A Village of Coughs
Posted: March 2, 2020
Stay away from someone who’s coughing, or you might end up in the little town of Saranac Lake, New York.
At least, that used to be true 100 years ago.
Tuberculosis is a disease. It spreads through coughs and sneezes and usually attacks the lungs. It was one of the deadliest diseases a century ago. People with tuberculosis felt tired all the time. They had terrible coughs. And to get well, they looked for a “rest cure.” They thought fresh air would help. That’s why many traveled to Saranac Lake. There, they reclined on cottage porches. They breathed in the crisp Adirondack Mountain air. Even if it was cold, they sat outdoors, bundled up in fur coats. Saranac Lake grew into a little city full of sick people and doctors. A dozen trains chugged in and out daily, dropping new patients off. Hotels and a famous mountainside tuberculosis sanitorium (place for sick people) were established. Many people who got tuberculosis died. The newly-busy city also had three undertakers.
“It was a bustling place,” says 89-year-old Howard Riley. He worked more than seven decades ago as a “tray boy” in Saranac Lake. He delivered food to patients. He says the town was “Very, very upbeat. And that might sound funny to somebody else, because the whole place was built on a disease.” Yep—a disease put Saranac Lake on the map!
Patients say they loved living in the busy town, even though they were sick. Anne Irene Remis came at age 23 in 1939. She called her decade there some of the happiest years of her life. She made friends. She liked the kind doctors. One “prescribed” her lipstick to match her pajamas.
Once, an estimated 2,000 or more patients at a time would stay in the town. Hundreds of old “cure cottages” still stand along the hilly streets. Many are homes. But Saranac Lake is not the same bustling city it used to be. What happened? Antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis was discovered. That was great news for humanity. But it ended the boom in Saranac Lake.