The Adirondacks are no stranger to extreme weather: ice storms, snow storms, wind storms and bitter cold have left their legacy. The big blow-down of late-November 1950 was particularly dramatic.
Looking back at the big blow-down of 1950
The deer hunting season was drawing to a close in the fall of 1950. A group of hunters had spent a week in a state camp at the tip of Boot Bay on Lower Saranac Lake and had decided to hunt Boot Bay Mountain on that final day of their vacation.
By midday the wind had increased and soon the trees were bending precariously causing concern to the extent that the group felt that it was time to head for camp. As they descended from the mountain's side trees were falling at an alarming rate with unpleasantly loud crashes.
It was dark by the time they reached camp and a decision had to be reached. If they spent the night in camp there was the danger of a tree crushing into their bunks. The construction of state permit camps consisted of a canvas tent over a wooden framework that could not support the weight of a falling tree. On the other hand, the lake was wild with huge waves whipped by the gale winds. After consideration of both perils it was decided to risk the lake. Fortunately, a large launch was available for the five-mile trip to Ampersand Bay where the cars were parked. A strong east wind was blowing into their faces, creating waves in excess of two feet which sprayed over the bow, drenching the occupants with each encounter.
Ordinarily when looking down the lake after dark, the village lights caused a bright glow in the distant sky. On this night there was no visible glow, which indicated that the storm had wiped out all electricity in the entire area and it would be a long time before the lights could be restored. The devastation had wreaked havoc throughout the entire Adirondacks. Wind gusts in excess of 100 miles per hour blew down trees that, in turn, broke down power lines, leaving poles and conductors in a tanglement of trees and branches. Roads were blocked and some buildings suffered direct hits. Thousands of families were without light, heat, and in some cases water, for periods of up to two weeks. The dispatcher at the Paul Smith's Electric Co. received a rather pathetic call from, according to the voice, an elderly lady who said, "I know your men are working hard but could you just turn on the electricity for a little while so that I could make a cup of tea and men you could turn it off again?"
This was the infamous "Big Blowdown" of 1950. The trouble started on Saturday, Nov. 25th, and is still remembered for the inconveniences it caused. Although the troubles were many, the temperature mercifully remained in a moderate range.
Beyond the villages, in the surrounding forest, the downed trees were scattered like match sticks in a morass of confusion. The High Peaks area was especially hard hit and the very remoteness added to the danger of forest fires, creating a hazard which threatened the great wilderness of the central Adirondacks. A further complication had to be overcome before the danger could be eliminated. According to the "Forever Wild" clause in our state constitution, no trees can be removed from the forest preserve for any reason whatsoever. To tackle this dilemma the conservation commissioner met with the state's attorney general in an attempt to reach a solution to the problem. A favorable decision resulted when the attorney general ruled that due to the extreme fire hazard, which certainly existed, the downed timber could be removed. When the Legislature concurred, terms were published for the submitting of bids to cover individual projects. Those contractors winning approval were assigned to specially designated tracts where they could, under strict supervision, harvest the felled trees. Under this arrangement thousands of huge logs found their way to local sawmills, rendering the term "windfall" to contain a double meaning for the operators. One huge white pine salvaged by the U.S. Bobbin and Shuttle Co. measured over 140 feet in length and boasted a 50 inch diameter at the stump! This single tree produced seven saw logs (six 16 footers and one 12 footer and the very height of the old monarch had made it all the more susceptible to the blast of winds. Some of these great white pines soared up to 60 or 80 feet without a limb — the top crown of branches served as a sail to catch the wind and bring the tree crashing.
After the storm had passed, the view in any direction from one of the High Peaks offered a desolate panorama of destruction. Aerial surveys estimated that some 250,000 acres of the Forest Preserve had been denuded to some extent and the adjoining private lands suffered slightly less similar fate. Today, after nearly 45 years, hunters are still tripping over windfalls concealed in the underbrush.
This was not the first such phenomenal storm of hurricane force to strike the Adirondacks. Local history records another blow of even more freakish dimensions. In a long but narrow path the "Great Windfall of 1845" swept along a corridor north of Cranberry Lake, through Sevey's and Kildare and on into Franklin County. The width of the storm's course was held to an almost constant half-mile and on Stoddard's maps it is depicted as a narrow strip running north-easterly from Newton Falls to Windfall Pond in the Derrick area. Of course, the storm reached further than what Stoddard indicates. It apparently blew across the Great Lakes and Buffalo to cross portions of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties prior to entering Franklin County. In addition to Windfall Pond the Windfall House at Sevey's shared the related nomenclature. Its close proximity to Cranberry Lake made it a famous landmark to the guides and campers, including Frederick Remington, who used it as a distance measuring device to hunting and fishing areas. Early writers were aware of its existence with numerous references such as "we went up to the Windfall," or "We crossed the Windfall at such and such a point." Except for Windfall Pond, which was long known for its trout fishing, there is little to call attention to the old storm path in our nearby region, where it ran just north of the Floodwood-Derrick road. Local disciples of Izaak Walton often tell of catching their largest speckled trout at Windfall Pond.
Our friend. Bob Kampf, the weatherman at Hilltop Meteorological Observatory Ray Brook, can tell you all about the Big Blowdown of 1950 but I'm afraid the Great Windfall of Sept. 20th, 1845 was a little bit before his time.