Southern Adirondack fire towers highlighted and the men and women who kept watch
“Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore: The Southern Districts,” by
You can still find them — either preserved and intact, climbable for the not-faint-of-heart, or just some bolts and metal plates, some telephone wire still hanging from a tree — the towers from which hardy and sharp-eyed men and a few women kept watch over the vast forests of the Adirondacks, alert to the lick of fire or a plume of smoke. The book addresses towers from the southern part of the Adirondacks: the Blue Mountain tower is the northernmost post. But the book title notwithstanding, this is a book about people, and author Podskoch seems to have had a wonderful time wandering the Adirondacks and hearing tales.
As the book explains, in 1903 and again in 1908 hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the Adirondacks burned. Towns had fire wardens but the system was loose and underfunded. Taking its lead from the state of Maine, New York state began building fire towers across the park and investing more in a professional system of fire patrol and prevention. By 1909 towers were sited on Mount Morris, Whiteface, West (Long Lake), Hamilton, Snowy, and Gore. By 1910, sixteen towers had been set up, and by 1912 a professional system of fire fighting personnel was in place. The book traces briefly the ongoing history of the towers, communication systems, fire fighting procedures, and the demise of the tower approach, as well as efforts to preserve some towers for tourism.
But most of the book is dedicated to the stories of the people of the towers, and the families who sometimes lived on the cabins supplied for the rangers. Each tower is profiled and the history of its personnel, and some tales where Podskoch was able to either research or find people who remembered the characters in the tower, or some who were watchers themselves in the latter years.
Some of the tower denizens were loners, happy to be apart from the madding crowd, some happily welcomed sometimes hundreds of hikers and school groups. Some had gardens at their cabins on the mountains. Some went up and down the mountain every day to their homes below. There are many stories of lightning strikes. And a lot of bears.
The biggest challenge of being a tower fire warden seemed not to be locating fires, or being lonely or bored. Or even bears. The biggest challenge seemed to be the people who came up to the towers. One ranger told of being up in the tower and seeing a guy break into his cabin and come out eating the ranger’s food and wearing his hat. The ranger called the police who were able to stage a welcoming committee for the returning hiker in the trail parking lot, and retrieve the hat, if not the food. One ranger found himself in the tower alone with two rough looking men who seemed high and were eyeing him and pondering aloud what it would look like if someone fell out of the tower. But it was all the trash visitors left behind that got most of the modern day rangers dispirited. But no one seemed to tire of the views from the top.
I started reading just the chapters of the towers I’m familiar with, but in the end they all offered something of interest. I kept getting caught up in one story or another, and turning another page.