Another Stevenson plaque

Karen Steele in Saranac Lake on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson. (Photo provided)

“When he (Robert Louis Stevenson) was not writing he was planning the come-true of some persistent old daydreams. We know their romantic, somewhat fantastic, trend. They were of yachts and aimless cruisings, of southern seas and sun-kissed shores where lotus-eaters dwell, of roving life among primeval folk, and rich adventure in a vagabond’s contentment. And Saranac Lake became the gateway to all this. It shaped itself into the shadowed portal through which he issued from his winter prison into the dazzling sunshine of eternal summer.”

“A History of the Adirondacks, Vol. I,” A. Donaldson

“This dear James, is a valedictory. On June 15th the schooner yacht Casco will (weather and a jealous providence permitting) steam through the Golden Gates for Honolulu, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Guayaquil, and–I hope not the bottom of the Pacific. It will contain your ‘umble servant and party. It seems too good to be true …”

— Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, May 28, 1888, Manasquan, New Jersey

Saturday, June 2, 1888, saw the departure of RLS and three of his fellow-travelers (mother, stepson, and portable servant, Valentine) from New York City to travel by rail across the continent via Chicago and Council Bluffs to San Francisco where they arrived on June 7. The journey followed much of the route RLS had taken nine years earlier as “The Amateur Emigrant” when he was still unknown in the States and traveling as cheaply as possible in dangerous conditions for an invalid. What a difference success can make, in this case at least as far as Chicago. Up to then, they enjoyed luxury on board train with a separate stateroom and dressing room.

“After that it was not quite so luxurious and the accommodation was very limited,” wrote Stevenson’s mother, Margaret to her sister in Scotland. “However, we consoled ourselves by thinking it excellent preparation for the yacht … Later on, we were all somewhat upset, and had slight hemorrhage; it is supposed to be the effect of crossing the Alkali Plains, in the region of Salt Lake, and is rather distressing.”

In the case of her son, “it was a much more serious matter, and gave us some cause for alarm. However, he was promptly sent to bed on our arrival, and will be kept there for some days …We were met at Sacramento by Fanny (the author’s wife) … We have been very busy ever since our arrival, ordering clothes, etc. for the yacht and the hot weather … P.S. I must add that we have just got very nice letters of introduction to King Kalakaua of Hawaii, where we hope to call in the yacht.”

After the kinds of delays that can precede a substantial endeavor, the sun rose on June 28, 1888, to shine down on the brand new luxury schooner yacht Casco, 94′ in length and displacing 74 tons. At 5 a.m., she was towed through the Golden Gate into the waters of the Pacific Ocean by the tugboat Pelican. The 12 people aboard represented seven nationalities. Casting off the towline and spreading her canvas, the Casco sailed into legend. Land would not be seen for 22 days after crossing 3,000 miles of increasingly warmer waters. This is from the opening paragraph of Stevenson’s first book to come out of this experience, In the South Seas:

“For nearly 10 years my health had been declining; and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was to come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect. It was suggested that I should try the South Seas …”

That was the right decision. The notorious Marquesas Islands were their first landfall, dropping anchor on July 20 in Anaho Bay in Nuka Hiva, the largest island in the group. These islands were notorious because of the unfortunate combination of ship-wrecked sailors and cannibals. By 1888, the population of those islands was reportedly tamed by French culture conquest, however, doubt persisted for a long time and to this day, RLS historians wonder if the Stevenson expedition would have just plain vanished after leaving San Francisco in their wake, had it not been for the intimidating presence of a French Man O’ War anchored in the harbor, too, the whole month they were there. For RLS, this was the stuff that makes for adventure.

On Sept. 4, 1888, the yacht Casco, Capt. Otis, weighed anchor and set sail on a dangerous voyage through many coral atolls, bound for Fakarava Atoll in the Paumotu Archipelago. Here he was. Robert Louis Stevenson had realized his dream and he couldn’t contain himself about it so he wrote to Charles Baxter about it. Baxter and RLS went way back to college days. He was one of the absolute elite inner circle of Stevenson comrades, the others being his cousin Bob Stevenson, Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse, William Earnest Henley and Will Hickock Low, from Albany. Three of these gentlemen, namely, Colvin, Gosse and Low, made joining the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake one of the last things they did in 1916. As for Baxter, he drank a lot and made a good lawyer and executor for Louis by handling his business affairs. When needed, his services could shift into “fixer” mode. In the old days they liked to party at Rutherford’s, a pub in downtown Edinburgh, Scotland. It was Baxter he was thinking of that night:

“My dear Charles, Last night as I lay under my blanket in the cockpit courting sleep, I had a comic seizure. There was nothing visible but the southern stars, and the steersman there out by the binnacle lamp …All of a sudden I had a vision of Drummond Street. It came on me like a flash of lighting. I simply returned thither, and into the past. And when I remembered all that I hoped and feared as I pickled about Rutherford’s in the rain and the east wind; how I feared I should make a mere shipwreck, and yet timidly hoped not; how I feared I should never have a friend far less a wife, and yet passionately hoped I might; how I hoped (if I did not take a drink) I should possibly write one little book etc. etc. And then now–what a change! I feel somehow as if I should like the incident set upon a brass plate at the corner of that dreary thoroughfare, for all students to read, poor devils, when their hearts are down.”

And so it was. On Monday, Dec. 11, 1995, a brass plaque befitting the purpose was unveiled at the corner on Drummond Street next to Rutherford’s or the “Pump” to Stevenson’s crew. A group of Stevenson lovers of diverse background had united to make it all happen. The section italicized above is what’s on the plaque. In April 1996, Karen Steele, a friendly and well off widow who was also the tip of the spear in this plaque project, showed up in Saranac Lake to see the granddaddy of Stevenson museums. At the time she lived in Twickenham, Middlesex, England. She is a world-class Stevenson admirer who was doing her world tour of Stevenson sites and was enchanted with our Stevenson Cottage. Karen evidently liked to share her RLS story.

With extra time and money and an adventurous spirit, Ms. Steele had decided to see the world in tramp steamers crossing oceans, starting with the Pacific, meaning plenty of time to read. One of those ships only had two books in its cabins. One was an instant reject while the other had a title that went well with her purpose aboard ship, In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson. Just one book by RLS was all it took to add Stevenson pursuits to her bucket list, and this plaque project was one of her first. Karen asked about Stevenson’s status in this community as a world class figure. On her way out she signed the guest book and made the customary donation in addition to a copy of her own RLS book of his sayings, arranged according to topic.

And then, Karen Steele was off again to visit other places on her world tour. She wasn’t the first or the last to make this pilgrimage. Their names are scattered through museum guest books going back to 1917. Like those before her and those who have come since, on the same mission, Karen was on the trail of “The Penny Piper of Saranac,” a pied piper if ever there was one.


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