A First Lady’s Failed Adirondack Cure


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cottageIn the summer of 1892, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, Caroline Scott Harrison, became extremely ill. She primarily suffered from tuberculosis, but experienced complications from pleurisy and the accumulation of fluid in her chest. Medical treatment of T. B. at the time mainly amounted to having the patient rest. For this reason, it was felt that a stay in the Adirondacks offered the best chance for restoring the First Lady’s health.

Early in July, the journey from Washington, D.C. to Loon Lake was undertaken, via a special train. The Troy Daily Times dutifully reported on the train’s progress. It arrived in Troy in the wee hours of the morning on July 7, then proceeded to White Creek, Rutland, Vermont, Rouse’s Point, and Malone, reaching the latter place at 10:30 am. There, a crowd that included some local officials met the two-car train, but the President asked that they refrain from cheering, so as not to disturb his sick wife.

A change of locomotive was made, and “one of the finest engines in the world” took the train up the steep grade of the brand new Adirondack and St. Lawrence railroad. The road was so new that the last two miles of track to Loon Lake had not been laid. The company’s president, Dr. William Seward Webb, ordered that work be performed overnight so that the train could reach Loon Lake the next morning, when it arrived at a platform freshly constructed overnight.

At Loon Lake, a Concord coach, pulled by four horses, took the party several miles to a cottage that served as a summer residence. Besides the President and First Lady, the party consisted of Mrs. Mary Dimmick (Mrs. Harrison’s niece, and, later on, Mr. Harrison’s second wife); Mary’s sister Lizzy and her husband, Lieutenant John Parker; and Dr. Frank A. Gardner, Mrs. Harrison’s physician. Later on, other relatives arrived, including the two Presidential grandchildren, Mary Lodge McKee and Benjamin Harrison McKee (known as “Baby McKee”).

The President stayed only through the weekend, returning to Washington on Tuesday, July 12. Congress was in session and his presence was required, but he returned to the Adirondacks early in August when Congress went into recess. He arrived “as unostentatiously as do the other guests who visit Loon Lake,” according to some news reports (expressly contradicting dispatches that said he was greeted with “cheers and receptions”). On returning, he found that his wife’s condition had improved somewhat.

Mrs. Harrison’s physician left for a while, and the Buffalo Evening News, while allowing that “she has improved to a wonderful degree,” disputed reports by other papers that she had completely recovered. “There is no getting around the fact that Mrs. Harrison is still a very sick woman.” She took her meals at the cottage, while her husband ate separately in a private dining room. at the Loon Lake House, since the cottage had no kitchen.

LOC_3b20942rWhen she was up to it, the invalid went on carriage rides with her husband, but as her condition worsened, their time together mostly consisted of him reading to her at her bedside. Despite her initial improvement, the health of the First Lady progressively declined. By September 13th, the papers reported that the President (who was running for re-election) had canceled a speaking tour due to his wife’s illness. In a telegram to a Republican leader, he said “Mrs. Harrison’s condition is such as to make it impossible to take the proposed trip.”

Admirers of the “Lady of the White House,” would be “surprised and grieved to learn that her convalescence, which was progressing slowly but surely…has received an apparent check,” the New York Press glumly reported. Dr. Gardner consulted with medical experts, including Dr. Edward Trudeau from Saranac Lake.

By the 20th of September, the doctors acceded to the wishes of their patient and her family that she go back to Washington. Informed of this news, Mrs. Harrison was joyful and upbeat. Dr. Gardner, perhaps being overly optimistic, said he was “encouraged at her condition,” and that she had slept very well overnight and “seemed to be stronger this morning.” He acknowledged that the trip would be risky, but thought she might do better once it was completed and she was home again.

Posing the greatest danger was the part of the trip involving the three-to-four mile carriage ride on the rough road from the cottage to the Loon Lake station. Once aboard the train, she would enjoy the arrangements made to insure she’d have a comfortable rail journey. The manner in which the invalid was conveyed to the Loon Lake station belied the doctor’s positivity, however.

“She was raised tenderly from the couch on which she has passed so many weary hours,” reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “and placed on a stretcher covered with rugs, blankets, and pillows.” Four men carried her to a “long mountain wagon,” with her husband and physician walking alongside holding Mrs. Harrison’s hands. The stretcher was kept level as it was lifted up and placed on a cot in the wagon, and a slow trip was made to the railroad depot. It took about an hour for the wagon to make the drive of just a few miles, the horses proceeding at a mere walk. It stopped once, to give Mrs. Harrison a break from the bumpiness.

At the station, sadness permeated the scene, and “the President’s eyes were red with constant weeping.” Mrs. Harrison “appeared like a weak, helpless invalid, in the throes of a dread disease, which was slowly sapping her life’s blood away.”

Once more a special train had been arranged, and it bore her away mid-day, presumably honoring a request by the nation’s chief executive that it slow down on the curves so that his wife would not be made uncomfortable. Her trip took her through Plattsburgh, Whitehall, Saratoga and Albany. (The President went by a different route, via Malone, owing to differences in track gauges.) As the train passed through stations on the long trip back to the District of Columbia, onlookers arrived and “stood in a silent attitude of sympathy as the train passed.” The infirm woman arrived in Washington the following day, and an Army ambulance carried her back home to the White House, which she had worked so hard to improve. Being back in a familiar setting seemed to buoy her spirits, and her appetite also improved..

In the city, a national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was underway, and Harrison’s participation in it would have made for an important political appearance, but, even though back in the capital, he stayed by his wife’s side.

On October 25, 1892, Caroline Scott Harrison lost her battle with tuberculosis. Two weeks later, her husband lost his battle for the Presidency to his former opponent, ex-President Grover Cleveland. He did not lose his love for the Adirondacks, however, as a few years later he built a lodge at Second Lake in the Fulton Chain and visited it frequently.

Illustrations: sketch of cottage from the New York Press, September 18, 1892; portrait of Mrs. Harrison from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

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