The Stone Tower of Silas Paine

It would be inappropriate to tell you why I was so afraid and so angry, but I was, rocking from the one emotion to the other like a boat tilting and rolling on the waves of Lake George, where I was supposed to be on vacation in July of 2004. By the third day, the fear had painted everything, every breath in, every breath out. So even when relief came with welcome news, I was still afraid, afraid of everything, and almost paralyzed with it.

At last it came down to a kayak and the Stone Tower. I have collected postcards of the Stone Tower at Silver Bay for years, but assumed the tower was no longer standing. But a morning walk to Slim Point and a look across the water revealed the unmistakable profile of the Stone Tower on the far point. I could only imagine that trees had been cut down in the past year or so, and now the tower was visible.

I wanted to see it up close, but I was pretty sure the only way was via water. The land route would take me through cottage owners’ yards, and I was not comfortable with trespassing. I was afraid of shouting. All that was left for me to do was sign out a kayak at the Boathouse, turn left and paddle to Stone Tower Point. Except I was afraid.

I had passed the kayak test four years earlier, but hadn’t been in a kayak since. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me take one out. I was afraid I wouldn’t remember how to get in. I was afraid I wouldn’t remember how to turn or avoid getting tipped into the jade green waters of Lake George, losing my glasses (I was afraid of losing my glasses), having to swim the kayak back to the Boathouse in disgrace, where the Boathouse crew would not meet my eyes. I was afraid I would get tired and out of breath and feel sudden chest pain and keel over dead, dead, dead.

But it seemed to me that if I didn’t at least try, I’d never forgive myself. I would never get in a kayak again. I’d be as good as dead, just waiting for the next thing I couldn’t do anymore because I was too old, too afraid. Better to die trying, I thought, and after Tom Henry’s class (held providentially in the Boathouse), I walked downstairs to the dock and said, “I’d like to take a kayak out.” And the gentleman behind the counter said, “Sure.” Well, that was one hurdle cleared.

“I don’t want to lose my hat,” I said. I was afraid of losing my hat.

“I’d keep it for the sun,” the man said, “but you might want to tighten it up.”

And so with a tight hat and bare feet, wrapped in a life preserver and carrying a kayak paddle, I walked over the sun-warmed wood planks to a gently rocking blue plastic kayak and got in, wobbling in a manner that might have raised eyebrows among the staffers charged with protecting my life. But they let me shove off and after a few false starts, I got pointed in the right direction and began paddling for open water.

A sign in the boathouse had advised me to go out against the wind and come back with the wind at my back, but the Stone Tower was downwind and that’s where I was going, even if it killed me. My mouth was dry. I didn’t think I’d been exerting myself that much, but I then I realized it was fear that was drying my mouth out. But the Stone Tower was dead ahead, and suddenly I wasn’t afraid or angry anymore.

I was wet and windblown and the lake was washing away the rust and the junk and the darkness, and I was going to see the Stone Tower with my own eyes, here and now. The tower is beautiful. I sat and drifted and caught my breath and took it in. The wooden platform at the top was long gone, but I could see the holes where the rafters had gone into the stonework. And then I decided to paddle back to the Boathouse. I’d promised Laurie I’d be back in 20 minutes or so, and she was secretly worried that I would keep going, up the lake, into Champlain and all the way to Vermont.

Crossing the water, my left shoulder began to talk to me, but my right was fine and I was digging in, the kayak gliding over the water faster with every stroke, rolling a bit with the waves but it was becoming clear that survival was a real option, a viable option, even a probability. Not quite a lock yet, but then the Boathouse was in view and I saw Laurie and it was ‘Kihm 1, Fear 0’ as I crawled out, sprawling onto the dock and stood up and walked back to the counter, peeling off the life jacket, breathing unencumbered, smiling, talking, alive.

* * *

Silas Paine was an interesting man. With his wife, Mary, he spent a vacation at Judge Wilson’s “Silver Bay House” in July of 1892, and they fell in love with the area. One day, they walked out to “Point Lookout,” now known as Tower Point. Looking up and down the lake as far as he could see, Paine said, “If I can, I will buy all of this.”

Because Silas Paine was an executive with Standard Oil, working for John D. Rockefeller, this was no pipe dream. Starting in 1892, Silas Paine did buy Silver Bay, including Judge Wilson’s hotel, and most of the next bay over — known as Van Buren’s Bay then and Oneita Bay today — and he built what is now Paine Hall, with cottages, outbuildings and gardens. The stone tower went up some time around 1896.

More about Silas and Mary Paine can be found in Charles G. Gosselink’s terrific book, Benjamin Van Buren’s Bay (Silver Bay, Boathouse Books, 2002). To order a copy by mail, contact the author, Charles Gosselink, via the Web.

And of course, there’s The Dark Side of Silas Paine.

* * *

The postcards, from top to bottom: 1) A detail from a Private Mailing Card, undivided back, postmarked Silver Bay, 1906, 2) an unused postcard, No. 1228 from Paul C. Koeber & Co., 68 Beaver Street, New York, printed in Germany, 3) a “Phostint” card from the Detroit Publishing Co., postmarked at Silver Bay, 1908, 4) a white bordered, tinted card from C.T. American Art Colored (Chicago), photo by J.S. Wooley, Balston Spa, New York, postmarked Lake George, N.Y., 1931, and 5) A small “snapshot” from an album of 12 images of Silver Bay, most probably by Wooley as well; note the leaves on the trees; the women in the canoe are probably the same, and the photos were probably taken minutes apart.

Above, another J.S. (Jesse) Wooley postcard of the Stone Tower, also known as the Spoon Holder or Spooning Castle; this one can also be found on page six of Silver Bay Association: A Pictorial History 1900-1935 (Silver Bay Association, 1992).

Above, a real photo postcard, the photo taken from inside the Stone Tower through an arched window, by J.S. Wooley. The caption reads, “Black Mt. and Landing at Silver Bay from Stone Tower.” The Landing, of course, is where the steamboats docked; today it is the ERC (Employee Recreation Center). It can be seen across the water, in the center.

My thanks to the Lutheran Summer Conference, which has drawn me to Silver Bay, the YMCA’s Northeastern Conference Center, almost every July since 1986, and which still tolerates me even though I am an Episcopalian.

For lots more Silver Bay, do visit my Silver Bay blog.

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