The Saranac Connection: Part II

It was October 3, 1887, close to the dinner hour, when Robert Louis Stevenson along with his mother, Margaret, and their portable servant, Valentine, arrived in Saranac Lake during a rainstorm.

They had travelled all afternoon in a two-horse buggy from Loon Lake over a primitive Route 3 to get here. Their new temporary home for at least the upcoming winter of 1887-88, would have been the first house they saw on the other side of the Saranac River, as they descended the hill on Old Military Road between Park Avenue and Bloomingdale Avenue. They would have crossed the river on a much earlier version of our present Pine Street bridge, but there was no Pine Street yet. Back then, when you reached the east side of the river, you could take a right and follow the path of present day Main Street to get to the little hamlet of Saranac Lake, or take a left onto present day Stevenson Lane to the Baker residence, a farmhouse. They took a left.

Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, was already there, and so was her son, Lloyd Osbourne, the dedicatee of Treasure Island. From the letters of Stevenson’s mother, Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson or just “Maggie” to her friends:

“When we reached Saranac, Fanny met us in a petticoat and jacket, busy cooking our dinner. The house is built of wooden boards, painted white, with green shutters and a veranda around it. It belongs to a guide, who takes parties into the woods for shooting and fishing excursions … he and his wife have agreed to give over to us part of the house ($50 a month rent), their own portion being entirely shut off by double doors … Everything is of the plainest and simplest, but sufficiently comfortable … you call your house the ‘Barracks’; well, ours is the ‘Hunter’s Home’ and Louis will not allow anything to be done that interferes with that illusion.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, a prolific letter writer himself, got down to it while still settling into his new surroundings, his “Hunter’s Home.” To his friend, the novelist Henry James, in England: “Our house–emphatically Baker’s–is on a hill, and has a sight of a stream turning a corner in the valley–bless the face of running water! and sees some hills too, and the paganly prosaic roofs of Saranac itself: the Lake it does not see, nor do I regret that; I like water, (fresh water I mean) either running swiftly among stones or else largely qualified with whiskey.”

His words have an excited, optimistic tone, not what you would expect from someone who recently had been so sick and depressed in his former home in Bournemouth, England, that he had planned to go to Ireland to commit suicide by mob violence so that he could at least make use of his death by shining a light on the prevalent social injustice there. So much had changed since the death of his father, Thomas, in May but the changes that came with his reception in New York City only 26 days before checking into Baker’s for the winter, instigated the transformation he would experience while he was the first famous resident author in Saranac Lake. His letters throughout that winter are full of these pleasant realizations which would set what he had left of life to live, on a new trajectory he had only dared to dream of but never thought possible, and if anyone had ever earned the fulfillment of such a dream, Robert Louis Stevenson was the guy. And it started here, in Saranac Lake.

To his cousin Bob Stevenson, he describes the thrill of his trans-Atlantic voyage between London and New York, on the steamship Ludgate Hill, that is until he caught the cold that would bring him here. If not for that cold which he caught “on the banks” off Newfoundland, you would not be reading this. Before that cold ruined his fun, RLS had enjoyed eight days of pure delight.

“I was so happy on board that ship, I could not have believed it possible; we had the beastliest weather, and many discomforts; but the mere fact of its being a tramp-ship, gave us many comforts; we could cut about with the men and officers, stay in the wheel house, discuss all manner of things, and really be a little at sea. And truly there is nothing else. I had literally forgotten what happiness was, and the full mind–full of external and physical things, not full of cares and labours and rot about a fellow’s behaviour. My heart literally sang; I truly care for nothing so much as for that. We took so north a course that we saw Newfoundland; no one in the ship had ever seen it before.

“I have got one good thing of my sea voyage; it is proved the sea agrees heartily with me, and my mother likes it; so if I get any better, or no worse, we will likely hire a yacht for a month or so in summer. Lord God! What fun! Wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartette. For these two, I will sell my soul.”

When Stevenson came to town in that rainstorm, he was already daydreaming ahead to the next ocean experience, that is, if he was still alive in the spring. That “if” was a constant factor in this invalid’s “Voyage to Windward–The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson” by J.C. Furmas (1948) which is still the best biography of them all. In the first half of Stevenson’s adventure novel “The Master of Ballantrae,” written at Baker’s, there is a sea voyage aboard yet another pirate ship. Louis was preparing himself.

Family dinner conversation in front of their big fireplace at Baker’s was laced with anticipation of spring and this new adventure to be, at that time a proposed cruise along the Atlantic coast just before returning home to greater Britannia. But spring was on the far side of the coldest, fiercest arctic weather any of them would ever experience. RLS would spend a huge chunk of that time parked in front of the controlled inferno he liked to stoke in his landlord’s fireplace. That’s where he was one afternoon when he felt like writing his only little poem from his Adirondack exile:


In rigorous hours, when down the iron lane

The redbreast looks in vain for hips and haws,

Lo, shining flowers upon my window-pane

The silver pencil of the winter draws.

When all the snowy hill and bare woods are still;

When snipes are silent in the frozen bogs,

And all the garden garth (a small yard or enclosure)

is whelmed in mire,

Lo, by the hearth, the laughter of the logs–

More fair than roses, lo, the flowers of the fire!

Andrew Baker’s rented out living room was the center of the Universe to the five members of the Stevenson expedition for six and a half months. When Dr. Trudeau made his visits there, he would enter their space by way of the kitchen. “I usually found him indoors long before darkness had closed in, with his feet to the fire and a cigarette in his mouth, ready for a chat on any subject I might care to bring up. As we held very different ideas on many subjects, the discussions were often most animated, and I remember one occasion, at least, on which the limit of parliamentary language was almost reached.”

By early November, Stevenson decided to throw a party to celebrate his sudden and unexpected good fortune as a writer and significantly improved health as an invalid. It could not be big, of course, but he knew who to invite. For the occasion, he would temporarily rename his “Hunter’s Home” to “Chateau Baker.”

To be continued.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today