“You just need fresh air!” For years, this was common doctors’ advice. Sick folks flocked to mountain retreats to lounge outside, breathing in and out. In the 1880s, one such place became a medical haven—until antibiotics caused “taking the air” to fall from fashion.
Saranac Lake, New York, lies 250 miles north of New York City in the Adirondack Mountains. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau visited the quiet village in 1876. He believed rest and mountain air could help control his tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis, or “TB,” is a lung infection caused by a bacterium. There is currently no vaccine to prevent it. It spreads mostly in poor, crowded areas without water purification systems. Symptoms include cough, fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Any lung disease is serious. No breath means no life! Thankfully, all breath is in God’s gracious hands. (Daniel 5:23)
At Saranac Lake, Trudeau’s health improved. He moved there permanently and opened Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium (a place for treating prolonged illnesses) in 1884.
News of Trudeau’s clinic spread. Trains—as many as a dozen a day—chugged to Saranac Lake. Patients who couldn’t get sanitarium housing stayed in family-run “cure cottages” that sprang up around town.
“It was a bustling place,” says Howard Riley. As a child, he delivered food to patients in the village. “Very, very upbeat. And that might sound funny to somebody else, because the whole place was built on a disease.”
Many TB patients were young. Some were bedridden. Others were “up patients,” who sometimes took walks for exercise. Patients reclined on porches, bundled in fur coats when the weather turned cold.
“You couldn’t go near them. You could walk up onto the cure porch. They all knew your names and you knew theirs because it was like a big family,” remembers Natalie Leduc, now 89.
At its height, an estimated 2,000 or more patients at a time stayed in Saranac Lake. Famous patients included author Robert Louis Stevenson and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson.
Adirondack Cottage discharged its last patient in 1954. But Saranac Lake residents still honor their village’s unusual past. Hundreds of old cure cottages remain, their porches now enclosed.
Last year, a local history group purchased Trudeau’s house and medical office. Developers bought the sanitarium, where Trudeau died in 1915 after battling TB for decades. They hope to restore buildings on the old grounds as stores, homes, or inns.
Ironically, Saranac Lake’s boom ended with the rise of antibiotics. Historian Amy Catania calls that “a terrible thing for our local economy.” But, she says, it was “a wonderful thing for humanity.”