Alfred L. Donaldson

Alfred Lee Donaldson became the son of a wealthy New York City banker when he was born there in 1866. Reminding some people what a spoiled rich kid is like, he got to do what he wanted. When Alfred was 15, that was to be a violinist. Such a pursuit would logically lead to spending time in Europe, the home of western music. He even got to meet Richard Wagner, the so-called “Master of Bayreuth,” the controversial operatic composer whose music further deranged duh “Fuhrer.”

After returning to America, Alfred caved in under family pressure to conform and agreed to make music a hobby while stoically resigning to a soft life of increasing wealth as a NYC banker. Then, what happened so often in those days, happened to him. In February 1895, Alfred felt the wheels flying off his cart when his doctor told him that he definitely had a case of pulmonary tuberculosis; next step–Saranac Lake, like thousands of others from around the world.

Alfred Donaldson was the type who had to keep busy. When he got here, the village needed an actual, functioning and legal bank. Who could have been more suited to meet the challenge than the son of a big shot, big city banker? Donaldson found two other “lungers” (local slang for TB patients), namely, William Minshull and John Neilson, who joined him in a financial enterprise which gave their adopted community an institution with a familiar name, the Adirondack National Bank.

In 1902, Alfred increased his happiness when he married another lunger in town, Miss Elizabeth Hollingsworth, also a musician. When Halley’s Comet came around again in 1910, it came with a reversal of fortune for Donaldson, in the form of a downturn in his health which made him give up his job at the bank. He adapted well thanks to his hobbies. One of the things he liked to do was hang around with other intellectually engaging people. There were places then for this kind of behavior in this cosmopolitan community, a side effect of the disease which made for Saranac Lake’s golden age, brought to an end only by advancements in science. That’s how Donaldson befriended Stephen Chalmers, a journalist and author. Chalmers had been told by his doctor that he, too, had TB, the “white death,” forcing him into self-exile.

Stephen Chalmers was featured in this series in the Aug. 27, 2020 edition of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. He is instrumental to the rest of this story. Born in Dunoon, Scotland in 1880, Chalmers couldn’t wait to get to America and by the age of 25, he was a respected NYC newspaper editor and friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. That’s when he got the bad news that brought him to Saranac Lake. He wasn’t here long before he learned about the Robert Louis Stevenson connection with this village, which he determined to address in his own way, on his own time.

As for Alfred Donaldson, he was minding his own business at home one day in the year 1912. Along came his friend, Stephen Chalmers, to see him. Chalmers started to show signs of frustration while he explained that when he tried to learn things about Adirondack region history for a new story he was writing, there was none to be found because there was none!

“He convinced Donaldson that he, Donaldson, possessed the time, the means, and the ability to provide the area with a comprehensive history of its own. Years later Donaldson confessed to friends that he had feigned reluctance at the prospect and that he had actually been elated with the idea. After discreet hesitation he accepted Chalmers’ challenge and thus assumed a welcome burden that lasted for a decade,” John J. Duquette wrote in his introduction to the 1977 reprint of the 1921 edition of “A History of the Adirondacks” by A.L. Donaldson.

The finished product of Donaldson’s decade of research and writing is a remarkable and pleasantly readable two-volume masterpiece, which has already been quoted in this series and more is to come. In recognition of his valuable contribution, the “Adirondack Mountain Club” named a 4,215-foot peak in the Seward Range “Mount Donaldson,” which was ratified by whatever state and national boards were in charge of geographic nomenclature. Too bad for Donaldson that he died in 1923, a year before they did it.

Alfred Donaldson already knew Andrew and Mary Baker at the start of his project and had been to their already famous house several times. Andrew was an eyewitness source for information about the life and times at “Baker’s Tavern” in its heyday, just like his older surviving sisters, Emma and Julia. They all remembered the store their father, Col. Milote Baker, had built on present day Triangle Park, in 1854.

“The first post-office in Saranac Lake was established in 1854,” writes Donaldson, “and Col. Baker was the first postmaster. He kept the office in a little store he had built across the way from his hotel. Here it stayed until 1862, when William F. Martin secured it and moved it out to his hotel on Lower Saranac Lake. The store just mentioned was the first one in the community. It was in a small separate building on what has become, through the construction of the railroad, a triangle of land at the junction of Pine and Main streets. The first structure was destroyed by fire in the sixties, but was immediately replaced by another on the same site. This still stands, and of late years has been used as a dwelling” (torn down in 1957, about the same time “Dugway” street was dug out from the hillside). Tom Delahant took his first piano lessons there.

“Over this store were two little rooms; one filled with books and magazines, the other used as a cobbler’s shop. The cobbler was Hillel Baker, a brother of the colonel. He was a mildly eccentric old bachelor, whose chief eccentricity was his choice of occupation, for he was college-bred and highly intelligent. He had studied for the ministry, but his health broke down and he followed his brother to the woods, where he seemed perfectly content to cobble away his life in peaceful but not unhelpful obscurity. He lived at his brother’s hotel, and the two were on the best of terms, but Hillel was never in the public eye as was the colonel. But he was very much in the public heart. His gentle ways and kindly acts made him generally beloved, especially by children. For their benefit he maintained at his own expense a small circulating library in the little room next to his shop. Here the children could come and read, or take books home with them.”

“Such a service could not help but be of benefit to the community and leave an impress on the growing generation of his day. He was naturally also interested in church works and used to preach on Sundays in a union meeting-house which was erected back of the Baker store, on what is now Pine Street … Outside of such quiet activities, the cobbler stuck inconspicuously to his last. He died a year or so before his brother, who passed away on Nov. 2, 1874. Both were buried in Keeseville.”


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