Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Thin Ice: Some Strange and Tragic Stories

New snow yesterday and the disappearance of another ice fisherman, this time on Middle Saranac Lake, was a reminder that Adirondack winters, sometimes brutal, can also be deceiving.

According to Paul Schneider’s The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness, snowfalls at higher elevations can average over 100 inches a year and the western edge of the park receives well over 200 inches on average.

In 1879, surveyor Verplanck Colvin noted that the summit of Marcy was snow covered “as late as the beginning of July, and the first of September rarely passes without premonitory, though temporary, covering of the crest with snow.”

According to published reports, in April 1885 the snow was still three and four feet deep in the Adirondacks and eight feet in front of one North Creek store. The ice on Lake Champlain was still three feet thick and drifts at Rouse’s Point where five feet high.

But the thick ice in some years that extends well into April can be dangerously deceiving in other years when thick ice comes late or thin ice comes early.

Albert Rand along with his wife and three children went through the ice of Lake George in February 1860 and in January 1884, J. M. Riford and his family disappeared while crossing Lake Champlain.

In late March 1868, Captain Raine (lighthouse keeper at Crown Point), his son, and two daughters were traveling by sleigh across Champlain to Chimney Point when the ice gave way and they were plunged into the freezing water.Raine’s son managed to scramble onto firm ice and exhausted pulled his father to safety, his sisters had been thrown under the sleigh as it went down and we drowned.The sisters were 18 and 30, the eldest married with two small children. “The sad disaster has thrown gloom over this quiet little village,” the New York Times reported on page one, “and much sympathy is felt in every household for the bereaved family, who are highly esteemed.”

In early December 1886 another lighthouse keeper’s son wasn’t so lucky.Oliver Allen, the son of the keeper at Dresden in Washington County on Lake Champlain was on ice skates pushing two friends, Edith and Ralph Flannery, across the lake at Maple Bend in a small sleigh. The ice gave way and all three were drowned.

More recently, a number of ice fisherman, their shanties and gear have gone into the water – with tragic results.In late February 1937 Charles O’Neil from Moriah and his nine and ten year old sons Allen and Harold, were fishing with a friend Robert Lawrence from Westport. They had been fishing near Baron Rock, about eight miles south of Westport were strong currents are known to occur.They were returning home when the ice gave way and all four went into the water. Charles and one of his sons drowned almost immediately, but the other son managed to hang on to the broken ice. He couldn’t climb out so for twenty minutes the young boy hung on alone while Robert Lawrence went for help. By the time the rescuers arrived, he had died.

Of course falling through the ice is not the only danger in ice fishing.In February 1972, five people from Swanton, Vermont, Francis King and his nine year old son Joseph, George Curtis and his fifteen year old daughter Penny, and nineteen year old Stephen Siso became lost in a snowstorm while ice fishing on Champlain. They managed to find their way to a small island and found an old camp where they huddled together all night before being found the next day.

While we’re at it: Lake George Ice-In / Ice Out Records for 1907-2006 [pdf]

Suggested Reading

The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness

Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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