Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt

Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt

Courtesy of Library of Congress [LC-B2- 1185-13]

          Margaret Emerson first came to the Adirondacks as the affluent wife of Smith Hollis McKim, a doctor. A few years later, Margaret and McKim divorced and in 1911, she married Alfred Vanderbilt, the wealthiest young man in America. He took her back to the Adirondacks to Sagamore, the “camp” he bought from William West Durant. They were thrilled to escape the probing questions and cameras of reporters.

          Sagamore was one of the classic “Great Camps” in the Adirondacks. The Main Lodge at Sagamore was equipped with hot and cold running water and a modern septic system. The outside was covered with half logs and cedar bark to give the illusion of rusticity. The Vanderbilts quickly added a hydroelectric plant, tennis courts and an outdoor bowling alley. 

          Alfred and Margaret were the leaders of high society in their day. At Sagamore, the young Vanderbilt couple entertained as many as sixty guests at a time. They hosted a steady stream of dignitaries, artists, writers and musicians. 

          Margaret was a woman of many interests and great energy. She loved croquet and was the first woman to be inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame. She enjoyed games like ping-pong especially with her children and later, grandchildren. 

Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt

          After Alfred was killed on the Lusitania, people expected Margaret to sell Sagamore. Instead, Margaret continued to spend summers there and expand the camp.

          Grandson Tony Topping sums up Margaret’s character this way: “She had a lot of ‘moxie.’...She loved both beauty and sport. Purdy shotguns and Hardy flyrods were as important as stunning diamonds and furs. But being well versed in each was more important than any of them. She loved the beauty of the Adirondack woods and the swamps of the Carolina low country as much as the splendors of the Louvre and the Prado.”

          In order to keep Sagamore safe from commercial development and still ensure its use, she gave it to Syracuse University in 1954. Today Great Camp Sagamore is owned by a non-profit, educational organization offering outdoor and cultural programs and historical tours of the recently designated National Historic Landmark.

Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt