About 150 years ago, the town of Saranac Lake in upstate New York became a destination for people looking for serious tourism. here are the details
Where this town is intended for people seeking treatment for a highly contagious disease, and today, after all those years, the town still carries this therapeutic heritage and many turn to it for a cure.
Every winter in Saranac, upstate New York, a glittering ice fort rises above the shore of Flower Lake known as the Snow Palace, built from blocks of ice harvested from the frozen lake by volunteers.
The palace is the centerpiece of the 10-day Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, an annual event that lifts spirits and draws visitors during the Nordic country’s coldest days.
One of the oldest events of its kind in the United States, the carnival reflects the power of the depths of winter more than a century ago in the town itself, which had a history of sickness and suffering.
As you walk around Saranac Lake, you will notice the density of tall Victorian balconies built from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. These terraces were occupied year-round by people who warmed themselves in heavy blankets and breathed in the fresh air of the Mountain.
But not only were they there on vacation lounging on the balconies of those houses, known as “cure huts,” but they hoped to cure tuberculosis with a “clean air cure.”
The carnival, opened to provide a distraction for these patients, and the houses (dozens of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places) are reminders of the tuberculosis (TB) that took root in Saranac Lake and built the town.
In 1873, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease with no known cure that kills one in seven people in the United States.
Trudeau left New York City for Saranac Lake, 300 miles north in the Adirondacks. “He (Trudeau) wanted to get out of town and go to a peaceful place … really waiting to die,” says Amy Catania, executive director of historic Saranac Lake. While at Saranac Lake, Trudeau found that his health had improved.” And then he speculated that the air in this place might be the cause.
A year later, something similar happened with another strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson arrived at Saranac Lake in 1887 and became a patient of Trudeau’s. The presence of the famous visitor helped the town become a popular seaside resort and became one of the most popular destinations for tuberculosis patients in the country.
In this context, Catania estimated that more than 60,000 tuberculosis patients arrived at Lake Saranac, from all over the United States and even from Mexico and Cuba.
As the town began to grow, the Trudeau Resort grew into a sprawling site with over 50 buildings, and since the resort could not accommodate everyone, many other clinics sprang up in the area. Other patients are convalescing in private homes known as treatment huts, thus creating a veritable home-based medical tourism industry, which has led to the rapid growth of the village and largely provided opportunities for financial independence for the owners. .
Trudeau’s holistic approach to treatment included plenty of rest, fresh mountain air, and professional therapy. “Giving people a sense of purpose is an important part of mental health,” says Catania. “So they were really trying to help the immune system in every way possible, which means paying attention to people’s moods and mental health.”
To provide entertainment, the Pontiac Club, of which Trudeau was a founding member, was founded in 1896 to encourage light outdoor activities for tuberculosis patients. The club organized a winter carnival in 1897 in which costumes were displayed. The following year, the carnival had expanded to what it is today, with its ice palace.
The first tuberculosis laboratory in America
However, Trudeau worked to find a scientific solution to tuberculosis and in 1894 established the Saranac Tuberculosis Laboratory, the first laboratory in the United States to study tuberculosis.
The lab remained at the forefront of tuberculosis research even after Trudeau’s death in 1915, and had already perfected antibiotic treatment by the early 1950s.
Since the lab closed in 1964, research on tuberculosis, which still kills more than a million people worldwide each year, has continued at the modern Trudeau Institute.
The downtown laboratory building now houses the Saranac Laboratory Museum, operated by the historic Saranac Lake, which recently purchased the adjacent Trudeau Building to expand the museum. Visitors can see the room Trudeau worked in and see artifacts including pottery made by patients during occupational therapy and a piano played by the composer’s wife, Bella Bartok, one of Trudeau’s famous patients.