Visiting Lake George by Pedal & Paddle
by Dave Waite
By the 1890s visitors by the thousands traveled each season into the Lake George region to experience its beauty and relax along its shores. Most came by rail on the Rensselaer & Saratoga Railway that came into Caldwell (now Lake George Village) at the southern end of the lake. Those who were a bit more adventurous found other means of travel, and what comes next is two of their stories.
In July of 1898, Charles Willis (under the pseudonym Allan Eric) and Lillian S. Willis (alias “The Junior Partner”) started from Albany on their Victor bicycles, and over the next few weeks, toured the Mohawk Valley as far west as Herkimer. After backtracking through Schenectady, they headed north to Lake George. The travelers never recorded which hotel they stayed in for the two nights they were at the lake, only that they took the time to ride the cog railroad to the top of Prospect Mountain.
After leaving Caldwell, the Willis’ continued their journey north along the west side of Lake George. By midday, they had traveled only as far as Bolton, about 10 miles, over what they described as a “rough and sandy” path. One interesting note on this first leg of their journey was that they encountered the mailman, also on a bicycle. The path they followed became “worse and worse” as they neared Bolton; they even considered taking the steamer that would stop in that town the next day and finish the journey to Ticonderoga by water. However, the decision to continue by bicycle was made once Lillian learned that she would be the first woman to travel “by wheel” the length of Lake George.
This first day on bicycles was not without incident:
“At one place, which promised a few rods of riding, we mounted, and for safety, on account of my heavily loaded wheel, I was ahead of the Junior Partner. I was riding on a very narrow path, with thick grass on either edge of it. I miscalculated the width of the path a little, and my wheel, instead of finding solid ground, slipped on the grass and dropped into a ditch, only a few inches deep, beside the path. As for me, I rose gracefully (there is no doubt of it), over the handle-bars, turned a complete somersault in the air (I could feel myself doing it), and landed on my head and shoulders in a pile of sand.
At the moment while I was collecting myself and trying to decide which end of me ought to get up first, I wondered if the wheel was broken and whether the camera had been smashed. As for myself, I was not hurt in the least.”
The writer went on to state that no damage or injury resulted from this mishap, and they traveled past the end of Northwest Bay before finding lodging in a farmhouse close to the path. The next day they continued over “Hague Mountain,” probably either Catamount Mountain or what is now part of the Tongue Mountain Range, and into Hague on a path that required far more walking than riding. By the time they reached Ticonderoga, they estimated that they had traveled 41 miles over the two days since leaving Caldwell, with 30 of those miles on foot.
Another account of travel through the region, a few years earlier than our bicyclists, made use of a completely different form of transportation, a canoe. The Snedeker family had started from New York City in the summer of 1892 to attend the annual American Canoe Association gathering at Willsborough Point on Lake Champlain. The first leg of their journey was on a canal boat, one of over forty that was towed by a tugboat – upriver. Once in Albany the canal boat they were riding on separated from the rest of the flotilla and hired a local tug to pull them to the first lock on the Champlain Canal in Waterford.
From here the family paddled their canoe, which carried the name Gernegross, (roughly translated from German as “Show-Off”) to Glens Falls using the connecting feeder canal and then by wagon on what they called a “fine plank road” over which her family traveled on their way to Caldwell on Lake George. Florence, her husband Charles, and their two boys, Karl and Phillip, next traveled by canoe the length of Lake George to Ticonderoga and then on to Lake Champlain. Florence Snedeker, who recorded their trip in her book A Family Canoe Trip, gave this account of the start of their journey up Lake George to their first stop, Diamond Island:
“The hotels, the little boats, the villas of nook and knoll, were left behind. Sunset came. Azure and golden and crimson lights of the sky, pink and pale purple shapes of the horizon—all were mirrored in the pure and tranquil water. And the sound of Convent bells—real convent bells—came to us on the breaths of cedar and pine. This was Father Jogues’s “Holy Lake,” and we floated on, ravished by its beauty.”
The Snedekers took three days paddling and sailing their canoe on the lake, finally arriving at Ticonderoga where they traveled by wagon to Fort Ticonderoga and the shore of Lake Champlain.
The sources and illustrations for this article are from Eric Alan’s Following the Tow-Path and Through the Adirondacks Awheel; Florence Watters Snedeker’s A Family Canoe Trip; and Michael Kudish’s Railroads of the Adirondacks: A History.