The dinner party, part I
“This damned, ignorant, helpless den of a hamlick”
— RLS to Charles Fairchild, speaking of Saranac Lake
For the people who still refuse to believe that Robert Louis Stevenson did not hate Saranac Lake, those words are their last line of defense. As typically happens, words are taken out of context and twisted to conform to prejudicial thought among the willfully ignorant. Put those words in context, and they become a reasonable expression of frustration, familiar to anyone who has ever been new in a frontier town, having recently arrived from and used to city life with its amenities.
Robert Louis Stevenson was, in fact, glad to be far away from large populations because he had achieved celebrity status without even trying and not only disliked the hustle and bustle of it all, but he was ill and couldn’t take it. Like he told his friend Bart Simpson in a letter from Baker’s, speaking of fame, “the thing at large is a bore and a fraud; and I am much happier up here, where I see no one and live my own life.”
After settling into his new way of life, that of living with an Adirondack guide and his family, Louis decided to invite people to come see him, which might have been asking a lot, considering travel conditions in 1887. He owed his rich Boston banker friend Charles Fairchild a favor. Charles first got to meet the Stevensons at the latter’s home in Bournemouth, England, in the spring of 1887. Mrs. Fairchild was already a big fan of Stevenson’s writing, and it was for her that Charles had commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint the two famous portraits of RLS at Skerryvore, his home. The Stevenson family had also been guests at the summer home of the Fairchilds in Newport, Rhode Island, just before they migrated to Saranac Lake for the winter. Possibly as a gesture of gratitude, for all the kindnesses the Fairchilds had lavished upon him, Louis invited them to make their way up here to wine and dine with the master and lord of “Chateau Baker” with his entourage. By then, Sport was included, a large, mixed-breed canine companion for the author, courtesy of George Berkeley, a local innkeeper and one of the few acquaintances RLS made while in town.
At first, the Fairchilds were a little confused about Stevenson’s living arrangements in this backwoods hamlet. Louis clarified things in a mid-October letter: “My dear Fairchild, I do not live in the Post Office; that is only my address; I live at ‘Baker’s’, a house upon a hill, and very jolly in every way. I believe this is going to do; we have a kind of garret of a spare room, where hardy visitors can sleep and our table (if homely) is not bad [but] we cannot get any fruit here. Can you manage to send me some grapes? … My mother and my wife are away skylarking; my mother to Niagara, my wife to Indianapolis; and I live here today alone with Lloyd [Osbourne, stepson] and Valentine [Roch, maid], some cold meat, and four salmon trout, one of which is being grilled at this moment of writing.” In a letter to Lady Shelley, RLS says their menu at Baker’s includes “trout, excellent partridges, admirable venison, eatable beef, and we might get, if we chose, uneatable mutton.” As for beverages like beer and wine, his friend Will Low in New York City shipped north what was required along with staples like cheese, coffee, writing paper and especially tobacco. Stevenson was a nicotine fiend with bleeding lungs who smoked his thinly rolled cigarettes in rapid succession, and when he ran out of his brand, Margarita, he let Low know about it, all the way from Baker’s:
“Sir, since 2pm yesterday, a period of nearly eighteen hours, the wretched man who now addresses you has not smoked. … The famine has passed through all the usual stages; tissue paper from between visiting cards and tobacco from the bottoms of pockets having been consumed, but now sir, the last expedient and apparently the last ‘ope has waltzed into space.”
A month would pass before the Fairchilds made the trip. The Chateauguay Railroad, the first mechanized transportation into the Adirondacks, began at Plattsburgh and was under construction when the Stevenson expedition came this way. By Oct. 3, when RLS arrived, it was operable only as far as Loon Lake. From there you could either walk or take the stagecoach to cover the next 25 miles over bad roads, if Saranac Lake was your destination.
Difficulties in communication regarding travel arrangements for the visiting party were the cause of the frustration felt by the host party that culminated in the use of pejorative words, specifically “damned, ignorant, helpless den of a hamlick” to summarize Saranac Lake, a village which the same resident called his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks.”
Construction of the Chateauguay Railroad didn’t stop for winter, and every few days a new station came into being with the intention of making Saranac Lake the end of the line, which was accomplished on or about Dec. 5, 1887. So in early November, RLS was telling Fairchild, “You get to Plattsburgh how you can; nobody knows here. Thence the Chateauguay RR takes you a variable distance. If you have influence, it will bring you within six miles of here; but that you must arrange for yourselves by hole-and-cornering. Do not trust to telegrams; they go or do not go, come or do not come according to laws that one cannot decipher.”
Maybe it all seemed like too much trouble for a Boston millionaire to deal with and took more convincing. “The venison, when you can get it, is really tiptop, it is worth the journey itself, and the place is a good place to look at.” Whatever it took, by mid-November the Fairchilds were registered guests at the Berkeley House hotel, only a short buggy ride away from “Chateau Baker,” where they were expected. Fortunately, RLS had also invited a Canadian from Montreal, George Iles, to join the party, and George left an account of it.
To be continued.