Alfred Lee Donaldson was the son of a wealthy New York banker when he was born there in 1866. He reminded some people what a spoiled rich kid is like, and he had to do what he wanted. When Alfred was 15, he was supposed to be a violinist. Such a pursuit would logically lead to spending time in Europe, the home of Western music. He even got to know Richard Wagner, the so-called “Master of Bayreuth”, the controversial opera composer whose music continued to confuse duh “Leader.”
Upon returning to America, Alfred gave in to family pressures to fit in and agreed to make music a hobby while stoically indulging in a soft life of growing wealth as a banker in New York. Then what happened so often back then happened to him. In February 1895, Alfred felt the wheels of his wagon fly off when his doctor told him he was definitely suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis; next step – Saranac Lake, like thousands others from around the world.
Alfred Donaldson was the guy who had to keep himself busy. When he came here, the village needed a real, working and legal bank. Who could have risen to this challenge better than the son of a big city banker? Donaldson found two more “Lung” (local slang for TB patients), namely William Minshull and John Neilson, who joined him in a financial firm that gave their adopted home an institution with a familiar name, the Adirondack National Bank.
In 1902 Alfred’s fortunes increased when he married another lunger in town, Miss Elizabeth Hollingsworth, also a musician. When Halley’s Comet reappeared in 1910, Donaldson’s fortunes reversed as his health deteriorated, prompting him to quit his job at the bank. Thanks to his hobbies, he has adapted well. One of the things he enjoyed doing was hanging out with other intellectually engaged people. There were places for this type of behavior in this cosmopolitan community back then, a side effect of the disease that started Saranac Lake’s golden age, which was ended only by advances in science. This is how Donaldson became friends with Stephen Chalmers, a journalist and author. Chalmers had been told by his doctor that he also had tuberculosis “white death,” force him into exile.
Stephen Chalmers was featured in this series in the August 27, 2020 issue of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. He is instrumental in the rest of this story. Chalmers was born in Dunoon, Scotland in 1880 and couldn’t wait to come to America. By the age of 25 he was a respected New York newspaper editor and friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Then the bad news reached him that brought him to Saranac Lake. He hadn’t been here long before he found out about the connection between Robert Louis Stevenson and this village, which he wanted to address in his own way in his spare time.
As for Alfred Donaldson, one day in 1912 he was minding his own business at home. His friend Stephen Chalmers came to see him. Chalmers showed signs of frustration when he explained that when he tried to learn things about the history of the Adirondack region for a new story he was writing, nothing could be found because none existed!
“He has convinced Donaldson that he, Donaldson, has the time, resources and ability to bring a comprehensive history to the area. Years later, Donaldson would confess to friends that he feigned revulsion at the prospect and was actually excited about the idea. After discreet hesitation, he accepted Chalmers’ challenge, a welcome burden that lasted for a decade.” John J. Duquette wrote in his introduction to the 1977 reprint of the 1921 edition “A History of the Adirondacks” by AL Donaldson.
The end product of Donaldson’s decades of research and writing is a remarkable and enjoyable two-volume masterpiece that has already been cited in this series and others will follow. In recognition of his valuable contribution, the “Adirondack Mountain Club” named for a 4,215-foot peak in the Seward Range “Mount Donaldson”, which has been ratified by all state and national bodies responsible for geographic nomenclature. Too bad for Donaldson that he died in 1923, a year before they did.
Alfred Donaldson knew Andrew and Mary Baker from the beginning of his project and has been to their already famous home several times. Andrew was an eyewitness source for information about the life and times of “Baker’s Tavern” in his prime, just like his older surviving sisters Emma and Julia. They all remembered the store their father, Col. Milote Baker, built in what is now Triangle Park in 1854.
“The first post office in Saranac Lake was established in 1854.” writes Donaldson, “and Col. Baker was the first postmaster. His office was in a small shop he built opposite his hotel. Here it remained until 1862, when William F. Martin secured it and moved it to his hotel on Lower Saranac Lake. The store just mentioned was the first in the community. It was in a small separate building on a lot that the construction of the railroad has made into a triangle at the intersection of Pine Street and Main Street. The first building was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, but it was immediately replaced by another on the same site. This is still standing and has been used as an apartment in recent years. (Demolished 1957, around the same time “Dugway” road was dug out of the slope). There Tom Delahant received his first piano lessons.
“There were two small rooms above this shop; one filled with books and magazines, the other used as a cobbler’s shop. The cobbler was Hillel Baker, a brother of the colonel. He was a slightly eccentric old bachelor whose main eccentricity was his career choice, being college educated and highly intelligent. He had been studying for the Ministry but his health was failing and he followed his brother into the forest where he seemed perfectly content to live out his life in peaceful but not unhelpful darkness. He was staying at his brother’s hotel and they got along well, but Hillel was never in the limelight like the Colonel. But he was very much in the public heart. His gentle nature and friendly demeanor made him popular with everyone, especially with children. For their benefit, he maintained a small lending library at his own expense in the small room next to his shop. Here the children could read or take books home with them.”
“Such a ministry could not fail to benefit the community and make an impression on the growing generation of its day. He was, of course, also interested in church work, and preached on Sundays in a union meeting house that was being built behind the Baker shop on what is now Pine Street… Outside of these quiet activities, the shoemaker kept a low profile to his last. He died about a year before his brother, who died on November 2, 1874. Both were buried in Keeseville.”