Like a latter-day Brigadoon, the Pennsylvania village Eagles Mere awaits winter.
The boat houses near the town dock are locked for the season. The town water is turned off; the pipes, which are not below the frost line, are drained. Most of the sprawling homes are shuttered and closed, as many have been every winter for a century. At dawn a mist rises from the lake, the kind of mist that belongs on a Hollywood set or a Scottish moor.
Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in north central Pennsylvania, Eagles Mere resembles the setting of Lerner and Loewe's musical, Brigadoon , not just because of the autumn morning mist. It is a town little changed from the last century. It is something of a secret, the way Brigadoon was -- a place, as the musical said, that "wouldna' stay in any century long enough to be injured by it."
But while the fictional village of Brigadoon appeared only one day every 100 years, Eagles Mere has stayed and survived relatively unchanged since the late 1800s. That was when railroad moguls and other tycoons from Baltimore and Philadelphia built summer mansions in Eagles Mere. Each season they arrived by private rail car with wives, children and servants. Today the railroad lines are gone, and the scions of those men are lawyers or businessmen in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. They don't spend as much time in Eagles Mere as their forefathers did; when they do come, they don't bring servants.
But drive north two hours above Harrisburg, through the countryside dotted with small farms, many of which attest to a hardscrabble existence. Climb the winding road up the hill that leads to Eagles Mere (elevation: 2,000 feet), and suddenly the world changes.
Hidden above the flatland with its rural poverty, mobile homes and abandoned mines is a charming town center with an old clock across the street from a Chautauqua site; big, well-kept homes, the kind that line Newark Street just east of Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park; a few tennis courts; and that focal point, the lake, surrounded by woods.
Take a stroll around the mile-and-a-half perimeter of the lake on the path clogged with wild rhododendron and mountain laurel. Stand in the center of town at midnight and watch how far the stars move across the sky before a car passes. Search in vain for time-sharing condos, Dairy Queens, tacky vacation homes.
Do those things -- as I did one weekend not long ago -- and it seems that Eagles Mere is still a secret, a pocket of opulence from a century gone by, preserved atop a mountain surrounded by evidence of much harder living. Like Brigadoon it seems a fantasy that can't possibly be there the next time you go back. And, the times being what they are, the railroad moguls gone now, perhaps it won't survive as the fantasy. The people in Eagles Mere have been talking about that.
Once upon a time, a little boy named Ted Voorhees spent part of every summer in a big house at Eagles Mere. His father, a Philadelphia attorney, would take Voorhees to spend six weeks in the family's country home that Voorhees' great-great-grandfather built in the 1870s when he ran a railroad.
Voohees and his playmates would sit up late at night and try to scare themselves, telling what Voorhees calls "jabberwocky stories" about the old uncle who went for a walk and was never seen again, through his cane and vest were eventually found on a tree stump. They would debate the question of whether there really was a bottomless hole somewhere in Eagles Mere lake.
(The lake was -- and always has been -- the center of life in Eagles Mere.
"Mere" is an obsolescent word for lake; eagles once nested in the trees around the lake, giving the place its name.)
Today Ted Voorhees is a 31-year-old lawyer with the high-powered Washington firm of Covington & Burling. Early this fall he sat in the backyard of the house his great-great-grandfather built. On his lawn played the next generation of Voorhees, a son and a daughter. It was, however, only the second visit that the Voorhees had made to the house this year. "I really would like to come up here more often," Voorhees says. "But if I had the time, I'd travel much more widely. I see this as a domesticated spot, but the closeness to civilization is not what I want. I like being in a wilder area. This is very sedate."
Indeed. Any place that is described by locals as "being halfway between Laporte and Munch Valley" must be sedate. For this location and reputation, Eagles Mere has paid a price.It's a four-hour drive from Washington, and the Voorhees family, for one, finds that too long a drive to make more than a couple of weekends each summer. When Ted Voorhees can take extended time off from his work, he likes to get farther away, to Nova Scotia.
So now, in a time of airplanes and package tours, Eagle Mere is a place for residents or regular summer renters. You can still see one of the scenes that Ted Voorhees so vividly remembers from his youth: dressed-up adults taking cocktails on the large porches of neighbors' houses at dusk in the summer. But today you mix your own drinks. And the town is never full the way it was when the big hotels were open.
One Eagles Mere tradition, though, does draw crowds on snowy, cold February weekends. Then, busloads of people come for the day to ride a toboggan run the volunteer fire department builds from the top of a hill down to the frozen lake. It's a tradition begun in 1904, and an old book about Eagles Mere has this to say about the ride: "The story of the toboggan run has been told very briefly -- Zip! and walk a mile." Like the rest of Eagles Mere, that hasn't changed much either. The indians were there first, the Susquehannocks and the Iroquois, until 1730 when the white hunters and trappers began tramping through the woods of what would become Sullivan County. Industry -- a glass factory -- arrived in Eagles Mere in 1803. Curiously, the lake is fed by springs has a naturally sandy beach, and an Englishman named George Lewis decided to use the sand to manufacture glass. Business boomed during the War of 1812 when America couldn't import glass from England, but after the war Lewis' company fell on hard times; too much glass broke while being transported by cart to Philadelphia, and the glassworks closed in 1822.
Seventy years later, a group of land investors built a narrow gauge railroad to Eagles Mere from nearby Sonestown.
"A state senator named General Sones was a natural promoter," says Charles Bidelspacher, a long-time Eagles Mere resident, "so he got a flossy-looking pass and sent it to all the railroad presidents."
The moguls realized they could set out with their families by Pullman coach from Philadelphia's Broad Street station and chug in comfort all the way to Sonestown, where they transferred to the Eagles Mere Railroad Company and rode free with Sones' pass. At the turn of the century Eagles Mere boomed. Diplomats and congressmen from Washington vacationed in the grand hotels, the Crestmont or Forest Inn. A chautauqua was begun so the place would not lack culture.
But World War I and the automobile spelled a change in vacation habits. Passenger train service to Eagles Mere was discontinued in 1923. By World War II Eagles Mere had become a relic that didn't fit in with the bold, new '50s.
Today Eagles Mere is one main street with a few small shops, a Christmas Science Reading Room, four churches, two small inns, a real estate office and a branch office of a bank. It is dignified, cool, quiet. Recreational facilities, along with the lake, include a country club with golf course, toboggan run and cross-country skiing in the winter, hunting and horseback riding. The 1979 voters list for the borough lists 95 Republicans, 23 Democrats, two independents.
The charm of the place can be attributed partly to 69-year-old Charles Bidelspacher who, 21 years ago, formed the nonprofit Eagles Mere Association. The goal: to keep the lake unspoiled. By selling shares to residents, the association raised $95,000 to purchase the land around the lake from a consortium of Hughesport and Harrisburg bankers. The association owns all the land 1,000 feet back from the water on part of the lake, 100 feet back on another part.The result is that the treeline meets the shoreline.
No motorboats are permitted on the lake, and it is so clean that the city drinking water is piped directly from an underwater spring to a tower on a hill overlooking the lake.
Bidelspacher, a Williamsport lawyer, spends the mild months in Eagles Mere, and winters in St. Croix. His father was the gatekeeper at the Chautauqua at the turn of the century, and Bidelspacher is something of a town fixture.
"It's a funny thing," he says, "there are three or four generations of families here. It's a great place for children -- a great beach with lifeguards -- up until the kids get to be teen-agers. Then there's nothing here for the kids to do, and the family drops out. Then the teen-agers grow up and have children, and they come barreling back here. I've seen the cycle repeated."
Houses -- actually everyone in Eagles Mere calls them cottages, even if they do have 10 bedrooms and six baths -- sell for between $30,000 and $125,000. The more expensive houses are winterized with their own water supply, heating and insulation. Summer rental prices range between $600 and $2,000 a month.
George Miller, 36, is the town's amiable real estate agent, and his local credentials are in order: his grandfather used to run the beach. He knows just about everyone in town, as a drive around Eagles Mere attests. Here's where the Quaker family from Philadelphia lives, Miller points out, over there is the retired naval attache's home, here are the mansions of the Harrisburg bank families, there's the Washington surgeon's place (his wife's family owns a West Virginia newspaper), that's the colonel from the Pentagon's spread (his grandfather left him land), there's the home of the former head of the state's Selective Service office . . .
"Anyone who wants to pay the price is welcome," says Miller, though he acknowledges that Eagles Mere is largely a white, upper-middle class resort community with old family ties. Whether it will stay that way, says Miller, is a matter of some town debate.
Despite its cliquish ties to families and a grandeur difficult to pay for in the 1980's, there has been talk for several years now of reviving the town as a tourist attraction, though no one seems quite certain how to do it. There have been plans to build condos. A group of investors proposed buying and renovating the unoccupied Crestmont Hotel that looms over the lake. There is, perhaps, an uneasiness that all this can't last the way it is.
For now, though, the only game in town is the Eagles Mere Inn, owned by a former Washington couple who decided to leave the big city and try to find a storybook life in the country.
In 1975 Bob Oliver was weary with his Washington job running a national association of osteopaths. He traveled so much his three daughters and son were growing up without him in Rockville. Oliver and his wife Kathleen, knew about Eagles Mere because Kathleen's father played amateur tennis tournaments there when she was a child. On the spur of the moment that Christmas, they visited Eagles Mere and, almost as a lark, asked the architect who owned the inn if he'd like to sell out. Within a matter of minutes, a deal was struck, and today 42-year-old Bob Oliver owns a tidy, country inn. His family helps with the cooking, managing and other chores.
"One thing I can tell you," says Oliver, "for any couples who might want to do this -- we thought we were sophisticated. We thought we'd spend about $20,000, but we've spent $120,000. We lost money for three years, but went into the black this year."
Was it the right move?
Leaves are falling on a Sunday afternoon as Oliver leans back in a porch chair and answers in the manner of a country innkeeper.
"There are 4,930 residents in Sullivan County, 10,000 deer, one school, and one traffic light," Oliver says. "From the ninth tee at the country club you look 52 miles right into New York state. I never fail to see a deer."
And, Oliver might as well have added, every morning a most mysterious mist rises from the lake of the eagles.