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September 11, 2011

Don't have to travel far to follow Stevenson's footsteps

Local landmark revisits Stevenson's legacy

Consider this assignment for your advanced literature class: Write an Adirondack story.

Include the taking of a few scalps. Add a Scottish castle. Maybe some pirates and people walking the plank. Oh, yes, be sure to have a historical person, perhaps someone like William Johnson, the British administrator famed for his good relationship with native peoples.

Impossible to include all these elements in a single tale? Even Robert Louis Stevenson wouldn't be up to the task.

Or would he? In "The Master of Ballantrae," Stevenson managed to cram in all that and more.

Maybe the challenge would feel less heroic if you could follow his footsteps to the place where he began that story. It's not that hard to do; just head west on Route 3 into Saranac Lake.

UNEXPECTED DETOUR

Stevenson, himself, took a different route. Suffering from lifelong respiratory ailments, he came from his homeland of Scotland to America, planning to spend the winter of 1887 in Colorado to regain his health. Already well-known for "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," he had just completed "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It was time for a rest.

Upon arrival in the port of New York, Stevenson found himself a celebrity. Publishers beseeched him with offers to write for them. The public clamored to see the author of such newly popular works.

Stevenson, however, found his illness worsening. Uncertain about his ability to take the train to Colorado, he and his family searched for alternatives. He heard about the work of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau and his pioneering sanitarium in Saranac Lake. The Stevenson entourage — including his wife, mother, stepson and a Swiss servant — bought rail passage north.

The search for appropriate quarters led to a small farmhouse at which Mary and Andrew Baker had welcomed hunters over the years. One of Saranac Lake's first families, the Bakers had more than 600 acres, including the nearby mountain that still bears their name. Stevenson agreed to pay $50 a month for four rooms, with the Bakers keeping the rest of the cottage. The shared kitchen served as a dividing line.

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