I’m not a history buff, but one thing that’s always fascinated me is the Adirondacks’ place in the world. If you ask the right people, big names get thrown around. Bill Clinton has visited; Melville Dewey, creator of the Dewey decimal system, lived in Lake Placid; and poet Sylvia Plath broke her leg on Mount Pisgah in Saranac Lake while visiting in 1952. The accident reportedly inspired a scene in her only novel, The Bell Jar, wherein Esther Greenwood contemplates suicide on a mountaintop.
Saranac Lake has embraced its own claims to fame with a walk of fame. The bronze-colored signs are scattered throughout downtown. I recently strolled through town to see how many of the plaques I could find. Here are a few of my favorites.
Born: March 29, 1980 in Saranac Lake, New York
Married: Skeleton racer Katie Koczynski, on July 11, 2010
Plaque location: 39 Main Street
Vermontville native Bill Demong attended Saranac Lake High School, then went on to become the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in a Nordic event — the 10 km individual large hill — in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Bill learned ski jumping through the New York Ski Educational Foundation and has been competing on the world cup level since since 1997, Demong won his first World Cup gold in 2002 in the 10 km individual large hill, which he repeated in 2009. His athletic career was nearly ended by a swimming accident in 2002 that resulted in a fractured skull.
Born: March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklos, Transylvania
Died: September 26, 1945, in West Side Hospital, New York City
Married: Márta Ziegler; Edith "Ditta" Pásztory
Children: Béla III; Péter
Plaque location: 43 Main Street
Mr. Bartok gets my vote for the coolest name on this list. Born in the small town of Nagyszentmiklós, Romania, Bela’s mother said he could play 40 pieces on the piano by the time he was 4. It’s no wonder he went on to become one of the best composers of the 20th century. So what’s the tie in? The composer and pianist wrote some of his last compositions while staying in Saranac Lake. He died in a hospital in New York City from complications of leukemia when he was 64. His funeral was attended by 10 people including his wife, Ditta, and their son, Péter.
Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau
Born: October 5, 1848, in New York City
Died: November 15, 1915, in Saranac Lake, New York
Plaque location: 62 Main Street
Shortly after his older brother, Edward, died of tuberculosis, Edward Trudeau enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. The young doctor was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1873 and moved to Saranac Lake seeking a cure in the fresh mountain air. He went on to organize the Saranac Laboratory for the Study of Tuberculosis in 1894. Later renamed the Trudeau Institute, it was the first laboratory in the United States for the study of tuberculosis. He was quite involved in the community, and even founded and became the first mayor of the Village of Saranac Lake. Trudeau died from tuberculosis about 40 years after contracting the disease.
Born: July 10, 1870
Died: March 3, 1945 at the Saranac Lake General Hospital. He is buried at St. Bernard's Cemetery in the Clark family plot.
Married: Mary Dowdell in 1903
Children: Irene Clark Dimick, Gertrude Clark Montville, Herbert J. Clark, George Clark, James Clark, and Francis Clark.
Plaque location: 87 Main Street
As a lover of the mountains I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Herb Clark, a man who came to Saranac Lake in his early 20s and later climbed the 46 peaks then believed to be higher than 4,000 feet. As such, he’s the first documented 46er. It’s important to note that back then, in the early 1900s, only 12 of those mountains had trails to the summits. Clark possessed a legendary sense of humor that’s necessary for any serious hiker here, something that no doubt led to him coining the phrase “cripplebrush” for the stunted balsam fir forests, which are the bane of any high-elevation traveler.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Born: November 13, 1850
Died: November 3, 1894
Married: Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne
Plaque location: 28 Broadway
Was there anything Robert Louis Stevenson couldn’t do? A novelist, poet, essayist, musician, and travel writer, he is perhaps best known for writing Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson wasn’t destined for creative pursuits, though. His family were lighthouse engineers, but his affinity for writing was encouraged by his father, a man who was discouraged from writing by his own father. Stevenson spent the winter of 1887 and 1888 at the Baker Cottage, which overlooks the Saranac River near Moody Pond in Saranac Lake. It was an intensely cold winter that produced some of his best essays, including Pulvis et Umbra and The Lantern Bearers. He also began The Master of Ballantrae during that time.
Born: March 14, 1879
Died: April 18, 1955
Married: Mileva Marić (divorced); Elsa Löwenthal
Children: Lieserl, Hans Albert Einstein (with Mileva Marić)
Plaque location: 65 Broadway
The theory of relativity and E=mc2 — maybe you’ve heard of them? The 1922 Nobel Prize winner was a frequent summer visitor to Lower Saranac Lake, where he rented cabin six. According to records, the brilliant physicist was also an expert sailboat captain, although neither he nor his sister knew how to swim. Counterintuitive to that, Einstein's love of simplicity took precedence, and he reportedly never had a map, compass, or life preservers on board.