Into the mountains

“To be interviewed from morning to night as the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson is no joke, I assure you, however great an honor it may be.” — Mrs. Margaret Stevenson

Margaret Isabella Balfour was born on Feb. 11, 1829, in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was the 12th of 13 children and fourth daughter of the Rev. Dr. Lewis Balfour and his wife Henrietta Scott Smith. “Maggie” is the name by which Margaret was usually known through most of her life. In the South Seas she was “Aunt Maggie.”

Margaret was 19 when she married Thomas Stevenson, 30, in 1848. Their life together had started with a casual meeting on a train, and by Nov. 13, 1850, at 8 Howard Place in Edinburgh, their only child, Robert Louis Stevenson, was born. Margaret is repeatedly described as one of those people who go through life walking on the bright side and somehow able to keep a cheerful, at least optimistic, disposition in spite of uncheerful things. That would pay off mightily in the face of her husband’s ability to wallow in pessimism, melancholy and even guilt, Calvinistically speaking, for Thomas had a strong religious streak. “It was easy to see that much of the character, much of the courage, and much of the cheerfulness of Louis came from his mother,” said Will H. Low, an artist who knew both of them, in his book “A Chronicle of Friendships” (1908). Following the funeral of Thomas, who had died at 69 in May 1887, Margaret was invited to join her son and his family on a journey to Colorado in the American Rockies, where the air was supposed to help people like RLS, who suffered from lung disease — usually tuberculosis but not in his case.

That’s how Maggie joined up with the Stevenson expedition, which had already spent the last seven years migrating around Europe in search of healthy places to live for its leader, Robert Louis Stevenson. Now, with Thomas gone and his mother with him, there was nothing to keep RLS close to home. This would be his second voyage to the New World, the one Will Low likes to call his “Second Coming” in his book.

Colorado as a destination would never be seen or thought of again after a New York physician advised his new patient to go north instead, to winter at a place just as good for the lungs of Louis but closer and cheaper, a place called Saranac Lake. And so it was. Fanny Stevenson, the author’s wife and her 19-year-old son Lloyd Osbourne went ahead first on Sept. 25 to scope out the scene and, with luck, find a place to call home by the time their three fellow travelers arrived. The plan called for RLS, his mother and servant Valentine Roch to set off from New York on Sept. 30 to follow the path of the pathfinders to their next temporary home.

The journey by this contingent of the Stevenson expedition into the wilderness began at the docks in New York City with Will Low functioning as friend and travel agent, a scene he recreated 26 years later in 1923 while talking to a crowd of Stevenson admirers gathered at the Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake: “On a bright, charming Autumn morning, Louis and his mother and Valentine, the maid servant, started. I was very anxious for them to go by boat, so that they could see the Hudson, and so we sent down to the day boat and took a stateroom, so that they could have some degree of privacy, and then, with the usual amount of impediments, went on board. … I got them settled, and as I started out of the stateroom I was questioned by a porter, who wanted to know who they were.” Stevenson had been followed to the riverboat by reporters, signifying VIP status to the porter. “They must be something royal!” he said, and Low couldn’t resist the opportunity that had presented itself. “My dear sir,” he said, “that is Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his suite.”

We are fortunate that Stevenson’s mother wrote consistently to her sister Jane Whyte Balfour throughout her first big adventure with her celebrity son, and that Scribner’s saw fit to edit and publish those letters in 1903 with the title “From Saranac to the Marquesas, Some Letters.” Since there is nothing more telling than an eyewitness account about anything, Margaret Stevenson will relate their journey to Baker’s in her own words from a letter written in Plattsburgh on Oct. 2:

“Louis, Valentine, and I left New York on Friday, and we have made our journey very well, so far, and have enjoyed it. We had a delightful little cabin all to ourselves on the river-boat and a most attentive porter to look after us. … The river scenery constantly reminded me of Scotland, but of course the autumn foliage is something wholly new to us both. Louis and I had always longed to see it, and at last we are fully satisfied.”

Day 1 of their journey ended with hotel rooms in Albany. Day 2 saw them board the Delaware & Hudson Railroad to follow the present-day Amtrak route to Plattsburgh. Day 3 was a layover there, and it was Sunday, the day Margaret was writing this letter to Jane, which continues:

“I went to the Presbyterian Church here this morning, and had a very good sermon; in the course of it the minister, in speaking of yielding to evil, said that by doing so, ‘in the end Hyde would conquer Jekyll.’ Was it not odd that I should just happen to hear that in this out-of-the-way place? And moreover the last sermon I heard in New York was on the same subject.”

Margaret resumes her story after reaching Saranac Lake: “On Monday morning (Day 4, Oct. 3, 1887) Louis, Valentine, and I again started on our way into the mountains. The railway (the Chateauguay Railroad, under construction at the time) only took us as far as Loon Lake, through a country very like what Perthshire may have been some two hundred years ago; some of the forests, however, are partly cut down, and the rivers are full of lumber on its long way to the sea. I am told it takes four years to travel from Saranac to Plattsburgh! … At Loon Lake we found a nice buggy waiting for us; it had two horses, and had been specially made for invalids, with good springs which we fully appreciated while driving twenty-five miles over very bad roads. The wind was cold, and when we were about half-way the rain came on, and I was frightened about Louis; however, we found there was a water-proof apron that buttoned right up to the top of the hood, so that we were practically in a close carriage. When we reached Saranac, Fanny met us in a petticoat and jacket, busy cooking our dinner!”

The Stevenson expedition had arrived at Baker’s in two parts but was intact. Thus began the Adirondack Arctic experience for Robert Louis Stevenson.


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