Adirondack Daily Enterprise, September 30, 1989
Holocausts razed huge areas of Adirondacks
In recent years our distant cousins, the national parks in the west, have been ravaged by destructive conflagrations which bring to mind a period when our own Adirondack Park suffered devastating forest fires. There was at the time of the area fires, however, a vast difference in control methods. Modern firefighters are equipped with fireproof apparel, helicopters, aerial tankers, mechanical earth movers and radio communications. Our forefathers were handed an axe, a shovel, and a grub hoe.
Prior to the formation of the Forest Commission in 1885, it was every man for himself with, perhaps, a little help from neighbors in a fire. A fire that got out of control would burn until a fortuitous rainstorm could extinguish it. One of the commission's first acts was to designate each town supervisor in towns containing state wild forest lands as an ex-officio fire warden. The. warden would receive two dollars per day for each day he was actually involved in firefighting. Able-bodied men he could impress would be paid one dollar per day. The commission also appointed a county forester whose pay was forty dollars per month.
In its first annual report, the commission called upon Adirondack guides to help out in the prevention of forest fires. It stated that the Forest Commission was "desirous of securing the friendly cooperation of the guides in the Adirondack region. No other class of residents of these sections have such an intimate knowledge of, or are concerned so much with, the woods and the forest as the guides. What better class could the commission have in their service?" It was estimated there were 1,000 guides at that time and, since they depended upon sportsmen for their livelihood, it was deemed reasonable that they would want to protect the source of their income by preventing forest fires.
Despite the care espoused by the guides and the guideline warnings issued by the commission, fires continued to consume our prime woodlands. What caused the fires? The familiar list of offenders contained the careless smoker, the camper who left his campfire unattended, the malicious arsonist with a grudge against the state and the railroad locomotives with their flying, hot embers.
Individuals were hard to control but the railroads were singled out as deserving of special attention. Several laws were enacted covering line operations through wild forest lands. Twice each year all brush and inflammable material had to be removed from the right of way and all locomotives had to be equipped with a steel mesh retainer to prevent hot ashes or sparks from scattering. Engineers, trainmen, and conductors were required to report woodland fires at their next station and the station attendant had to instigate prompt measures for their control. In times of drought the railroad companies extra trackmen to extinguish fires along the right of way. Any company violating the rules was fined $100 for each offense.
Some reports of our early fire wardens are interesting. In 1891, for the Town of St. Armand, warden Wallace Goodspeed wrote: "Samuel S. Wilcox set a fire on his place without giving notice to me or his neighbors. He went off and left it, allowing it to burn where it could. It burnt about five acres of F.O. Knapp's woods, and fifteen or twenty rods of brush fence. Mr. Knapp called me up about 9 o'clock last night to save his sugar works, and ten or twelve cords of wood. I called on Mr. Wilcox and requested him to take care of his fire; but he paid no attention to it. Shall I send a report of it to the district attorney?"
For the Town of Franklin, warden Ferd Chase wrote in that same year: "Word came to me (on May 2) that parties had started a fire on the meadows between the Hunter's Home and Goldsmith's, burning them to better the grass crop. The fire crossed the highway, and was on land owned by Patrick Hanlon and the State of New York. I took about twenty men, reaching the fire at 2 p.m., and succeeded in checking it about 5 p.m. It burned over about 20 acres. The night of June 15 word came to me, sent by a conductor of the Chateaugay Railroad, that a large fire had been started, after the 10:30 a.m. train had gone west, near Buck Pond. I sent out word that night and at 3 a.m. we reached the place. I took twenty-five men with me, and we got the fire under control about 9 o'clock, east of the highway and railroad. I then went to where the fire was first started, and while, there discovered a new fire outside the first one we had surrounded, some seventy-five rods away. There I found where the fire was set, and the fresh tracks going to and from it; the parties had crossed a brook. That this fire was started to cover a trespass, was plain to be seen; and not by the railroad, as had been first supposed. But the heavy rain that night helped us out. This fire burned over 600 acres, nearly all state lands. We used shovels to fight the fire. The best known method is using fresh earth. Let me say the sum of one dollar per day is too small to ask men to leave their crops to fight fire and board themselves. I had to pay them two dollars per day and board, for which I received one dollar per day from the town auditors."
Many other wardens agreed with Ferd Chase that it was unfair to take men away from their homes, farms, and work places to fight fires for the pitiable wage of one dollar per day. In spite of these sentiments, the laws of 1888 stated that, for the purpose of fighting fires, "the warden shall have the authority to call upon any person in the territory in which he acts for assistance, and any person shall be liable to a fine of not less than five nor more than twenty dollars for refusing to act when so called upon." Among the local wardens who had to abide by these unpopular rules in 1893 were Frank Eaton in Saranac Lake, William LaFountain in Tupper Lake, and Lem Parkhurst in Lake Placid.
By 1900 there was a total of 758 district fire wardens in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks and it became evident that such a large force needed some sort of organization and supervision. Responding to the commission's recommendations, the legislature approved the appointment of a chief fire warden and Lester S. Simmons was selected to head the office.
The year of 1903 was probably the most disastrous period in Adirondack history as far as forest fires can be remembered. Lack of both snow and rain had caused the forests to be in a very dangerous drought condition. The inflammable mass waited for the starting spark. The spring season, which was normally a rather wet period, was tinder-dry and a camper's fire could extend, unnoticed, into the deep dry duff. Traveling underground for great distances such a fire could emerge and, fanned by a strong wind, explode into a surface or crown holocaust out of control. In addition to man's negligence, lightning could set off an inferno in the remote forest.
Whatever the cause, the fires did erupt. Through April and June of 1903 some six hundred thousand acres in northern New York were destroyed by fire. Dangerous beyond belief was the speed with which these fires could travel. A fire near Lake Placid extended eight miles in a little over two hours! In addition to the lamentable loss of huge tracts of wild forest lands, the private sector suffered immeasurably.
The most tragic story associated with this period of great personal loss has to be the sorrowful passing of the fabulous Adirondack Lodge at Heart Lake. Henry Van Hoevenbergh, between 1878 and 1880, constructed the huge log structure which, at that time, was considered the largest and most superb building of its type in the country. On the third of June fires were raging in the area and Van Hoevenbergh went up into his observation tower atop the lodge to check on the fire's progress and soon realized his cherished building was doomed. Together with his staff a forced retreat through the Indian Pass was necessary to escape the inferno.
At Nehasane Park the large estate of Dr. W. Seward Webb lost 12,000 acres to the consuming flames. Fire engines were brought in from Herkimer and Ilion and the water pumps managed to save the main camp buildings. Coincidentally, the heavy, equipment was transported to the scene via the Adirondack and St. Lawrence Railroad, which was built by Webb in 1871. Four hundred men fought the fire for wages amounting to $6,000. The Whitney holdings lost 5,000 acres and the Brandeth Preserve lost 2,000. Low's tract lost 10,000 acres near Horseshoe Pond and the Rockefeller estate at Bay Pond lost 40,000 acres. Results of these burnovers are still visible today.
No human lives were lost during the fire's onset but animal and birdlife suffered heavily. The intense heat even invaded the streams and many trout were killed by temperature rise and by ashes washed into the waterways. Several people reported narrow escapes and, near Newcomb, the warden and several members of his crew ran for two miles to evade the encroaching flames.
Closer to home, in 1908, Saranac Lake village residents watched with concern as a forest fire raged on Baker Mountain. The smoke could be seen from most parts of the village and a northerly wind threatened an advance toward the community. The only damage, however, was the denuding of the mountain itself. In 1914 the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club raised money to purchase 14,000 trees which they, with the help of volunteers, planted on the mountain. Looking back over these past fires we can enjoy the recent years during which the Adirondack Park has been virtually free from any serious conflagrations We must be doing something right!
New York Times, August 27, 1899
SARANAC LAKE. Aug. 26.—Much unnecessary anxiety was caused last week by the reports of the forest fires. While the danger to the woods was always great and to some of the camps and cottages, at no time were any lives threatened. The wires have been kept humming with, inquiry's from anxious friends and relatives of sojourners in the mountains, which caused a smile when they reached their destination. Camps along the Lower and Upper Saranac and at Paul Smith's were threatened for a time, but the continued rain of the last few days has not only put the fires all out, but has so thoroughly soaked the foliage and ground that there is little chance of any more trouble this year.
Malone Farmer, MAY 25, 1921
Several Buildings, Two Bridges and Hundreds of Cords of Pulp Wood Succumb to a Forest Fire Sunday.
The greatest forest fire damage yet reported in this county took place in Sunday's gale about ten miles south of Santa Clara. Fanned by the stiff wind, the forest conflagration, which begun near Benn's Pond west of Meno, started up again after being put under control earlier in the week and soon got beyond control of the small number of men left to guard it. The flames traveled with incredible speed, and, in spite of the fact that additional forces were sent to fight them, the little hamlet of Meno, a lumber station on the New York & Ottawa R. R., was almost completely destroyed before these men arrived.
Only the railroad station and one of the Brooklyn Cooperage Co.'s storehouses remained standing. The property consumed included the dwelling houses and contents of Section Foreman Antonio and Fred Rhoades, a building occupied by section men, the school house, sand house and tool house of the Cooperage Co., the 200 foot wooden bridge of the N. Y. & Ottawa R. R. at that point and the 50 foot bridge of the Cooperage Co.'s railroad. Eight head of cattle were driven to a place of safety but Antonio lost 30 hens and several pigs. Hundreds of cords of pulp wood belonging to the St. Regis Paper Co. were also destroyed. No trains can be run on the N. Y. & O. R. R. beyond Meno until the bridge is repaired.
After crossing the railroad the fire, traveling at the rate of seven miles an hour, swept up Rice Mountain and burned clear through to the Meacham road, endangering the house on the Sprague farm and the Hogle Fox Farm. A shift in the wind enabled the fire-fighters to keep the flames on the west side of the road. Some valuable timber was destroyed on the Sprague and Skinner farms and about 60 cords of wood belonging to E. E. Hogle. Yesterday the fire, was well under control with little damage to the fox farm unless there should be a shift in the wind. At Madawasca the summer camp and property of James Eccles were also in great danger, and the lumber camps of the St. Regis Paper Co. west of Meno.
Supt Clark and B. E. Ames, railroad, superintendent of the Brooklyn Cooperage C., Martin Favro, Warren Farmer and the latter's brother had a decidedly narrow escape Sunday noon on one of the branches of the Cooperage Co.'s railroad in the vicinity of Meno. Flames reaching a great height swept toward them and they were finally compelled to immerse themselves to the neck in Quebec brook for an hour, where they suffered much, from heat and smoke. In their flight ahead of the flames they met two Polocks, who were reported to have persisted in going up the trail toward the fire to their camp, but later it was learned that they remained with the others and were unharmed.
The families burned out at Meno were taken to St. Regis Falls, where they were cared for by the residents.
Other fires were reported Sunday east and southeast of St. Regis Falls and another two miles west of one of the Cutting camps. St. Regis Falls was practically stripped its male population Sunday, all being out fight to save valuable property in that region and all industrial plants were closed on Monday. The Bellmont fire which threatened Ingraham Pond timberland was veered by the wind toward Chateaugay Lake, and a 15-minute shower helped the fire fighters considerably in coping with that blaze.
Yesterday no improvement was noted in the region of St. Regis Falls, Santa Clara and Madawaska. Though Eccles' camp had not been burned the fire which swept the north side of Rice Mountain Sunday shifted easterly over the top and south side threatening the Rockefeller preserve between Madawaska and what was formerly Brandon village. This big fire is now said to extend over a 30 mile front. Many more men were sent to aid the 200 already fighting fire in the Meno and Madawaska sections. Every available man in villages and on farms in Waverly and Dickinson was sought for fire fighting service.
Three fires broke out in succession near Everton Monday and Tuesday, so near each other that there was suspicion that they were not accidental. A force of over 30 men was sent from St. Regis Falls to fight these fires which threatened timber lands of the Brooklyn Cooperage and St. Regis Paper companies and of Reynolds Bros. & Co. Observer Parks on Blue Mountain had reported 29 fires up to yesterday noon.
The fire on the Boyce tract in Bellmont is under control but a new fire has broken out southeast of Ragged Lake on lands of the Delaware & Hudson R. R. Co. which threatens much good timber growth.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, September 25, 1991
Professor studies effects of Vermontville blaze
By MATTHEW RUSSELL
Enterprise Staff Writer
SARANAC LAKE — The Vermontville blaze — a frightening near-tragedy which burnt 300 acres on May 16 — has provided a unique opportunity to study firsthand the changes which take place in the Adirondack woods following a forest fire, a local botanist said Tuesday.
Dr. Michael Kudish, professor of forestry and biology at Paul Smith's College, informed and entertained a group of interested area residents with a presentation at the Saranac Lake Free Library about forest fires and their after-effects on Adirondack, flora, with particular attention to the recent Vermontville fire.
Kudish's eclectic and fast-paced lecture delighted those gathered in the Cantwell Room for the program. Kudish, who has taught at Paul Smith's for 20 years, has written several books on Adirondack and Catskill soils and plants. His observations and well-arranged slides shed light on the constantly evolving character of the Adirondack uplands. For his discussion of the Vermontville fire, Kudish employed several color slides snapped by Saranac Lake photographer Mark Kurtz. While many forest fires can be characterized as either ground fires or "crown" fires high up in the trees, Kudish noted that high winds made the Vermontville fire difficult to categorize.
"This fire was a very complicated one. There were areas where the ground burned but not the tree-tops. Ten feet away the crowns would be burned but the ground untouched," Kudish observed. Although he was not at the fire, Kudish inspected the area several times afterward.
He noted how a lush green layer of vegetation quickly carpeted the floor of the forest in the weeks after the fire. He said some plants have seeds which remain viable underground for decades, awaiting a fire to stimulate them to sprout. Ferns, goldenrods, blueberries and Aspen trees are usually among the first plants to take hold following a fire, Kudish explained.
The Vermontville fire will provide a unique opportunity to study what changes take place following a fire, Kudish said. He told the audience that he plans to continually revisit the area to keep track of the progress of the plants rising from the ashes of the fire.
Though the cause of the Vermontville fire is not known, there are several ways in which forest fires can get started including lightning-strikes. "While a common cause of fires in the American West, Kudish said it is very rare for Adirondack fires to be caused by lightning because rain usually accompanies electrical storms on the East Coast.
Railroad locomotives in the 1800s and early 1900s are commonly believed to have been a major cause of fires in the past, but Kudish said the firebreathing engines only accounted for about 11 percent of Adirondack fires. The most common causes of forest fires were campfires and runaway brush fires set by berry pickers who knew that hardy blueberry bushes would spring up quickly and thickly following a fire.
Charcoal-burning furnaces used in mineral processing also caused many fires, Kudish explained. He said large areas around places like Mineville and Lyon Mountain were all but denuded by frequent fires caused by near by processing operations.
Several large fires burned thousands of acres in the Adirondack Park in 1903, he said. The years between 1908 and 1916 were also quite bad, Kudish observed. But by the 1920s New York officials implemented a number of fire prevention and detection measures, including the installation of spark-arresters on locomotives and the erection of "a whole crop" of firetowers on Adirondack peaks. Airplanes replaced most of the fire towers by the 1970s, he noted.
How a given forest recovers after a fire depends largely on what type of soils the trees are growing in, Kudish said He noted that sandy plains formed by glacial runoff cannot hold nutrients well, and large trees may not take hold for 75 or 80 years after a fire in such places However, young trees and other plants will quickly colonize a burned-over area where the soil consists of glacial till — a rocky mix of sand and stones — because such soils hold water and nutrients well.
Kudish showed slides of familiar mountains, including Potter Mountain and Catamount in the vicinity of Silver Lake, to illustrate how topsoils can wash off steep mountainsides after a fire, exposing bare rock cliffs. He said he believed Catamount had burned over as recently as the 1940s.
Kudish pointed out how mixed Adirondack hardwoods, including Ash, Elm, Basswood and Red Oak, will take hold on the lower elevations of mountains like Catamount. At higher elevations, softwoods like Red Pine thrive, he said.
In 1908, part of Mt. McKenzie (between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid) was ravaged by fire, Kudish said. Using a slide of a photo taken from Mt. Baker, he pointed out how Paper Birches took root along the southern side of the mountain. A clearly visible line marked the farthest extent of the 1908 fire. Where the fire stopped, the softwoods remained the dominant tree type.
The presence of certain types of trees indicates that an area has been burned several times. Pitch Pine and Jack Pine only thrive where fires have killed off the tree's hardier competitors, Kudish explained. Some areas were burned over often by native Americans attempting to improve an area for hunting or farming. European settlers caused a great many fires as well, some deliberately. Forest fires can result in an improved habitat for deer and other large mammals. Some types of pine cones open up only at the high temperatures brought by fires, Kudish noted. Therefore, fire plays a critical role in the propagation scheme of some trees. Once the cones open, the seeds therein fall to the ground where they may easily sprout in the fertile forest fire ash.