Friends group honors Poke-O-Moonshine tower with 100th anniversary celebration
CHESTERFIELD — Fire towers on state Forest Preserve mountaintops were largely decommissioned in the 1980s, with the state moving toward aerial surveillance to detect fires. Once the towers were closed, the Department of Environmental Conservation planned to take them all down because they are man-made structures that do not belong in the Forest Preserve, according to the State Land Master Plan.
However, many have now been restored, and new friends groups are popping up to bring the towers back to a usable condition. Sometimes the state just needed someone to step in to oversee the restoration efforts. Some of the land directly under certain towers has now been reclassified as historic, meaning the towers, legally speaking, are allowed to remain.
More than 100 people made the short hike up the cliff-studded Poke-O-Moonshine mountain last Sunday to celebrate the tower that was put into service in 1917 as part of the Conservation Department’s effort to cut down on the massive forest fires that were plaguing the Adirondack and Catskill parks. The group then returned to the campground for speeches and birthday cake.
Forest Ranger Gary Friedrich, a zone supervisor in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, said he would tell the story of the Poke-O-Moonshine tower only because he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get in trouble for disobeying his former boss.
“I came here in December of 1994, and … fire towers meant a lot to me, and I thought they were part of the Adirondack history,” Friedrich said. “I was getting a lot of pressure from my captain. At the time, the procedure for removing a fire tower was (to) first remove the lower section of stairs to prevent people from getting up into the tower, and then later on the tower would eventually be removed.
“(At) Poke-O, the stairs have never been removed. But I came on board, and I was getting pressure to remove the stairs. I think the statute of limitations is up, so insubordination isn’t a charge I could be brought up on,” he laughed. “Captain (John) Gillen was pressuring me to take the stairs down and I just kept putting it off and kind of ignoring him.”
Friedrich said he began looking for ways to preserve the tower and soon hooked up with Adirondack Architectural Heritage, which led to the formation of the friends group. Friedrich said the initial assessment of the tower required numerous hikes to the summit, often with incredibly heavy gear, including a 30-ton jack to test the stability of the bolts holding the tower to the rock and 80-pound bags of concrete.
Over the years, the restoration effort turned into a series of hurdles, and Friedrich was proud the group had overcome them.
In addition to the testing, Friedrich said several parts of the tower had to be replaced. The company the state contracted with to build the towers originally built windmills but could not provide any replacement parts 80 years later.
So the state paid to have the metal diagonal pieces fabricated since the tower had been twisted due to the extreme exposure.
“New York State Police were gracious enough to allow the use of their helicopter,” he said. “We thought the angle iron was heavy enough that it wouldn’t need a tail.”
When the police helicopter flies loads, a small balsam tree is attached to the rear of the load to act as a sort of rudder to keep the load straight while it’s in the air.
“We didn’t think they would fly bad because they’re heavy steel. Well, he (the pilot) got over Auger Pond, and it started to oscillate underneath the aircraft.
“He came back, and he told me, ‘Gary, I held it as long as I could. I thought I was over dry land when I punched the load.’ He punched the load, and it ended up in a beaver swamp on the south end of Auger Pond,” Friedrich said to moans from the crowd. “He had the coordinates, so I broke my way back there and literally the only reason I found them was the strap was draped over a tree. The metal was 3 feet down in the mud, so I dug them out.”
Since then, the friends group has installed informational signs and plaques inside the tower, which is now open to the public when the steward is on duty.
“From there, the rest is history,” he said. “After it was restored, the friends and David [Thomas-Train], they got the steward program to take off, and I just can’t say enough.
“It’s a model for everyone else.”
Tom Martin, natural resources manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region 5, posed a question to an assembled group at the site of the former Poke-O-Moonshine campground, asking how old they thought laws regarding fire were.
Some people shouted out guesses, going back in time several hundred years.
Martin then read what he thinks is the first law regarding mankind’s oldest friend and enemy: “If fire break out and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn or the standing corn or the field be consumed therewith, he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.”
With a sly smile, Martin informed the group that this law dates back even farther than the 1500s. In fact, the above quote is in the Bible.
Sunday also marked the 20-year anniversary of the founding of Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, a volunteer group that has worked over the last two decades to prevent removal of the tower, and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for its restoration as well as improvements to the hiking trail that takes visitors there.
“This is the 20th year we’ve been doing stewardship on the mountain, the trail, the tower,” Thomas-Train said at the summit of the mountain Sunday. Thomas-Train, of Keene Valley, is coordinator of the friends group, and he oversees its mission along with a steering committee.
“The fire tower is now restored; it’s an educational site. Twenty years for us, 100 for the tower. We’re really honoring the legacy of these towers because they really were the first broad initiative by New York state to protect the forest and educate the hiking public about the forest,” he said. “And we’re trying to continue that mission.”
Thomas-Train said the group has paid for professional trail crews to install erosion control and stone stairways up what’s known as the Ranger Trail, and now stations a summit steward in the tower five days each week during the summer.
Poke-O-Moonshine is a favorite of hikers and rock climbers, with the largely open summit offering views of Vermont’s Green Mountains, Lake Champlain and the Adirondack High Peaks. From the tower, the view is a full 360–degrees.
The Ranger Trail starts at the now-closed Poke-O-Moonshine state campground and generally follows the path that fire wardens used to walk to get to the tower. Although switchbacks have been added, the trail still takes hikers to the site of the old cabin, where a newer and less steep trail comes in from a different starting point. From the site of old cabin, it’s a short jaunt to the top of the mountain.
John Mussen, who now lives in Maryland, made his most recent hike of Poke-O-Moonshine on his birthday the Friday before the celebration. Mussen turned 91 that day.
He was a fire observer on Poke-O-Moonshine in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and he estimates he’s climbed the mountain about 700 times.
“I could get to the top in around 20 minutes,” he said.
Mussen had grown up with the ranger he worked closest with, Mike Thompson, and the two of them collaborated on putting down some memorable fires.
“I got him one time down in the highlands — I could see smoke down there somewhere — but I couldn’t tell right where it would be,” Mussen said. “I called Mike up and I said ‘I got a fire going.’
“He said, ‘Where do you think it is?'” Mussen said. “I said, ‘I would say it’s right where Charlie built his new camp down in there. Try that,’ and he said ‘Bingo.'”
Mussen said his job was a lot of fun, and he is happy to see the tower restored and in use as an educational opportunity.
“We had good times, had a lot of funny times up there,” Mussen said. “I’m 91–years–old. I got three children that went up with me, and it took us a little over two hours.”
“I did something special. Mike and I grew up together. So I made a promise to him before I went up, and I said, ‘Mike, I’m going to take you up to the top one more time.’
“He and I were the best of friends.”
For more information on Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, go to www.pokeomoonshine.org.