Leaving Baker’s

“In some ways I am sorry that he (Robert Louis Stevenson) went to the South Seas. He might have been here — a cheery old boy of 80. He would have been just as much a boy at 80 as at 20. His uncle, George Balfour, came to see me soon after he had gone to the South Seas. … He said, ‘I misdoubt Louis’ going to the South Seas. It will undoubtedly do him good at first in that mild climate, but it will be like pouring new wine into an old bottle,’ and that, of course, is what happened. He died, not of the pulmonary complaint which he came here for, but of cerebral hemorrhage. His lungs healed, but the climate did not build up his strength as it might have done in these woods. His winter in the Adirondacks had enabled him to get out in all weathers.”

That was the opinion of Will Hickock Low in 1923, as he expressed it from the veranda of the white clapboard farmhouse in Saranac Lake, where his long-deceased friend with the famous initials RLS had spent the winter of 1887-88. “Baker’s” is the name of that house in which the invalid author from Scotland had once again come under the spell of the South Seas and in which he decided that the time had come to actually go there. It became a matter of “when,” not “if.” The only “if” was Stevenson’s frail hold on life.

In that respect, his Adirondack exile had paid off in a relative sense since Louis would never be a healthy man, even in the best conditions. He did notice, though, that the winter here had restored him to that less severe state of invalidism he had last lived with in the little French Riviera town of Hyeres, prior to his collapse in Nice, in January 1884. “I have myself passed a better winter than for years,” he writes from Baker’s in early April to a Dr. Charteris in Edinburgh. To Sidney Colvin he claimed that he was “wonderfully better; this harsh, gray, glum, doleful climate has done me good.” But the seemingly endless winter was challenging his patience when he complained to another friend about this “bleak, blackguard, beggarly climate, of which I can say no good except that it suits me and some others of the same or similar persuasions whom (by all rights) it ought to kill.”

Words like that are symptomatic of cabin fever, and RLS had a classic case of it. Of the five members in the so-called Stevenson expedition, when they came to town in October 1887, Louis was the only one who never left town, remaining at Baker’s for the duration, while his fellow travelers escaped to New York City or Boston or Montreal or Newport or Niagara or just about anywhere that wasn’t here. Fanny, the author’s wife, left Saranac Lake for the last time in late March, destination California, to see her sister Nellie Sanchez, author of the “Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson” (1920). At the time of departure, Louis asked Fanny to keep one eye open for a good boat for the proposed voyage to the South Seas and soon forgot about it while making new plans for the immediate future. He had to get away.

So in early April 1888, the author of “Treasure Island” asked his mother Margaret and their Swiss servant Valentine to make ready for a trip to New York City, with reservations at their former residence there on East 11th St. in St. Stephens Hotel. There they would meet Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s stepson and fellow traveler who was currently on one of his escape escapades. They had all left most of their belongings in their rented rooms at Baker’s because the plan when they left was to come back. Stevenson knew better than anybody, except maybe Dr. E.L. Trudeau, that these Adirondack Mountains emanated “juventus,” a term he had coined in his youth to indicate conditions favorable for health of mind, body and soul. In the meantime, RLS was going along with Trudeau’s advice that the Stevensons spend the summer camping at an area that is still called Floodwood, adjacent to the Saranac Inn golf course. The move was already in progress. Andrew Baker, a professional guide, had already retained two or more fellow guides to take the Stevenson expedition into the woods for the summer as soon as they returned from New York.

That was the plan, and Stevenson’s mother Margaret, or “Maggie,” wasted no time revealing it to her sister Jane Balfour in Scotland by letter: “The doctor is anxious he should return here in July and camp out in the woods; if we do this we may go to some seaside place for May and June, during which months the woods are full of ‘black fly,’ a worse plague here than the mosquito.” In the same letter Maggie writes: “He is looking wonderfully well, and fatter than he has done for long, so we have much reason to be thankful for what Saranac has done for us. It certainly is a wonderful place …”

Maggie’s famous son was sending off letters, too, and one of them, dated April 12, went to Mark Twain. After praising “Huckleberry Finn,” RLS got around to “my present purpose, which is merely to say that I am now leaving my Patmos and shall be from Thursday next for about a week in the St. Stephens Hotel, East 11th St., N.Y. (pray keep the address secret — I cannot see many people) where if you are in the way, I should be rejoiced to see you.” Mark Twain replied, “I will run down and see you … and thank you for writing ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Treasure Island’ and for liking ‘Huckleberry.'”

On April 16, 1888, three-fifths of the Stevenson expedition proceeded from Baker’s to Saranac Lake’s new train station to board the Chateaugay RR bound for the Big Apple, and dependable Will Low would be there to greet them.


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