Nehasane Fire Observer

Nicholas K. Burns Publishing 2002 $13.95, softcover, 92 pages
Nicholas K. Burns Publishing
$13.95, softcover, 92 pages

One day early in the summer of 1942, Bill Touhey, on duty in the Salmon Lake Mountain fire tower in Whitney Park west of Long Lake, took a phone call from the observer on Mount Electra, not far away in Nehasane Park. A stereotype of the gruff old Adirondacker, he was perhaps a bit more gruff than usual in his response. After a startled silence, he growled, “Well, I’ll be!” The voice was that of a young woman’s.

“He soon warmed up and it wasn’t long before we were comparing notes about which towers and what bodies of water we could see,” says the woman, Frances Boone Seaman, in her memoir Nehasane Fire Observer: An Adirondack Woman’s Summer of ‘42. The anecdote is emblematic of that summer: Neither bears nor remoteness from loved ones nor lightning storms nor crusty old men would stay her from performing her duties and even enjoying them. In the short span of one fire observer’s season she learned much about herself and her native region, and earned the respect of her colleagues, simply because she expected no less.

How did it happen that a woman would take a summer job as a fire observer, one of very few women to hold such a post in the roughly 75-year heyday of the towers? For one thing, most available men were involved in World War II. It was the era of Rosie the Riveter, a period that scholars now think gave the real impetus to the women’s rights movement that blossomed decades later.

For another, Frances Boone was known to, and wellthought of by, her employers, the Webb family who owned Nehasane Park. (Since Nehasane was private, she was hired by the Webbs, not by the state, although part of her compensation was covered by the state.) As a 21-year-old in 1940, she had worked as a waitress for the spring and early summer at Forest Lodge, the splendid Great Camp of J. Watson Webb at the heart of the sprawling wilderness preserve.

And here is where Frances Seaman’s memoir opens. Her summer at Forest Lodge is an introduction to a new world just 20 miles as the crow flies from the one in which she grew up in Long Lake, but one to which she adjusted with aplomb. “At first I was nervous about serving the Webbs and their elite guests,” she writes, “but the hospitable manner of Mr. Webb’s fishing parties soon put me at my ease.” She also quickly gained the approbation of George Collier, Nehasane Park superintendent, and Mrs. Virgil (we never learn her first name), the cook whom she had known previously in Long Lake. And she met Howard Seaman, a young handyman; their developing relationship provides a subplot to the narrative.

Frances practices archery below the fire tower.
Frances practices archery below the fire tower.

With Chapter 2, we move to the summer on the fire tower, and the story progresses with the satisfying clarity of a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mountain hike or the immutable passage of time from late spring into high summer and then fall. There is no hidden agenda here, and little philosophizing; there’s just a good story, plainly told and thoroughly enjoyable to read.

It was not only men who were at times uncertain about a 23-year-old woman managing an Adirondack fire tower; both of Frances’ parents expressed reservations when she showed them the letter from Collier offering the job.

“Could you outrun a bear?” her skeptical mother asked. “I don’t think anything will happen that I can’t handle,” replied Frances, capturing in one sentence the attitude that propelled her successfully through the summer and indeed her entire life. Once on the job, she demonstrated that she could indeed outrun, or at least out-bicycle, a bear.

It was her father, a former homesteader in Oregon, who capitulated first. “It seems like a strange place for a woman to work,” her mother persisted. It took her until the next morning, an eternity for Frances, to come around. On June 7 they put Frances on the train at Sabattis, dressed in jeans, plaid shirt and hiking boots, bicycle in the baggage car—and bow and arrows on the seat beside her, to the consternation of her fellow passengers, the conductor and especially Shorty, the candy vendor. They didn’t know she had a hunting knife stashed among her gear and had considered bringing her rifle.

The frontispiece of Nehasane Fire Observer is a faded photograph of a young woman holding a bicycle in front of a remarkably small cabin, in a clearing surrounded by Adirondack forest that seems poised to overwhelm the cabin. This tiny edifice was Frances Boone’s home for the summer, at Partlow Clearing, a former log-loading spot on the railroad near the Mount Electra trailhead. Taking her cue from the Webbs, who renamed everything in sight for family members (including the mountain on which her tower stood; formerly Rock Lake Mountain, it had become Mount Electra in honor of J. Watson Webb’s wife), she dubbed it “Green Valley, because it sounded prettier.” The bicycle was for covering the three-quarters of a mile from there to the trail to the tower.

Heat for warmth on chilly days and for cooking came from a small wood stove. Refrigeration was a crock submerged in a nearby brook. Groceries arrived by train from Tupper Lake, about 40 wilderness miles north. A “half moon house” stood 50 feet behind the cabin, discreetly cloaked by balsams.

Early on, Collier explained her duties: She would spend eight hours a day in the 70-foot tower (a dizzying ascent that took some getting used to), seven days a week in dry spells, with vacation days granted only by rainy weather. She must fill out weekly reports for the district ranger, scythe the edges of the trail and the trailhead, clear limbs off the phone line, test the two single-line phones regularly and, of course, keep an eye out for suspicious smoke and report its location using the map and alidade—a bar with mileage indicators that could be swung across the map that dominated the tower room.

This cabin in Green Valley was Frances Boone Seaman’s home in the summer of 1942.
This cabin in Green Valley was Frances Boone Seaman’s home in the summer of 1942.

The scene Frances Boone surveyed for this purpose encompassed mile upon mile of forest, mountain and pond in remote regions of the Adirondacks, with precious little human intervention evident. On a clear day she could see from the blue High Peaks on the horizon to the east, to Cat Mountain near Cranberry Lake to the north, and West Mountain near Raquette Lake to the south. It was a vista she would grow to love as her appreciation for her native Adirondacks grew.

She relieved her long hours at the tower by reading, practicing with her bow and arrow, and persuing her art. One of her watercolors, a panorama from the tower that she executed using the map table as an easel, graces the cover of the book. She relished the solitude, the views, the closeness to the natural world with its storms and creatures and wildflowers.

It was a summer full of adventures, not all of them pleasant. She drove off two strange men who knocked on her cabin door late one night, walked the railroad line three miles to Brandreth to visit her nearest neighbors, injured herself nearly falling off the tower stairs, and ran afoul of a bear and her cub between her cabin and the privy. She never spotted a fire, although once she did call attention to smoke rising to the east. With the help of Bill Touhey, she learned it was from a trash fire at the Whitney Park sawmill.

Frances Boone’s love of nature pervades her memoir, and this inspires some of the best writing in the book. She describes a cool breeze during her hike to the tower as “nature’s solace sighing in the spruces.” Her attachment is especially evident as she describes the arrival of autumn at the end of the book: first frost, maples changing colors practically as she watched, the storms that heralded winter. By midsummer she had found herself wishing there was a future in her career as an observer, but in the end she realized that it was not to be.

What she did acquire, she discovered as she descended Mount Electra for the final time on a gray 40-degree day, were “self-reliance, and . . . a greater appreciation of the Adirondacks. A love of these mountains has stayed with me to this day,” she concludes 60 years later.