An excerpt with permission from Martin Podskoch
Adirondack Fire Towers
Their History and Lore, The Northern District
By Martin Podskoch
ST. REGIS MOUNTAIN FIRE TOWER – 1910
The summit of St. Regis Mountain (2,882’) in the town of Santa Clara in Franklin County is partially bare rock due to a fire that was started in 1876 by Verplanck Colvin’s surveyors and their guides to get rid of brush loggers had left behind. The fire got out of control and destroyed most of the summit’s vegetation.
Sparks from railroad trains started many of the early fires, but arsonists started some. William Rockefeller, president of Standard Oil Company of New York, owned a large estate near St. Regis Mountain and some of the local residents hated him so much that they started fires and sat back and watched them burn. One fire in 1903 destroyed 40,000 acres on his estate.
C. Whipple of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission, received a letter from the son of William Rockefeller dated February 24, 1910: “My father, Mr. William Rockefeller, has handed me your letter. . .and asked me to write you in reference to the matter. He will be very glad to co-operate in your plans to allow the Forest, Fish and Game Commission to establish an observation station for the apprehension of fires on St. Regis Mountain. If the station is established, he would appreciate it if you would arrange so that our superintendent, Mr. Redwood, at Bay Pond [site of the Rockefeller Estate], would be immediately notified of any fires that were discovered on our property.
“I presume that you would probably wish to station your man somewhere near the tripod erected on the mountain for signal purposes by the United States Government. In this event, I would suggest, for your information, that the most convenient way of running wires would be down the north side of the mountain to the highway leading from the old town of Brandon to Paul Smith’s Hotel. We maintain a telephone line between Bay Pond [Rockefeller Estate] and Paul Smith’s which runs along this road, and we also are connected with the Postal Telegraph line running to Paul Smith’s Hotel, so that it would be very easy for your men to notify us of any fires on our property.”
In April 1910 a fire observer was stationed on St. Regis Mountain. When this observation station was established, no tower was erected because there was an unobstructed view due to the lack of tree cover on the mountaintop. The observer could see twelve miles to the east, fifteen miles to the south and north, and thirty miles to the west. State workers built a three-mile telephone line to the summit. The state spent a total of $294.77 to establish this observation station.
George F. Brown, the first observer, reported fifty-five fires the first year. George might have used a tent or crude cabin for shelter. By 1916 there was a cabin for the observer’s comfort.
In 1918 the state built a thirty-five-foot steel tower with a cab on the summit to give the observer a better view and provide protection from the weather. A panoramic map for this tower was completed in 1919 to aid the observer in locating fires. This was a circular map with a panoramic sketch of the surrounding vista around the outside edge.
In 1925 the Conservation Commission built a standard 12’ by 16’ cabin for the observer. In 1939 the CCC replaced the old cabin with one 16’ x 20’ with a 7’ porch. It also had a fireplace.
There were a few dangerous fires spotted from the St. Regis fire tower. On the afternoon of May 31, 1915, a small fire, probably left by fishermen in the town of Santa Clara, was fanned by winds. The fire destroyed 1,550 acres of state land. Most of this land had been burned over from a previous fire.
Brighton Historian Ellen Salls shared these two newspapers stories of fires in the area near St. Regis Mountain:
May 28, 1917 Malone Farmer
During Sunday’s hurricane the wind blew a tree across the Paul Smith’s [hydroelectric plant’s] power wire about one hundred rods from the Glass Camp on the St. Regis River and a forest fire immediately started. It was quickly seen by Albert Otis, the state observer on St. Regis Mountain, who hurriedly telephoned Ben Muncil, the fire warden. The latter was playing golf at the time, but threw down his golf sticks and rushed men to the scene. They put the fire out completely before it assumed serious proportions.
This illustrates the value of mountain observers and of the Conservation Commissioners fire-fighting system. If the fire had not been promptly placed under control much valuable property would have been involved. Both Messrs. Otis and Muncil deserve the high praise for the splendid work under difficult conditions.
FOUR OBSERVERS REPORT SAME FIRE, Threatening blaze at Jenkins Mountain is Quickly Extinguished
August 1, 1923, Adirondack Enterprise
Hundreds of campers and hotel guests in the Paul Smiths section were given a thrill Wednesday when word came of the fire burning on the south side of Jenkins mountain.
A most unusual feature of the fire was the fact that it was spotted and reported at almost the same moment by four different observers stationed on the summits of St. Regis, DeBar, Azure and Loon Lake Mountains.
The prompt alarm enabled the forest rangers and men they took with them to reach the flames in time to hold them in check until District Forest Ranger James H. Hopkins at Saranac Lake could call out a sufficient force to extinguish the fire, which was burning deep in the duff.
Despite the fact, that the fire was a mean one to handle, the force organized by District Ranger Hopkins, attacked it with such vigor that by Thursday morning the last of it had been extinguished, after having been held in an area of about one-third of an acre.
Another fire broke out Wednesday in Bloomingdale swamp and was so quickly discovered that it burned [only] about fifty square feet before being extinguished.
The Rockefeller estate was sold to Mac-a-Mac Corporation of Tupper Lake, which harvested timber on the property during the 1930s. John McDonald directed the operation. A large forest fire burned the area in 1937. After the fire, William Rockefeller and Donald Ross bought the property back from Mac-a-Mac.
In 1921 the Conservation Reports began to record the number of visitors at the fire towers. In that year 944 people visited the St. Regis tower. In 1934 1,639 hikers registered and 1973, 1,400.
The original trail went through private land owned by Marjory Merriweather Post and Paul Smith’s College. Recently the DEC rerouted the trail so that it only travels through state land.
During the 1970s the DEC conducted a visibility study of the St. Regis fire tower and concluded that the observer could see for twenty miles comprising 114,963 acres of state land and 334,246 acres of private land. This totaled almost a half a million acres. The tower overlooked high-density and high-use acres such as the Saranac Lake Chain, the Fish Creek and Rollins Pond Campsites (used by five to six thousand campers per year), the St. Regis Canoe Area, and the Bay Pond Area.
Ranger Joe Rupp (1975 to the present) said, “In June 1995 the state removed the observer’s cabin. An inmate crew from the prison in Gabriels dismantled it. I heard that it was built by the CCC camp near Barnum Pond on the east side of Route 30.
“The telephone line operated until 1988. We had a terrible snowstorm in November and it did so much damage that the line was never restored. The state had plans to replace the line that lay on the ground. The wire was purchased in 1989 but it was never installed.”
In 1990 St. Regis fire tower was one of the last four towers, along with ones on Rondaxe, Hadley, and Blue Mountains, to be closed in the Adirondacks. The tower was abandoned and not maintained. To prevent injuries the DEC removed the lower stairs.
The DEC made two attempts to remove the tower in 2001 and 2002 because it is was a “non-conforming structure” within the St. Regis Canoe Area. One plan called for a military group from Canada to move it to the Adirondack Visitors Center in Paul Smiths where it would be re-erected as a tourist attraction. That fell through and the tower still stands on the mountain.
During the summer of 2003 David Petrelli, a member of the Azure Mountain Friends group, started collecting signatures of people who wanted to save the fire tower. An informal meeting of approximately thirty interested individuals took place at the end of August on the Paul Smith’s College Campus. By April 2005, a almost 2,000 names had been added to the petition.
On August 4, 2004, an informational presentation was given to approximately eighty people at the Adirondack Visitor Center in Paul Smiths. By March 2005, more than 2,000 families and individuals added their name to the petition. The petition reads: “We are in support of this Fire Tower remaining in its current location on the summit of St. Regis Mountain. Since this historic structure was erected in 1918, it has been a significant asset to the area. For aesthetic, recreational, and historical reasons we request that the tower’s current “non-conforming” status be removed so that this tower can be saved and restored for future generations.”
Petrelli secured resolutions supporting the saving of the fire tower from the Franklin County Legislature and the towns of Santa Clara and Brighton. In March 2005 he spoke to the Franklin Legislature asking for their support. He said, “We cannot restore the tower until the State Land Master Plan status is changed. The Franklin Legislators then unanimously passed a resolution supporting the preservation of the tower.”
Paul Maroun, a Republican from Tupper Lake who represents the town of Santa Clara, said the fire towers in the Adirondacks “have served the North Country and the Adirondacks for many years protecting the forests, and providing an aesthetic, recreational, and historical status for people inside and outside of the park.”12
David Petrelli then attended the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) meeting in February 2005 in Ray Brook where he presented a letter requesting the St. Regis Canoe Area Unit Management Plan be permanently changed so the fire tower could be restored. Petrelli also presented a petition containing about 2,000 signatures and letters of support from Essex County Legislators, the Rainbow Lake Association, and the Adirondack Architectural Heritage [AARCH].
MaryEllen Salls expressed her feelings to the APA. “I have lived all my life in the town of Brighton and went to the local schools. In the lower grades I went to the schoolhouse on the Keeses Mills road and graduated from the Saranac Lake High School. I have raised a large family and most of them still live in the area. Even though the fire tower was in the town of Santa Clara, we local folk claimed St. Regis Mountain and tower as a part of our history.
“Every summer all the schools in the area would take a day out of their regular schooling and make the climb up St. Regis Mountain and up into the fire tower. The teacher would teach us about the important use of the fire tower, how it was built and manned, and what a Godsend it was in saving this wilderness.
“At present Paul Smith’s College has a course that includes a trip up the St. Regis Mountain to our tower once a year. A professor explains the history of our mountain and fire tower to the students. This is a special hands-on form of education that stays in the student’s mind forever. . . .
“A few well-intentioned people have formed a committee to preserve our Adirondack wilderness and one of their main objectives is to remove our fire tower situated on St. Regis Mountain. All of this came about because a canoeist could see the tower from the local waterways, and claimed it put a blotch on our wilderness area. Instead of being horrified because they could see a fire tower from the water, they should be counting their blessings that they were seeing a visible form of wilderness protection from the past.
“I am seventy years old and I am still foolish enough to believe that every little bit of our history in this part of the Adirondack wilderness is precious. Most of the members of this committee did not live here nor were they even thought of when the old-time residents who formed our town strived each day to preserve our wilderness of mountains and lakes and wildlife. These men spent many hours carrying all the material up to the top of St. Regis Mountain to build the fire tower. They didn’t mind the hardship, because they had only one thought in mind, to preserve the Adirondack wilderness. Everyday, until they built a cabin on the mountain for a ranger to live in, one of these old-timers would faithfully climb the mountain and up into the tower and watch the wilderness mountains and streams for any signs of smoke and fire.
“If it hadn’t been for our fire tower on St. Regis Mountain our so-called wilderness would looked just like Rockefeller Park did after their big fire. The trees there never did grow. A lot of stumps can still be seen everywhere.
“I knew several of the rangers who protected our wilderness. It was just a pleasure listening to the stories they told with wisdom and pride. They really understood about preserving the history. If they were still alive today and knew what was trying to be done to something they thought valuable to their survival, they would be at the foot of St. Regis Mountain with their hunting rifles cocked ready to defend and preserve their heritage.
“I wonder how long each of these people on this committee lived in our Adirondacks and our well-preserved wilderness. If the Adirondack Park Agency really wants to preserve all facets of our wilderness, find a way to repair and bring back into sight all these beautiful fire towers, instead of seeing them as an eyesore. Why not teach the canoeist and tourist the link from the past to the present and into the future through our mountaintop fire towers?”
The group is waiting for a decision by the APA. If the tower is removed from the “non-conforming” classification then the group can adopt and restore the tower for future public use and enjoyment.
The complete chapter and book can found in local stores or at http://www.adirondackstories.com/otherbooks.html
Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, the Northern Districts covers the 26 fire towers in the northern part of the Adirondack Park that includes St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, and Essex Counties. The book contains many hundreds of human-interest stories the author has gathered in personal interviews, and hundreds of photographs. Danger flashes down in lightning bolts that fry telephones and make hair stand on end! Porcupines gnaw everything! Bears abound! Families survive nicely in tiny cabins, and always the towers stand and sway in wind and rain staffed by men and women dedicated to preserving our precious wilderness.
349 pages, 465 illustrations, 27 maps, 8.5 x 11, 2005