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Mark Twain and the Adirondacks

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Mark Twain’s Connection to Ulysses S. Grant and Saranac Lake

America’s Beloved Humorist and his time in the Adirondacks

Mark Twain at Kane Camp in Saranac LakeThe father of American literature and former steamboat pilot, Mark Twain traveled throughout the world. In his travels, he and his family vacationed in Saranac Lake but for only one summer. Twain had much more serious business to attend to in the Adirondacks: Ulysses S. Grant.

Mark Twain whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens had great admiration for Grant, who was the 18th President of the United States and the driving force that led the Union to victory in the Civil War.

Twain attended a ceremony on November 12, 1879 in Chicago at Haverly’s Theatre. He wrote in Mark Twain’s Letters about how he sat elbow-to-elbow with the major players in the Civil War: General Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, John Schofield, John Pope, John Alexander Logan, and Christopher Augur.

“What an iron man Grant is!” Twain wrote in a letter to his wife.  “He was under a tremendous and ceaseless bombardment of praise and gratulation, but as true as I’m sitting here he never moved a muscle of his body for a single instant, during 30 minutes!”

Twain went on to explain how Grant got up and bowed.  The storm of applause swelled into a hurricane. Grant’s Cottage, a historic site in Wilton, New York, the place where he died of throat cancer in 1885, sits below the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility.

Twain heard rumors that Grant was interested in publishing his memoirs. Like Twain who had filed forbankruptcy, Grant also had financial problems. Twain visited Grant and proposed a deal; if Grant allowed Twain to publish his memoirs he’d give him 75 percent of the profits.  Grant agreed and Twain became his publisher.

Ulysses S. GrantA PBS American Experience documentary on Twain, mentions how he hired salesmen. The majority were Civil War Veterans that went from door to door, selling Grant’s Memoirs. They wore their uniforms as a tribute and paid respect when Grant died just a few days after he finished writing his manuscript, which turned out to be a big seller and an academically acclaimed book.

“This is the simple soldier, who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.” Twain wrote about Grant and his writing.

Although Twain sold about 300,000 sets of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and made $500,000 in royalties, $100,000 of which he kept, the balance went to Grant’s widow; his publishing company went under. He had to continue to write and give lectures, a chore he didn’t enjoying doing; but he succeeded in paying off his debt.

In June 1901, Clemens and his wife Olivia, and his daughters Clara and Jean vacationed for the entire summer at Kane Camp on Lower Saranac Lake. They were the first family to rent the cabin, which is now privately owned, but for the first time in over a century became available for weekly rentals this past summer.

Built one year before they stayed there, the cottage, a two-story building had a balcony that overhang the lake. It must’ve been a slice of rustic life for Twain nicknamed the place ‘The Lair.’

“Everyone knows what a lair is, lairs generally do contain dangerous animals, but I bring tame ones to this one,” he said.

Twain described Kane Camp as “charmingly like sitting snuggled up on a ship’s deck with the stretching sea all around” and ‘the lake of the clustered stars.”        

Rev. Walter Larom, pastor of St. Luke’s Church was asked to request Twain come and give a speech at a fundraiser for the library. The account was published in 1924 in a literary journal called The Book Man. Afraid he wouldn’t be well received at the front door, Larom went by way of water; with a companion, he approached the camp by canoe.

“To his surprise he was greeted warmly by Twain and invited to the ‘main deck’ where he was treated to a discourse on the beauty of their surroundings even before he could broach his subject,” wrote John Duquette in an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

When the pastor finally got a word in edgewise and made his request, Twain replied, “No, no, no.  I hate the platform, it scares me.”

As he escorted the pastor and his friend back to the canoe, he stopped to admire the vessel.  As Larom and his friend paddled away, Twain said, “I see that all of the work is taking place in the bow and in the stern. If I were to go along I would prefer the middle seat.”

At 64 years old, Twain wrote “A Double Barreled Detective Story,” while he stayed at the retreat with his family according to

When they left in October, the locals decided that because they liked him and thought his fruitful years as a writer were behind him, they renamed it the Mark Twain Camp.

Diana Denner is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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