For most of the 20th century, tourists saw fire towers as good destinations for hikes with the kids, while to residents they meant jobs with decent pay for a few months of relatively easy work. Both also saw the towers as an early-warning system against the fires they knew could ravage the forests, as had happened early in the 1900s.
But as the century wore down, it proved more efficient and economical to scout for fires from the air. To the dismay of many, the towers were closed, one after another, and abandoned or dismantled.
Partly because we value symbols more when they’re gone than when they’re among us and thus seem immutable, the towers have been getting a lot of press lately, as citizen groups throughout the Adirondacks endeavor to rescue them from the inroads of time and weather and from, as they see it, malicious bureaucrats. Many have been saved from demolition, then restored and reopened to hikers who can once again enjoy those fabulous views—though the towers no longer serve a fire-prevention mission. Nowadays the occupant of the cab may be an earnest volunteer armed with interpretive pamphlets and souvenirs rather than a taciturn guy (or, very rarely, a woman) in a darkgreen uniform who, once prompted, could name every summit and lake in sight.
In the midst of this renaissance, Purple Mountain Press has released the second of Martin Podskoch’s books on the Adirondacks’ mountaintop structures. Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, the Northern Districts follows his 2004 book that treated the southern segments of the Park. This one also follows its predecessor in organization, content and style in looking at the 26 towers that punctuate St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties like giant steel exclamation marks. They include those on popular summits such as St. Regis and Hurricane mountains, as well as less well-known towers, such as those on Palmer Hill near Ausable Forks and Meenahga near Rainbow Lake, the latter erected on land that was and remains private (a onetime owner was the championswimmer- turned-actor Buster Crabbe). Pharaoh Mountain, west of Ticonderoga, is the southernmost star in this galaxy; other recognizable ones—perhaps you’ve visited some yourself—are Poke-O-Moonshine, Vanderwhacker, Whiteface (yes, there was a tower up there, along with everything else; it was among the first to be removed, in 1971), and Mount Arab, easily reached and recently restored.
Podskoch is a retired seventh-grade teacher from the Catskills, whose fire towers he wrote about in his first book, published in 2000. Now living in Connecticut, he is researching the towers there and in Vermont for forthcoming books, researching a book on the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and doing a weekly illustrated newspaper series called Adirondack Stories that he hopes to have in book form this fall. “I’m not bored,” he tells us.
Like its older siblings, the latest volume is not a mere guide to the towers. It also serves as a valuable introduction to the people who were associated with them. During his research, the author drove thousands of miles, spent countless hours poring through state records and conducting interviews, and slept in the homes or back yards of people he met along the way. The book includes dozens of historical photos of fire observers and their families and visitors as well as towers, cabins and the mountains themselves.
“I’ve learned how to track down the observers and rangers and their families a lot better,” says Podskoch, noting that this volume is longer as a result. “Once I had the names I had to become a detective and search for them or their descendants, since many of them have passed away. I interviewed people by phone in Florida, Alaska, California, Georgia and so on.”
Let’s take a closer look at one representative portrayal of a tower and its personnel; since Podskoch sticks faithfully throughout to what has proven to be a successful formula, this will demonstrate how he gets us acquainted with all of the towers in the book.
The structure on St. Regis Mountain, near Paul Smiths, commands a view of the forests, lakes, ponds and isolated summits that dominate the Adirondacks north and west of the High Peaks, as well of those peaks themselves.
The mountain lies within the St. Regis Canoe Area, where man-made structures are supposed to be kept to a minimum. The tower is still standing, but the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan has identified it as a “nonconforming structure” that should be removed. That’s something like being an illegal alien right now, and as with those individuals its fate is in the hands of politicians.
Podskoch begins with some fascinating history. In a considerable bit of irony, the 2,784-foot summit is partially bare thanks to a fire that legendary Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin and his crew set in 1876, the better to conduct their work. The fire got out of control and cleared the summit, thank you very much.
In the years following, fires were rampant in the area, some started by sparks from railroad locomotives, some by careless logging and some by arsonists who didn’t like the fact that early Big Oil magnate William Rockefeller owned a lot of land in the area and thought that if they couldn’t enjoy it, neither should he. It was the Rockefellers who pushed the idea of a tower on the mountain, and in April 1910 they got their wish, although it came in the form of a simple observation station, a tower being deemed unnecessary thanks to the pioneering work of Colvin and company. It cost $294.77, most of that for a three-mile-long telephone line, parts of whose route became today’s hiking trail. The first observer reported 55 fires that first year; there is no indication of how many of those were intended to torch the Rockefeller estate.
In 1918, the tower came along, and in following years a succession of cabins for the observers. In 1921, the state began recording visitors to the tower, counting a remarkable 944 that year (by 1934 it had increased to 1,639, but in 1973 it was only 1,400). The trail at one time traversed property owned by Paul Smith’s College and also Topridge, the Great Camp of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, but it has since been relocated (and lengthened) on state land.
In 1990, the tower was closed, one of the last in the Adirondacks consigned to that fate. Over the past few years, a citizen-led movement has been under way to preserve it, which will require amnesty by the state. Environmental groups argue that the Park’s master plan should be enforced; they also note that hikers don’t need to climb the tower (which, in fact, is closed) to get a great view.
Having dispensed with the chronology of the tower, Podskoch turns to its lore. Since many of his interviewees are now well advanced in age, he has done future historians a great service by recording their recollections. One of the St. Regis observers had been a personal guide to President Calvin Coolidge when he was at nearby White Pine Camp, which can also be visited today. Another commuted to the cabin, which was about half way to the summit, by motorcycle, probably in violation of Forest Preserve regulations. “What a ride!” exclaimed his brother. Yet another, Jim Bickford, was an Olympic bobsledder who, as the American flag bearer in the 1936 Winter Games, famously refused to dip the stars and stripes as he led his team past Hitler at the Opening Ceremonies.
And then there was the time observer Gerry Noreault had to contend with some young ladies who thought the summit was a nudist beach. “They were stark naked, lying on the rocks and soaking up the sun, while I was trying to concentrate on searching for smoke with my binoculars,” he told Podskoch.
And so it goes. The chapter ends with a list of observers and rangers and their years of service and directions to the trailhead and summit. If you want to sunbathe naked up there, go ahead—there’s no longer anyone on duty and the old tower will tell no tales, even though it’s full of them.