Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Fires of 1903

Dear Dispatch Readers, take a little journey with me back to the year 1903, just after the turn of the century and less than a decade after Forever Wild. Construct if you will a picture, an imagination of the events I am about to relate. I myself cannot conceive of what it was really like to live through this time in the Adirondacks. It is even harder – and quite painful – to visualize the aftermath. Thank goodness with the passage of more than a century the forest has recovered for the most part. But the landscape was forever altered.

I will, as always, claim to be a storyteller, not a historian. But lest you think that this account is fanciful, especially the climax as it relates to Lost Brook Tract, I assure you that it is not.

The facts and sequence of events are available from eyewitness accounts, official reports, maps and physical evidence. I have seen the physical evidence, maps and reports myself. I have perused the official daily weather data for the region which is available on-line (though not easy to find). I have letters from eyewitnesses either to the fire or its aftermath; some are available publicly, some are not. There have been several books that give an account, two of which I have read. The US Government had an official report and map, copies of which are in the wonderful library of the Adirondack museum. It’s an incredible story, truly. It is important to me personally, as Lost Brook Tract was nearly destroyed in June of that year.

The Adirondacks at the start of 1903 were a damaged and exploited region. The Adirondack Park had been legally established and Constitutional protections were in place but enforcement was practically nil and abuses were common. Logging was past its zenith, but not by much. Furthermore, the selective logging of the past for desirable types of wood had been largely supplanted by logging for pulp to support paper mills as the supply of good lumber trees was exhausted and the demand for paper skyrocketed. This led to much more destructive clear-cutting practices and penetration deeper into the interior of the park. One eyewitness in Keene described vast panoramas of ugly, stump-ridden land throughout the valley.

Fire was a constant problem in this era. For one thing the slash and debris left behind by logging aged and seasoned itself into nearly perfect fuel. For another the clearing dried the land and in particular the duff on the forest floor, creating as good a tinder as one could ever want to put in their tinder box. Add a spark of some kind to all that abundant material and you had the makings of an inferno.

Sparks there were aplenty. First up were locomotives on the numerous rail lines throughout the park. The law required steel mesh over the smoke stacks but few railroads complied, besides such mesh by itself was hardly an effective spark arrestor. Then there was the matter of burning coals that routinely fell from the trains, landing on the tracks – or worse, off the tracks. There were farmers burning fallow land or brush piles. There were tobacco users. There were arsonists. There were a variety of miscellaneous human-made causes for spark or flame. There were natural causes like lightning.

Contrary to the notion of spring being wet or damp, it is indeed the spring months that are the most dangerous for fire. The accumulated duff from the winter lies exposed on the ground and can get good and dry before leaf-out cloaks the forest in green vegetation. In 1903 spring was fire season, as it is today, and people expected fires here and there. Oh boy did they get them.

For a while, in early spring, concerns about fire must have been on the back burner, if you will excuse the pun. The summer and fall of 1902 and the winter of 1903 had been good months for precipitation. Lake Champlain was, according to one source, “at the highest level in memory.” As spring arrived in the Adirondacks a few fires sprang up, as they always did, but were quickly extinguished.

On April 17th it rained in the High Peaks. This was the last precipitation of any kind in the Adirondacks for nearly two months: more than 45 days of drought followed, along with unusually hot weather and frequent high winds. The snowpack melted within days and the ground dried rapidly. The spring duff became so parched that according to an account by the artist Harold Weston it practically dissolved into dust under foot falls.

Thanks mostly to locomotives, fires began to spring up throughout the Adirondacks beginning in late April. Fires were fought in Cranberry Lake, Old Forge, Long Lake, Tupper Lake, St. Regis, Elizabethtown and Lake Placid. The Fire Warden on the Delaware and Hudson line wrote that fires started almost every day along the tracks. Strong wind patterns were common that spring and defeated the best efforts of firefighters. The New York Times reported that high winds on April 30th were spreading flames so rapidly that it seemed only massive rain could save the entire forest from going up.

Townspeople, farmers and employees fought fires. Women joined the fight. Railroad companies started bringing in laborers from downstate. J. and J. Rogers sent a huge force of men to Keene Valley. According to one source nearly 7,000 men and women were eventually conscripted to fight fires. But these were reactionary forces, barely holding their own. There had been no fire patrols to speak of, which was part of the problem in the first place, and now there was only time to respond to immediate threats. It was already a titanic struggle and it was about to get a lot worse.

Lost Brook Tract, towering, brooding, pristine, mossy, lay well away from the action. But in late April, many miles away, the seeds for its destruction were sown. Apparently oblivious to the drought’s danger, a farmer near Lake Placid cleared some vegetation by burning. The fire got into the duff on his land and remained there, smoldering, incubating for weeks.

As May arrived the struggle to stop the fires became a bitter, desperate fight for survival. Large fires started at Schroon Lake, Lake George, Olmsteadville, Newcomb, AuSable Forks, Saranac Lake and Clintonville, although the center of the most severe action was the Lake Placid area. The fires were so significant that there were reports of cinders falling as far away as Albany.

In early May a fire started near the West Branch of the Boquet River. After days of effort by firefighters it was nearly contained. But a second fire developed just east of Dix Mountain. It got whipped by winds on the upslope, tore up the east side of Dix and down the west side, then up Noonmark and Round Mountains. Aided by the topography, the exhausted firefighters held the western edge of the fire there, but it burned unabated to the east all the way to Chapel Pond. The roar could be heard for miles. All the men in Keene Valley were pressed into service, along with the force of workers from J. and J. Rogers. Surrounding trenches were frantically dug to save St. Huberts.

Meanwhile a third major fire came zooming over Rocky Peak Ridge and up the flanks of Giant. Flames were two hundred feet high. It leapt Chapel Pond Pass and joined the Dix fire, forcing the men to flee for their lives. W. Scott Brown of St. Huberts was later quoted in a local paper: “It took the grit out of out some people here quick.” Heavy ash from the fires was now falling as far away as New York City and the spread of smoke was so distant as to cause concern in Washington, D.C.

On June 3rd, 1903 a heavy wind from the northwest arose and blew across the farm field near Lake Placid where that farmer had burned brush back in April. The long-smoldering duff was whipped into a surface fire, then a massive crown fire which headed east along the northern side of the High Peaks. It was completely unstoppable. Henry van Hoevenberg watched it coming from his observation tower on the grounds of his beautiful Adirondack Lodge. With all escape routes to the north cut off he and his staff retreated (he unwillingly at first) the only way they could, south to Indian Pass. It is said that from far away at the pass he heard the collapse of his lodge as the fire consumed and then incinerated it.

Before long the fire reached Cascade Pass. It burned everything around the Cascade House Hotel to the ground, entirely obliterating the forest, but somehow the hotel itself emerged relatively unscathed. The fire then climbed Cascade Mountain where it was met by a fierce north wind that shot it over the summit like a blowtorch, burning the soil to bare rock. Cascade remains treeless to this day not because it is near the tree line (it’s not) but because of this fire.

From there the fire roared downslope and towards the heart of the mountains. At this point it was moving at several miles per hour which is an astounding rate. Ash began to blanket the towns of Keene and Keene Valley as the fire approached. Both towns were doomed. Residents hastily buried their belongings and fled toward Elizabethtown.

As darkness fell the fire had moved south through the mountains to the ridge that holds Lost Brook Tract. At about midnight the fire reached the northern border of the tract. I did some calculating a few months ago: at the rate it was traveling it would have burned the entire parcel in six minutes.

At that exact moment fate intervened. A huge rainstorm suddenly began, dropping buckets of rain. The fire was arrested, then doused. Lost Brook Tract lost about fifty to seventy feet of virgin forest, the fire line just brushing the northeast corner. By a miracle of timing, almost all of Lost Brook Tract was saved.

Far more important, the rainstorm also saved Keene and Keene Valley from certain destruction and put out the other three fires as well, but not before they had burned much of the remaining virgin timber in the area. Lost Brook Tract’s virgin forest had become much more precious and unique.

The damage in the Adirondacks was immense, unimaginable to the modern hiker. There is some dispute about the numbers, but in all there were more than 640 fires which burned over 460,000 acres. Hikers reported the Marcy Trail was nothing but blackened destruction. The better parts of many mountains including Dix, Cascade, Porter, Noonmark, Round and Giant were black (Giant was burned even more badly ten years later).

The carnage of the 1903 fire season, followed by another terrible season in 1908, led to a host of reforms and initiatives to prevent, patrol and better fight fires, including installation of the iconic Adirondack fire towers. The last great fire year in the Adirondacks was 1913. Today we hike all the environs described in this dispatch and more, largely unaware either of the immense damage that once was omnipresent or the equally immense and heartening recovery that the forest, supported by ardent conservation, protection and the bravery of generations of women and men who fight fires, has achieved.

Photo: Giant Mountain (and its Nubble in front), Round Mountain, and Rocky Peak Ridge from Noonmark, taken after the 1903 fire (courtesy William Joplin).

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

3 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    Fascinating history !
    One never realizes the power of these fires till they are closely examined.

    I can remember hearing tales back in the 60s at Scout camp of the 1903 fires and how they eradicated the Sabattis train depot.

    To this day, rather chilling when one contemplates the power of Nature.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks. I was under the impression (incorrect perhaps) that this was mostly a man-made event. If that is not true than this is simply a part of the “forever wild” landscape, and probably an important part. As much as I hate to see my summer home burned to the ground if this kind of thing starts naturally than it should be allowed to burn. Forever wild is just that “forever wild”.

    What do we think? Should we mess with these “powers of nature”?

  3. scott says:

    Somehow I missed this when it originally came out. Great article! “In early May a fire started near the West Branch of the Boquet River.”…
    The Boquets, today are North and South branches not East and West. Do you have any other info on that location?