‘But A Dream’: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp

“I have never seen civilization at so high a level, in some respects, as here — and I have never seen society on the whole so good, as I used to meet at the Saturday Club,” Lowell wrote of their exploits.
By Annika Inampudi

On the last Saturday of every month, prominent 19th century Cambridge-Boston intellectuals would share a boisterous and decadent dinner — they ate and drank and traded ideas, and called the affair the Saturday Club. Members like scientist Louis Aggasiz, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and diplomat James Russell Lowell became bonded to one another in an inflated fraternity of mutual acclaim. “I have never seen civilization at so high a level, in some respects, as here — and I have never seen society on the whole so good, as I used to meet at the Saturday Club,” Lowell wrote of their exploits.

During one such dinner, Lowell regaled them with tales of his excursion to the Adirondack region, describing excitedly how he shot a swimming bear. Energized by his adventure, the men decided to plan their own trip. William James Stillman, a journalist and painter who had been to the region multiple times, agreed to organize the excursion.

On Aug. 2, 1858, Emerson, Agassiz, Lowell, Stillman, John Holmes, Horatio Woodman, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Jeffries Wyman, Estes Howe, and Amos Binney began their journey to Follensby Pond, to “meditate a moment on Heaven’s rest,” according to Emerson’s poem, “Adirondac,” about the trip.

Follensby Pond is enclosed by a lush center of green, a well of water bound by a set of jagged edges that only nature could create. Framing the pond are white pines — long, thin trees Stillman described as “gigantic human beings moving in procession to the east.”

Immersed in the beautiful wild, the men passed their days like contemporary campers. “All day we swept the lake, searched every cove,” Emerson continued in “Adirondac.” “North from Camp Maple, south to Osprey Bay, / Watching when the loud dogs should drive in deer, / Or whipping its rough surface for a trout.” They clearly fancied themselves true naturalists — never mind that Osprey Bay is at the north end of Follensby pond, not on the south.

With his grandiose prose and decisive descriptions, one might have expected Emerson to be the picture of the rugged individualist, rowing his own boat, fishing his own fish and sleeping in a tent. Yet the tone of the trip was far more “philosopher” than “camp.”

At the height of their public celebrity, the men embarked upon a month-long excursion into the American wilderness. They fancied themselves as braving the American wild, embracing the American transcendental ideal. But a closer look reveals that their vacations were far more luxurious than they projected. While Emerson waxed poetic about hunting his own food, he was provided each meal by the camp’s personal butchery and a covered kitchen.

As he wrote, “ten scholars, wonted to lie warm and soft / In well-hung chambers daintily bestowed, / Lie here on hemlock-boughs, like Sacs and Sioux, / And greet unanimous the joyful change,” Emerson wrotechronicled in “Adirondac.” Despite Emerson’s eagerness to join the ranks of the “Sacs and Sioux,” the men were quite comfortable in their cabins. As author James Schlett writes in “A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosopher’s Camp in the Adirondacks,” the camp consisted of lean-tos that stood six and a half feet tall, where the men slept comfortably on down-beds.

To get there, the men took steamships, stagecoaches, and a guided canoe out onto a campground that Stillman had prepared for them, located on the shore of Follensby Pond. Their entertainment was heavily facilitated by local people who were hired by the visitors.

These guides prepared most every aspect of the trips from buying supplies to furnishing boats and cooking food. The guides would track deer prints, all but handing the game directly to the men as they shot them. But the men were fascinated with the performance of untamed masculinity. Emerson is noted to have had a lust for hunting. He bought a gun before the trip and was eager to use it. “I must kill a deer before we go home, even if the guide has to hold him by the tail,” he reportedly told Stillman.

Emerson was a pioneer of transcendentalism, a wave of thinking that was dying out by the Follensby Pond trip. The transcendentalists believed in the supremacy of nature; they were reticent to the industrialist claim of mastery and destruction of the environment.

“We seemed to have got back into a not too greatly changed Eden, whose imperious ties to the outer world were hidden for the day in the waters and woods that lay between us and it,” Stillman said of the journey. “The outside world was but a dream.”

While the Adirondacks were not yet the tourist and resort hub they would soon become, the region was far from uninhabited. Early in its history, the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes claimed the land as hunting grounds. After the Revolutionary War, the Native peoples of the land were mostly decimated due to smallpox. Their land was annexed by the New York State government, which portioned off the acres and sold them to interested settlers. The illusion of the land being untouched was, as with most visions of American manifest destiny, a farce.

The trip captivated the American public. The New York Evening Post reported of the “congregation of philosophers, savants, authors, artists, and ordinary human beings who every summer proceed to the wilds of the Adirondack on a few weeks’ visit to Nature.” In many ways, these men were hallmarks of the age of public intellectual celebrity — where the exploits of professors and scholars were perhaps as interesting as the travels of a social media influencer. In the coming years, the “Nature” that was so romanticized by the Saturday Club gentlemen began to be developed with hotels, luxury resorts, and vacation homes filled with hungry tourists, eager to experience the same dream.

Did these men actually experience the wilderness the way they wanted to? In his essay, “Nature,” published two decades before the trip, Emerson writesthat in the woods, he feels “nothing can befall [him] in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity.” It’s not hard to imagine that nothing can befall you in the woods when there is a guide holding your hand and walking you through them.

These men trafficked in ideas — in their careers as scholarly intellectuals, but also in the mythos of the Saturday Club, of venturing into the romanticized Adirondack region and living the tales that were told to them. Most of all, the men were bound to the idea of themselves, the “wise and polite” crew Emerson wrote about in his poem. The camp died out within ten years, with Stillman still running trips to the old Follensby pond. Though they tried to recreate the magic of the first, these new trips weren't the same. “The voices of that merry assemblage of “wise and polite” vacation-keepers come to us from the land of dreams,” Stillman writes, “they and their summering have passed into the traditions of later camp-fires, where the guides tell of the ‘Philosophers’ Camp.’”

To this day, the Philosophers’ Camp is an Adirondack attraction; from the bay of Follensby Pond, named ‘Agassiz Bay,’ to just miles away from the original site, where five-day spiritual retreats bearing the same name invite “awakened business and thought leaders [to] step into this mythic energy and stand on the work of masters who came before us.”

— Magazine writer Annika Inampudi can be reached at annika.inampudi@thecrimson.com.