If we have a yen for history, we've come to the right place. Saranac Lake has both a celebrated backstory and a devoted group of fans. This makes our local history museum something special.
There is the lab itself, which has exhibits detailing the decades when Saranac Lake was an international curing center. There's also the addition built during the Roaring Twenties, which houses rotating exhibitions from Saranac Lake's past. Currently running until late in 2016, there's the fascinating Medical Marvels exhibit.
It can be a bit of a shock to find out what previous generations thought were cutting edge medical treatments. Sometimes, it's a literal shock, like this electric cap.
The banner on this exhibit asks "Science or Quackery?" and it can be a tough call at first glance. Some of the most unusual items turn out to be devices we have updated and still use today. Though the electric cap does not turn out to be one of them.
Many of these items were found in people's attics and basements, some right here in Saranac Lake, without any accompanying information which could explain what they were claiming to do. Others have been in continuous service for over 100 years. Can we guess this one?
What might have thrown us is the picture at the bottom, depicting the machine in use. The gentleman getting tested is putting all his limbs into buckets of salt water. So glad this one got improved.
The "Perfect Coil" is not on display, since it was too radioactive for safety. We can only look at the picture, and remember that wild claims were made for many devices — an all too common occurence of the era. The FDA was created in mid-1906, but it took them a while to expand their legal authority from food and drugs into medical devices.
Many of these devices, such as x-rays and ultraviolet sun lamps, continue to be used in medicine today. They were an important part of the medical services provided to the tuberculosis patients during Saranac Lake's decades as an internationally known health center.
The Curing Years
I love visiting the Laboratory Museum. It is in the real laboratory of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, where many discoveries about infectious diseases were made. It was state of the art for 1894.
Dr. Trudeau came to the Adirondacks because it was his favorite place in the world. He was certain his time was short, having contracted tuberculosis from nursing his brother, who died from the disease. Instead, he got better, and became a famous "lung specialist." The patients, doctors, and health care workers he attracted to the area created the Saranac Lake which can still be seen today.
It was a breakthrough when Dr. Robert Koch isolated the tubercle bacillus under his microscope in 1882. Dr. Trudeau was one of the first in North America to study this disease agent, even though he felt his medical education was lacking and he had to obtain his own lab apparatus from various sources. The science was so new, and Dr. Trudeau's resources so limited, that the early years were extremely challenging.
He tried to keep his cultures warm in the severe Adirondack winters by using a kerosene lamp, but this exploded one night when he was out of town, and everything burned to the ground.
The famous physican Sir William Osler consoled him:
"Dear Trudeau, I am sorry to hear of your misfortune, but, take my word for it, there is nothing like a fire to make a man do the phoenix trick."
With new funding and the latest in architecture, Dr. Trudeau built the first, and possibly the best-equipped, laboratory for medical research in America.
From his own curing experience to cutting edge research, Dr. Trudeau gathered an incredible pool of talent which transformed the village (consisting of six houses and a lumber mill when he took up residence there) into a world-famous sanitarium movement, and a source of health advances that are experienced to this day.
The painstakingly-assembled health code for Saranac Lake, created by the doctors from "The San" and incorporating the latest research, made Saranac Lake an oasis of calm and healing, since this cut down the transmission of the disease to the point where the patients were welcomed into the life of the town. This same health code would become the backbone of the health regulations in New York City, and beyond.
To walk through the Laboratory Museum is a step back in time. From a cure chair which explains the daily life of the patients to the autobiography of Dr. Trudeau, in the original manuscript, displayed in the lab, all of these elements were painstakingly restored or recreated.
It is a living monument to the man known as the "Beloved Physician," a leader and healer through what was the deadliest plague of its time.
Welcome the Roaring Twenties
The new exhibit, planned to coincide with the grand re-opening of the Hotel Saranac, will be titled, “A Grand Hotel.” It will use artifacts of the 1920s to recreate the heyday of the Roaring Twenties hotels in Saranac Lake. The museum staff has consulted with an academic expert and a local set designer from Pendragon Theatre to take us back to those wild times.
"Museum visitors will start in a lobby, just like they were arriving at a hotel back then," explained Executive Director Amy Catania. "Then they will move through recreations of places of the period, experiencing the hotel as if they were staying there as guests."
There are many reasons the Twenties were a Roaring time for Saranac Lake. It was a time of a rising standard of living, allowing many middle-class families to travel in their own motor cars. The Adirondacks, long the "playground of the rich," was now accessible to many more residents of the hot and crowded cities in the area.
This was a time when grand hotels filled the Adirondacks, and the Saranac Lake region had some of the most historic and impressive: Paul Smith’s Hotel, the Algonquin, the Berkeley, the Grand Union, the St. Regis, the Riverside Inn, and Saranac Inn.
The restoration of the Hotel Saranac has already revealed a fascinating find, which inspired its own exhibit: a room in the basement that seems to have been a speakeasy. "It has all the architectural elements of a public space," Ms. Catania explained, "It has railings and a finished ceiling. But it was down this basement hall, without any signage or official mention."
"Sounds like a secret bar to me," I agreed with a smile. Illegal drinking places were everywhere during the 1920s. The bootleggers' routes went right through this part of the Adirondacks; straight down from Canada to New York City. Along the way, the towns of the Adirondacks were placed perfectly for gassing up... and transacting business.
Elizabeth Mooney, who wrote "In the shadow of the White Plague: a memoir" about her years in Saranac Lake, said:
During Prohibition, Saranac Lake had "at least a dozen speakeasies, which operated more or less within the knowledge of the police"
Which made Saranac Lake no different from any other destination of the time.
President Coolidge spent a summer at White Pine Camp. The publicity made Saranac Lake an even more sought after destination.
Local citizens, as always, will contribute to the final effort. “We are seeking items of clothing, jewelry, and other artifacts that are of the time period,” said Public Programs Coordinator Chessie Monks-Kelly. “We are particularly interested in items connected with local hotels of the 1920s.”
Even now, 122 years later, the Trudeau Laboratory is still alive. And teaching.
All photos courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake wiki website (localwiki.org/hsl) unless otherwise noted.
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