RLS in Saranac

On the 8th, our last day in Saranac Lake, we drove up to the high ground in the north part of town to visit the so-called Stevenson Cottage.  It was here the sickly Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” stayed in the winter of 1887-88, trying to regain his health.

Stevenson's rooms were on the right.
Stevenson’s rooms were on the right.

He had just gotten off the boat in New York City with his wife, mother, step-son and a maid and had become more ill on the passage from England.   They quickly dashed plans to head for the mountain air of Colorado Springs and pushed their way north to Saranac Lake by boating up the Hudson, then by train and stagecoach.

At the time, Saranac was noted for its healthy, cold clean air.  What is Main Street today was lined in those days with “cure cottages,” treating TB and other diseases.

The Stevenson Cottage rests atop a grassy knoll off Stevenson Lane, about a half mile from downtown.  We parked below and walked up the paved road to the house and twisted the doorbell which summoned the caretaker, a tall, unimposing man in his 50s with thinning auburn hair and a near look-alike for the late actor Brian Keith.

He looked like he had just awakened from a nice dream and seemed startled that anyone would want to visit the place, particularly on a Sunday morning before noon.  On average, he said, only about 500 visitors a year come to the door and pay $5 apiece for a chance to touch greatness.  The Cottage had been open since 9, but here at 11 we were the first visitors.

Do you know anything about Stevenson, the caretaker asked.  We nodded, yes, and described a bit of what we knew.

“Then,” he said, “you know more than half the people in Saranac Lake.”

He has the title of “curator.”  But he assured us he did come by the job on merit.  The owner of the house, his father, asked him to watch over it.  He said that was 33 years ago.

Stevenson paid the Baker family $50 a month for the rent of six rooms on the bottom floor.  The rooms are small.  Stevenson and his step-son, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, wrote in the middle room by the fireplace.  It was there, we were told, RLS wrote about a dozen essays and began his novel, “The Master of Ballantrae.”

The Cottage is so filled with material irrelevant to Stevenson’s stay in Saranac that you have to sort carefully and focus on that part of his life.  Most interesting, I found, were copies of letters RLS’s mother, Margaret, wrote to friends.  She went by “Maggie” and called her son, “Lou.”

The daily routine, she wrote, started with rising from bed about 6:30 in the morning and lighting the fire, “which warms the room very quickly.”  Then Lou and Lloyd write until noon or so and have lunch a 12:30.  At 2 o’clock two buggies arrive to take two of the guest our for drives.  “Louis goes for walks, always along.  He hates to meet anyone when he is out.  After his walk, RLS goes to bed until supper at 6.  After dinner, “we talk, read aloud and play at cards until ten when we are all ready for bed.”

In April, still cold in the Adirondacks,  the Stevenson entourage decided suddenly  to leave Saranac after six months.

It was a Friday morning and due to the onset of colds in the cottage and “the fox, goat and cabbage problem” worsened, “there was nothing for it but flight,” Margaret wrote. “That was decided by 9:30 and by 12:30 I had finished packing and eaten dinner, and we started. . . . [RLS] is looking wonderfully well, and fatter than he has done for long, so we have much reason to be thankful for what Saranac has done for us.  It certainly is a wonderful place.”

In June of 1888, RLS took an assignment with McClure’s to travel the South Pacific and describe what he saw.

Stevenson lived another six years, dying in 1894 at age 44 in Samoa.

Some visitors have belittled the Stevenson Cottage in Saranac.   While I found the place quaint and interesting, I doubt that I will ever go back.  So we left for breakfast at the bustling Blue Moon Cafe downtown and never looked back.

It’s on to Lake Placid.

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