Toward the end of his life, Harold Hochschild collaborated with his son, Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains and King Leopold’s Ghost (among others) and co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, to convert their family property at Eagle Nest in Blue Mountain Lake, New York to a non-profit working space for artists and writers.
Soon after, Harriet Barlow, founder and co-founder of 15 non-profit organizations and member of over 50 boards of directors, agreed to become Blue Mountain Center’s founding Executive Director to further develop the vision for BMC and put it into action. Over a period of 36 years, Harriet, along with many others like Ben Strader who came to BMC as an intern in 1984 and serves as the current Executive Director, shaped the BMC we know today.
For the first few years of Blue Mountain Center's existence, the only residents were writers. In 1985, thanks to the generosity of family and former residents, we were able to create artist studios, and in 1993 we adapted the Grey Cottage garage to be a composer's studio.
The concept of Blue Mountain Center emerged over many years but was very influenced by a variety of predecessors, including early artist colonies, and most significantly the Highlander Center.
Before Blue Mountain Center
The first occupants of the land on which BMC now stands were native Haudenosaunee and Anishnabe people. Warm months brought them to these lakes and others in the central Adirondacks for the district's abundant fish and game. In the winter weather — which often sees temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit — they returned to their settlements in the warmer, lower valleys of the Mohawk and St. Lawrence Rivers.
Although non-native hunters and trappers probably passed through the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first recorded non-native visit to the chain of Blue Mountain, Eagle, and Utowana Lakes was not until 1840. The visitor that year was Ebenezer Emmons, Professor of Natural History at Williams College, who was making a survey of the region for the State of New York.
This particular area, incidentally, has always been of special interest to geologists. One reason is that the nearest low ridge you can see just on the other side of Eagle Lake forms the divide between the watersheds of the Hudson and the St. Lawrence Rivers. The water of Eagle Lake reaches the sea off the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec. Only a few hundred yards away beyond the ridge are ponds which drain, via the Hudson River, into New York Harbor. Scientists believe that before the last Ice Age the waters of Eagle, Blue Mountain, and Utowana Lakes flowed eastward instead of westward, and reached the sea at New York also.
The first person to live for an extended length of time at the site of what is now Blue Mountain Center was, appropriately enough, a writer. Born as Edward Zane Carroll Judson, he wrote under many names, most commonly that of Ned Buntline. A newspaperman, magazine editor, sailor, adventurer, and a prodigious drinker who also picked up a few dollars now and then by lecturing on temperance, Buntline wrote more than 100 popular books, and was the foremost practitioner of what came to be known as the dime novel. Later on in his life, he achieved lasting renown by finding an obscure cavalry scout and christening and promoting him as Buffalo Bill. Songs, plays, biographies and a traveling show followed. Buffalo Bill later broke with Buntline and toured the world with his "Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition," which included bucking broncos and stagecoach robbery, but Buntline continued to collect royalties.
Between 1856 and 1862, Ned Buntline lived on and off in a cabin whose remains are now visible a few yards toward the lake from the Center's south porch. Buntline seems to have passed his time here writing, trout fishing, drinking and fathering children by two of his six wives, and perhaps, according to local legend, by other women in the vicinity as well. He also wrote a poem of praise to his lakeside homestead, whose final stanza is:
Where the rolling surf laves the emerald turf,
Where the trout leaps high at the hovering fly,
Where the sportive fawn crops the soft green lawn,
And the crows shrill cry bodes a tempest nigh—
There is my home—my wildwood home.
Buntline departed to fight in the Civil War and did not return here. Around the site of his house, a succession of local farmers grew rye and raised cows for much of the next 40 years.
Beginning in 1899, a number of buildings started going up around the old Buntline property, erected by William West Durant, a railroad baron's son and an ambitious though unsuccessful entrepreneur in the Adirondacks. Between 1890 and 1910, the central Adirondacks were extremely fashionable as a summer resort; Durant tried to take advantage of this by building steamboats and a railroad line, and by converting the farmland around Buntline's former house into a golf course. He had great plans for the creation of a country club and resort, of which what is now BMC's main building was to be the centerpiece. He got as far as staging an exhibition golf match by one of the leading professionals of the day, and the country club ran for a season or two. But in the midst of further building, Durant went bankrupt.
In 1904 Durant's creditors sold the land and buildings to a group of four New Yorkers who, over the next several decades, used the property as summer homes for their families. They also rented some buildings to friends. Various other sales and subdivisions took place over the years. In recent decades the clubhouse was occupied by the late Harold Hochschild, a New York businessman and a son of one of the original 1904 purchasers. On his death in 1981, he left the house along with an endowment to maintain it, for use as a writers' colony and conference center.
During the last decades of the 19th century, visitors to Blue Mountain Lake had an arduous 26-hour journey from New York City; overnight boat to Albany, a stretch by train, and then an eight-hour stagecoach ride over a road so rough passengers had to be strapped in. By 1900 the trip was a much pleasant one: it then became possible to take an overnight train to the village of Raquette Lake, 10 miles west of Eagle Lake. The remaining distance was covered by steamboat, except for a very short shuttle journey by a small steam railway, alongside a stretch of river rapids too rough for boats. The first asphalt highway to the area was not completed until 1929.
— Adapted from "A Bit of History" by Adam Hochschild