HIstorian shares stories of early 20th century fires that swept through Adirondacks
By Tim Rowland
Today the Adirondacks beckon potential climate refugees, those fed up to the gills with broiling summers, a nonstop parade of tornadoes and stifling droughts.
But at the turn of the 20th century, the Adirondacks itself was a scorched hellscape, a scene of such despair that Henry Van Hoevenberg was ready and willing to burn up along with his beloved but doomed Adirondack Lodge.
As the flames approached, “He was sitting in a rocking chair in the lodge; he was going down with the ship,” said historian Sharp Swan to an audience at the Adirondack History Museum. Armed with a pistol should anyone try to dissuade him, he was eventually convinced that the three-story, 60-room lodge — billed as the largest log structure in the world — could be rebuilt.
The 1903 Heart Lake fire was one of three major conflagrations in the High Peaks that spring, Swan said, as the region went 47 days without rain and hard logging left great piles of incendiary slash on the forest floor.
It happened all over again in 1913, laying waste not just to the woods but the Adirondack tourism industry, and demoralizing a nascent hiking community. “Never have I enjoyed climbing a mountain so little,” wrote Adirondack hiking patriarch Bob Marshall in 1922, after picking his way through a moonscape of ash, brush and charred logs.
Who, they wondered, would want to come all this way to look at stands of blackened sticks. Camp owner Miriam Putnam commented that her grandchildren, or great grandchildren maybe, would live to see the forest restored, but to her the joy was gone.
Her prediction, Swan said, was correct, and then some. Most of the bald domes and open ledges that create such stunning views — and attract travelers the world around — are the direct result of these old catastrophes.
But they’re not the only evidence of blazes past. With a practiced eye, Swan said it’s possible to read the landscape and see the old fire lines and make out rare patches of old growth forests that miraculously survived.
One of those patches in the lee of Chapel Pond was a protected viewing platform for people in 1913 who watched in aghast fascination as blazing trees tumbled hundreds of feet from the cliffs above creating an explosion of sparks with each ledge they hit.
This old growth is still evident at the beginning of the Giant trail, as is another copse higher up that was similarly protected by Giant Washbowl, Swan said. Beyond that, the ridge tends toward bare rock, signs of a forest that was brutalized not once but twice by fire.
Regenerating forests were heavy with birch, which seeds easily in open areas. These lighter greens in summer contrast with the original, and darker, balsam, hemlock and spruce. So while the forest has regrown, it has regrown differently. In another 150 years though, Swan said, the shade tolerant evergreens will have replaced less shade-tolerant species, and the forest will be closer to its historical makeup.
The great fires of the early 20th century originated near Lake Placid, where a farmer trying to clear a field for cultivation lost control of his burn site, and the wildfire swept south at a frightening rate. Due to the nature of the Adirondack duff, great billows of smoke were produced, but where there was smoke there was not always fire.
“Everyone said the smoke was everywhere, but you couldn’t tell where the fire was,” Swan said. By the time a wall of flame breached Mt. Jo and bore down on the lodge, it was too late.
Other fires burned through the peaks of Cascade and Porter, the Dix Range, Giant and Rocky Peak.
Along with careless farmers, sparks from locomotives and lightning strikes also touched off wildfires in a spring when 600,000 acres would burn, leaving a dismal landscape. “What wasn’t burned was logged over,” Swan said.
The scars on the landscape were still evident a decade later in 1913 when it happened all over again. Fire raced north from Elk Lake; every time firefighters — a force largely consisting of local residents pressed into duty — thought they had it contained, it changed directions. “The fire had a mind of its own,” Swan said.
It entered Keene Valley and threatened the Ausable Club. But the hotel had friends in high places, notably President Woodrow Wilson, who sent 360 men from the 5th Infantry to join the fight. They couldn’t prevent a reburn of Giant, but they did save some forests around the club. “If you’re on the (lower) trail to Round Mountain and see some gorgeous old trees, you can thank the 5th Infantry,” Swan said.
For the most part, firefighters relied on digging miles of trenches to stop the fires, with limited success. Rain was the ultimate answer. On June 7, Keene Valley parishioners attended church services and prayed for rain.
“And on June 8 it rained,” Swan said. “And it rained and rained and rained. It washed out roads and bridges, so the people went back into the church and prayed for it to stop.”