister, it was said, know how to swim.”
During the summer of 1941, Einstein’s boat capsized, and a young local hero, Don Duso, came to his rescue. Ten-year-old Duso was out in a small motorboat when he saw the boat capsize. By the time the youngster got there, the scientist was under the water, with his foot caught in the boat’s rigging. Said Duso, “He was down for the count. If I had not been nearby, he probably would have drowned.”
Albert Einstein first came to Saranac Lake during the summers of 1936 and 1937. During those first two summers he rented architect William Distin’s house at the Glenwood Estates. He returned to Saranac Lake throughout the ’40s and was one of many prominent Jewish-Americans who stayed at the beautiful Knollwood Club on Lower Saranac Lake.
The Knollwood Club was built for six friends: Louis Marshall, Daniel Guggenheim, George Blumenthal, Elias Asiel, Max Nathan and A.N. Stein. The choice of Lower Saranac Lake as the site was determined in part by the growing anti-Semitism in America in that period. In 1877, Joseph Seligman was involved in the most publicized anti-Semitic incident in American history up to that point, being denied entry into the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs. After that, anti-Semitism became more overt, and Jews were excluded from other resorts, most notably the Lake Placid Club. William West Durant owned much of the land bordering the Saranac Lakes and was more than willing to sell to any buyer. As a result, many of the great camps and cottages on the Saranac Lakes were built by Jewish families.
Einstein was in Saranac Lake in the summer of 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was in the kitchen at Knollwood’s Cottage 6 when he heard the news on the radio.
Although famous worldwide for his pacifist views, Einstein had written a letter in 1939 to President Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany could be developing an atomic bomb and that the U.S. would be wise to get there first.
Albany Times Union reporter Richard Lewis interviewed Einstein that day at Knollwood and quoted him saying, “In developing atomic or nuclear energy, science did not draw upon supernatural strength, but merely imitated the reaction of the sun’s rays. Atomic power is no more unnatural than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” Einstein later said he regretted the 1939 letter to Roosevelt. He argued against U.S. development of a nuclear arsenal and instead advocated that the United Nations control the world’s nuclear weapons for deterrence.
Einstein hosted numerous visitors during his vacations in Saranac Lake. In 1998, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise revisited Albert Einstein’s history in Saranac Lake, recounting one local resident’s memories of a mysterious Russian friend who visited Einstein. The woman matched the description of Margarita Konenkova, the Russian spy who is now known to have had a romantic liaison with the scientist.
Historic Saranac Lake will be teaming up with our modern-day scientists out at Trudeau Institute to revisit this interesting local history. Count how many Einsteins you spot in the parade.
Gardinier, Bob (Dec. 18, 2006) “Einstein in Saranac Lake,” www.timesunion.com
Fairbanks, Sandi (2008) “All Points North,” www.apnmag.com/summer_2008/fairbanks_einstein.php
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#Atomic_bomb, quoting sources: “Scientist Tells of Einstein’s A-bomb Regrets,” The Philadelphia Bulletin (May 13, 1955). (PDF document from the Swiss Federal Archives from Internet Archive.) and Einstein, Albert (11 1947). “Atomic War or Peace”. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved on 2008-03-23.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, June 19, 1998.
Pogrebin, Robin, “Love Letters by Einstein at Auction,” June 1, 1998. query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E07EFD9163BF932A35755C0A96E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1.