115th anniversary for Adirondack fire towers

Visitors at the log fire tower on Stillwater Mountain are seen here in 1912. The smaller log tower inside the fire tower was used by Verplanck Colvin as he surveyed the Adirondacks. (Provided photo — Wheadon family)

SARANAC LAKE — The celebration of the 115th anniversary of fire towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills will be held throughout this year.

It was in 1909 that the first fire towers were established in the Catskills on Hunter Mountain, Balsam Lake Mountain, and Belleayre Mountain and in the Adirondacks on Mount Morris, Gore Mountain, Snowy Mountain and West Mountain.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fires raged out of control in many of New York state’s vast wooded areas. The years 1903 and 1908 were particularly disastrous and public outcry for protection from the devastation led the state to begin a rigorous fire prevention and control program, including the building of fire towers.

The first fire towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills were wooden towers that were replaced with steel towers 10 to 15 years later. These towers provided early detection of fires, which greatly reduced the acres destroyed. Eventually the state had about 114 fire towers operating in 1960.

In 1970, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation began relying on airplane surveillance for the detection of fires when it was hot, dry and windy. Between 1970 and 1974, 55 of the 100 staffed towers were closed with the saved funds used to offset the cost of aerial detection. By 1990, only four towers remained in the Adirondacks: St. Regis, Blue, Rondaxe/Bald and Hadley mountains and only Red Hill in the Catskills. These were all finally closed in 1990.

Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a movement by local residents, tourists and hikers to save and restore the abandoned fire towers. People saw the historical importance of these structures that had helped preserve the forests. Hikers loved to climb the towers and get a panoramic view of the surrounding forests. When a tower was reopened, they could see above the trees again.

Over the past 30 years, the Adirondack fire towers were restored by various groups: Friends groups, Forest Fire Lookout Association, the Adirondack Architectural Heritage and local Adirondack Mountain Club members in partnership with the state Department of Environment Conservation.

The following southern towers were restored: Blue Mountain (1994), Hadley Mountain (1996-98), Kane Mountain (2000), Snowy Mountain (2002), and Rondaxe/Bald Mountain (2002), Owls Head (2003), Spruce (2015), Stillwater (2016), Swede Mountain (2021), Makomis/Speculator (2022) and Buck Mountain (2023).

These northern Adirondack towers were restored: Goodnow Mountain (1982), Mountain Arab (1998), Tooley Pond Mountain tower moved to Cathedral Rock (2000), Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain (2001), Azure Mountain (2003), Vanderwhacker Mountain (2004), Lyon Mountain (2008), Mount Adams (2013), St. Regis (2016) and Hurricane Mountain (2017).

In the Catskills, fire towers have been restored through the efforts of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville and local groups near the five towers in partnership with the DEC. These towers in the Catskill Preserve have been restored: Hunter Mountain (1999), Overlook Mountain (1999), Balsam Lake Mountain (2000), Red Hill (2000) and Mount Tremper (2001).

The public is encouraged to celebrate the fire towers’ 115th anniversary by visiting one or more of the restored towers to see the positive effect they have had in helping to preserve our beautiful Adirondack and Catskill forests.


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