Recently a reader asked if Mountain Lake and its amusement pavilion ever seriously rivaled Sacandaga Park.
I replied that many people believe Mountain Lake developed as a summer resort and amusement park only after the Mountain Lake Electric Railroad became established, but both the summer residences and the Altamont Hotel were already flourishing there well before the railroad finally crested the steep incline from Gloversville in 1901, stimulated expansion of the lake's amusement park, and on July 4, 1902, was directly responsible for our most tragic local railroad wreck.
FJ&G historian Paul K. Larner, critiquing this article, commented, "At that time Mountain Lake posed a serious threat to Sacandaga Park. The FJ&G denied the Mountain Lake Electric Railroad a connection to the 'belt line' to inhibit convenient transit. However, people weren't easily dissuaded: many prominent families established summer digs at Mountain Lake anyway." The Bleecker stagecoach also stopped there twice daily throughout the 1890s.
Pre-1923 image of the Mountain Lake Hotel taken from a postcard in Paul Larner’s collection.
Photo courtesy of Paul Larner
A July 2, 1894, Gloversville Daily Leader article, "A Day At The Lake," painted rosy pictures of Mountain Lake's already flourishing accommodations. Enjoying his visit, the reporter wrote, "It is evident that landlord Elman Hilts of the Altamont Hotel at Mountain Lake is bound to make that charming place a very popular resort. The drive to Mountain Lake is easy and picaresque. Boating is excellent, pond lilies are blooming, and flies and mosquitoes, so numerous at other resorts, are not found here. The new hotel is one of the handsomest summer resort hotels in this section of the state. The spacious public rooms and dining room are cool and afford a relief from the summer heat of the city. In the private apartments of the house are twenty-three rooms, and Landlord Hilts told this Leader representative they were nearly all engaged for different lengths of time after the fourth. Hilts proposes celebrating the "Glorious Fourth" by giving boat races on the lake and a handsome display of fireworks in the evening."
"In the old log hotel are servant's quarters and the bar room. The lake is provided with comfortably fitted-up boats, let to guests at easy rates. Board at the hotel is but $10 to $12 dollars a week. The cuisine shows conclusively that Landlord Hilts looks after the comforts of the inner man. He is a model manager."
Of Mountain Lake in general the reporter observed, "The land around the lake is pretty, high and dry, and would make pleasant summer residences. Lots are being sold and when the new electric line is completed, the place will be one of the most popular summer resorts in this section." This article establishes the Altamont Hotel was built and opened in 1894 and a more primitive "old log hotel" existed previously.
When Elman Hilts died March 1, 1917, his Amsterdam Evening Recorder obituary described him as, "One of the most prominent real estate dealers and promoters in the early days of Gloversville. He was active in promoting the Mountain Lake Railroad: after the road was opened and before the wreck of July 4th, 1902, he had a small zoo at the lake opposite the pavilion."
An August 23, 1901, Daily Leader article announced, "Mountain Lake Electric Road Now in Active Operation." Today we find amusement in the sub-head proclaiming, "Grades are Comparatively Easy and There Are No Dangerous Curves," an incredibly boldfaced untruth.
"The road was originally projected by Elman Hilts of this city and Charles King of Johnstown, a hotel built and a company organized, but nothing further was attempted until 1897 when Hilts, railroad design engineer A.J. Keith and others became interested in the project and the company was reorganized. In addition to the pavilion, there will be provided by the company a bowling alley and toboggan slides, and the lake will be supplied with fish." For whatever reason, the ever-restless Hilts sold his interest later that year.
While space precludes detailing circumstances of the tragic July 4, 1902, Mountain Lake railroad wreck, it must be observed that those "comparatively easy" grades with "no dangerous curves" actually contained, according to historian Larner, "The steepest grade on any trolley line in America without either a cog or cable safety system installed to prevent runaways."
Several years after Elman Hilts ceased managing it, the Altamont Hotel burned when hit by lightning at 2 a.m. August 4, 1908, sending current managers Mr. and Mrs. Soule and 16 half-dressed occupants fleeing into the night. The July 14, 1956, Leader carried the reminiscence of 72 year-old Adelphi Club member and eye witness James Peck, then sleeping at nearby "Camp Adelphi".
"We were wakened about two in the morning by someone running along the shore path by lantern light yelling, 'Get up boys and help! The hotel is afire!' We all hurried over and assisted carrying down some dames from the upstairs rooms. We managed to get the girls down just in time. We pushed the piano out and down the road to Mother Capron's store. It was a very hot fire."
Summing up, it seems unlikely Mountain Lake's more limited size and smaller amusement area could have consistently drawn crowds as large as Sacandaga Park's. Mountain Lake's only real advantage was its closeness to Gloversville and Johnstown, which promoted quicker and cheaper access. It's also hard to believe it was really mosquito free. Elman Hilts was probably smart selling out when he did.
Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.