The Year The Kennedys Came to North Creek

May 8, 2020

By Maury Thompson

Robert F. Kennedy, at the time New York’s junior U.S. Senator, was on his way to speak at Johnsburg Central School the evening of May 6, 1967, leaving Garnet Hill Lodge with a chocolate sundae in one hand and a couple of brownies in the other.

He was dressed casually that Saturday evening, in a navy turtleneck sweater, checkered sport coat, and gray flannel trousers.

All that chocolate was comfort food, a solace after his kayak had tipped over three times, dumping him into the frigid Hudson River each time, while competing on the first day of the 10th annual White Water Derby in Riparius. Or, perhaps it was a celebration: He still had managed to tie for third place in his competition category.

“Anyone can really come down on top of the river and breathe in fresh air, but it takes skill to go under and float down,” he quipped during his remarks that evening. “We inaugurated, not too successfully, a new sport with this.”

Sen. Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, also tipped at least once before making her legendary 7.5-mile canoe trek down the Hudson River.

Sen. Kennedy had brought a party of 30 to Garnet Hill Lodge in North Creek so he could shoot the rapids and see one of the most remote corners of the state he represented. The party included Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and mountaineer James Whittaker. The Kennedys’ seven children and several Kennedy nieces and nephews were in attendance, too, including Caroline, daughter of the late president. Freckles, the Kennedy family’s black and white cocker spaniel, tagged along and was a big hit with newspaper reporters.

Reporters also were amused with the soccer and touch football games the family played outside Garnet Hill Lodge.

The Kennedy party stayed Friday and Saturday night at Garnet Hill, paid “the same rates, ate the same food from the menu and followed the same schedules generally as all other guests,” according to innkeepers Jim and Nancy Hagen.

While the senator and Udall were at the school, speaking to about 400 people, the Kennedy children were back at the lodge watching movies that Whittaker brought along of national ski races and famous skiers.

The innkeepers borrowed a 16 mm projector and screen from the school.

Ethel Kennedy borrowed hair curlers from Bonnie Hagen, oldest daughter of the innkeepers, so she would look presentable the next morning when the Kennedy family attended 8 a.m. Mass at St. James Roman Catholic Church in North Creek.

After her canoe tipped, Mrs. Kennedy cleaned up at the Gooley Club in Newcomb, a camp noted for its prominent Republican membership, and returned to the Hudson River for a two-person canoe ride with Whittaker that was watched by an estimated 9,000 people along the banks.

The Kennedy visit drew national media coverage (the NBC Today Show and CBS News), the kind of publicity Johnsburg had never seen before, and Glens Falls photographer Walter Grishkot was on the scene, shooting for the United Press International wire service.

Grishkot was standing on a riverside rock at the end of the course, waiting for Mrs. Kennedy to come by in her canoe, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the senator, who asked if he could get in front of the rock so he could greet his wife when she arrived.

That set the scene for Grishkot to get the perfect photo of the couple, an image that was published in newspapers around the world and still is used in contemporary books about Kennedy family history.

For Johnsburg Supervisor Sterling Goodspeed, it was the highwater mark of the year. He knew it was a long shot several months earlier when he wrote Secretary Udall and invited him to attend the derby, as a special recognition of its 10th anniversary.

It was more than he could have imagined that Udall, Kennedy and Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, would attend.

Astronaut John Glenn and his wife had been expected to attend, too, but canceled at the last minute.

“We got more good publicity for the Adirondacks than we had ever dreamed,” Goodspeed told The Glens Falls Post-Star at the time.

Sen. Kennedy and Secretary Udall attended as part of a fact-finding mission. Congress was deliberating the proposed Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which became law in October 1968.

After two days on the river and fun in North Creek, the Kennedy family had planned to fly out of Warren County Airport Sunday evening on the family’s private plane, The Caroline.

But a snow storm delayed their departure until Monday.

The family stayed overnight at the Colonial Arms Hotel in Warrensburg, selected because it had an indoor swimming pool.

Sources: The Post-Star May 5,8, 1967, reports by Marilyn Nason; The Glens Falls Times May 8, 1967, report by Don Metivier; The North Creek News, May 17, 1967; oral history interviews with Walter Grishkot

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