“I am an Adirondacker”
Grover Cleveland and the Adirondacks
After former Governor Mario Cuomo’s death on January 1, there was some discussion about the depth, or, rather, the lack, of his interest in the Adirondacks.
Cuomo lacked Nelson Rockefeller’s lifelong attachment to the Adirondack wilderness, an attachment that began at summer camp, or the political imperative of George Pataki, who felt that a strong environmental record in his home state could prove useful in any future national race.
Both Rockefeller and Pataki were, of course, Republicans, and historically, the Republicans have invested more political capital in the Adirondacks than have the Democrats.
The exception, of course, is Grover Cleveland. As a governor and as president, he was as much as, if not more devoted to the Adirondacks than any Republican, Teddy Roosevelt included.
“I am an Adirondacker,” The former President told a gathering in New York in 1891, one year before the Adirondack Park was created. “I go there every year and shall continue to do so.”
As governor, Cleveland said, he became convinced “that the destruction of the Adirondacks would most seriously affect our river transportation, and that their preservation was also of paramount importance to the health of the people….in 1884, had measures been taken we might now own (Adirondack forest lands), but seven or eight years have passed and nothing has been accomplished. The land is being taken up for club land.”
He did recommend to the legislature a measure that would have prohibited the sale of state-owned forest lands. (That was not to happen until 1894, when the “Forever Wild” article was added to the state constitution.) Cleveland also created a park to protect Niagara Falls from commercial development; that park, he said, should be the model for the Adirondacks. And as Frank Graham notes in his “The Adirondack Park: A Political History,” the Niagara reservation was indeed “a portent of things to come in the Adirondacks.”
Cleveland’s interest in the Adirondacks grew out of his own experience. He began making hunting and fishing trips to the region in the 1880s, staying at Paul Smith’s and at the Saranac Inn.
A trip made in 1885, the first year of his presidency, was perhaps typical. Illustrated by Henry Watson, a story about the trip appeared in Frank Leslie’s Weekly. It describes both the difficulties of reaching the Adirondacks – by train to Plattsbugh and then Ausable Forks, and from Ausable a 46-mile stage coach trip taking an entire day.
And although the Adirondacks appears not much more accessible that it was twenty years earlier, when W. H. Murray’s “Adventures in the Wilderness” brought the first wave of tourists to the region, it now provides luxurious accommodations:
“Here in one of the inmost valleys of the Adirondacks, appears, as if by enchantment, a fully-equipped and fashionable summer hotel, quite Saratoga-like with its gay parlors and verandas thronged with promenaders in the correct toilets of town. Only the supper menu, on which jerked beef, beefsteak, hot biscuits and huckleberries figured most prominently, suggested the mountains. Evidently there is more than one way of ‘camping out in the Adirondacks,’ and the President has chosen the most comfortable for his short period of rest and recreation.”
It has been said that of all American presidents, Cleveland was the best sportsman – better even than Roosevelt.
In areas like foreign policy and the use of presidential power to defend the interests of the average American, historians rank Roosevelt somewhat higher than Cleveland.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to admire a president who refused to give up his Memorial Day fishing trips, despite charges in the press that he was unpatriotic, or one who, rather than publishing self-serving accounts of his political achievements, wrote a memoir of fishing and hunting instead. It is especially hard not to admire a president who claimed with pride, “I am an Adirondacker.”