Your Lake, Your Newspaper

How the Story Begins

How the Story Begins July 20, 2023
Photo of the 1909 Whip-po-will, a 45-foot pleasure boat owned by A.L. Judson, president of the American Power Boat Association, at the dock at Mohican Island (aka Pleasure Island), picking up the author’s great grandmother and her friends
The 1909 Whip-po-will, a 45-foot pleasure boat owned by A.L. Judson, president of the American Power Boat Association, at the dock at Mohican Island (aka Pleasure Island), picking up the author’s great grandmother and her friends

Reportedly, her dying words were: “Oh, if only to have another summer on the island….” She is also believed to be the benign ghost who still haunts Recluse Island, appearing before unknowing children or in the form of footsteps heard overhead, pennies left under pillows or through other curious, phantasmal events.

This would be my great grandmother, Janet Gould Reynolds, (1871-1943). She and her son, Kenneth Gray Reynolds, my grandfather, were – so far as we know – the first members of our family to come to Lake George.

Everyone who loves Lake George and returns year after year has an “origin story:” how they first came the lake, how they became enthralled by it and, in the process, how they created the memories that define, for them, why it is such a special place. These are varied and often very personal stories.

If we include great-grandmother Janet – who spent every summer on Recluse Island and who “ruled the roost” here from 1928 to 1942, my sons and their cousins represent the fifth generation to enjoy the island, which my grandfather purchased in 1927.

The history of Recluse Island is a unique tale, but this is a story about a different island, mysteriously called Pleasure Island, where our family learned to love Lake George in the first years of the 20th century, more than a decade before finding their way to Recluse Island.

Growing up, my brother, cousins and I knew very little about those early years. We didn’t even know where Pleasure Island was! It wasn’t listed on any maps. When my grandfather died in 1955 (on Recluse Island, incidentally), most of the facts and memories of that earlier place and time went with him. My father and uncles had only scant recollections of the stories they were told. The only evidence of those years was a collage of photos of scenic views, a crib dock, and bustle dress and tweed-clad characters enjoying what appear to be the activities of a prototypical weekend on Lake George – boating, fishing, swimming and cocktails.

It wasn’t until 1998 that my uncle, Stephen Reynolds, an Albany attorney and de facto family historian, figured out the actual location of Pleasure Island. The clue came from Frank Leonbruno, whose book, “Lake George Reflections: Island History and Lore,” noted that Pleasure Island was one of several names by which Mohican Island was previously known. Sure enough, on the north end of Mohican Island, you can still see remnants of the old crib dock that appears in some of the old photos.

While we were able to determine the location of Pleasure Island, we still knew next to nothing about how my great grandparents and grandfather came to be there or what their summers were like.

That all changed during the pandemic winter of 2021 when my aunt sent us a box of remarkable photos. Uncle Stephen died in 2016 and in the process of clearing out boxes of old papers she found, amid stacks of unrelated correspondence, a 1915 leatherbound album containing 101 pristine black and white photos. The photos in our small collage were clearly from this collection. It was akin to being presented with a completed puzzle after having access to only a single piece of that puzzle for 100 years.

In all likelihood, the photos belonged to Cuyler Reynolds, Albany City Historian and Director of the Albany Institute whose papers had found their way to my uncle Stephen, the history buff of his generation.

Cuyler (1866-1934) was great grandmother Janet’s husband and according to Reynolds lore, the couple became estranged and separated around the time the photos were taken, after which he disappears from family histories.

We don’t know the year the family built the cottage or even who built it – Cuyler Reynolds or his wife Janet’s family, the Goulds.

I suspect the latter, as Charlie Gould, Janet’s brother, and sisters feature prominently.

Judging by the photos, the cottage was well established by 1915 and appears to have been built several years earlier.

My uncle Stephen always claimed the family had a long-term lease on the north end of the island, but it is probable that they were “squatters” on state land.

New York State adopted a law in 1885 prohibiting the construction of permanent structures on the state-owned islands, but that seems to have remained unenforced until the first decades of the twentieth century, when John Apperson decided to take matters into his own hands.

We believe the family was dispossessed from Mohican Island in 1917. My grandfather, Kenneth Reynolds, being an architect and engineer, had the cottage rolled onto logs and dragged over the ice and sold to someone in Bolton. The last person who knew where the house landed is said to be Joe Smith, of F.R. Smith and Sons, who sadly perished in a fire.

It would have been interesting to have heard the conversations between Apperson and the family about the abandonment of the Pleasure Island cottage. Apperson and my grandfather knew each other well and later served together on the committee to preserve Dome Island and on the Lake George Protective Association, which they formed in opposition to the Lake George Association and to prevent the mill at Ticonderoga from controlling lake levels. So perhaps their relations were not as rancorous as one might have been led to believe. (And by the way, Apperson kept a basecamp of his own on West Dollar Island for years.)

As I look at these century-old photos, I can’t help but be struck by how many scenes would be similar to photos taken during an island vacation today.

The camera captures the activity that is drawn to the edge of the water, on the rocks or docks, and the enjoyment that people have always found in being outdoors with friends, in games, conversations, in walking arm in arm.

Mostly, the lens is directed outward, toward the lake and mountains beyond, toward the boats, the steamboat Mohican included. There are shots of hikes on Shelving Rock and Black Mountain, of the views from above the lake – archetypal moments that will still resonate with those devoted to island camping.

Published here are a few samples from the collection – a window into another time. Our great grandparents come to life. We are introduced to our grandfather as a 23-year-old.

The lake is the constant; some families’ lifelong connection with it will begin this summer, others have been under its spell for generations. Our family falls into the latter camp. These photos tell us how the story began.

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