Saturday, June 29, 2013

50 Years Ago: The 1963 Giant Mountain Landslide

One of the many cars caught by the flood on Route 73

One of the many cars caught by the flood on Route 73

Fifty years ago, on June 29, 1963, a thunderstorm stalled over Giant Mountain. Heavy rain saturated the thin soil near its summit, gradually weakening its hold on the smooth anorthosite surface.

It was a Saturday: several hikers and campers were on the mountain. Three thousand feet below, traffic – some of it from a wedding just over in Keene Valley — passed up and down the long hill on Route 73 that offers a glimpse of Giant’s Roaring Brook Falls.

This account is about what happened that day to the people who had just arrived at an old family camp at the foot of the mountain.  It’s called Putnam Camp, and the manager, Dick Upjohn, with his wife Sabra and their three small children, were there to start opening the place up for the summer.  There are several cabins and such, bounded on the east by a small brook, then called Beede Brook after the farming, inn-keeping and mountaineering family of earlier days, later called Putnam Brook after one of the families who bought out the Beedes in 1876.  Just a bit farther to the east is the summer home of Day and Nancy Lee, which lies between Putnam Brook and Roaring Brook.

Here, with just a few alterations and additions, is what Dick wrote in our camp log that summer:

It began sprinkling about 3:00, but about 4:30 it began raining in sheets. Sabra returned from shopping in the Valley and reported that the front drive was washing over the highway. About 5:30 there was a long sustained rumble like thunder, which lasted for maybe a minute or so. We went to the door of our cottage in time to behold a chocolate colored mass of water and mud, maybe a foot high, sweep out from under the trees by the Chatterbox and head toward us. [The cabins here often have whimsical, “in-joke” names; this one briefly housed, in 1909, three colleagues of one of the Putnams: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sándor Ferenczi.]

The flood washing past the Woodshed Cottage

The flood washing past the Woodshed Cottage

What had happened was this: In an hour it had rained 3 3/4 inches at Camp [according to Dick’s new rain gauge] and perhaps more on the top of Giant. [A local U.S. Weather Bureau report estimated at least six inches.] This mass of water had loosened the soil and caused major landslides on the face of Giant. These slides tore down the mountain, cutting a swath 30 to 100 yards wide and taking trees soil and boulders with the water to the point where the Giant trail crosses Roaring Brook. Then the slide divided. The major part of the slide continued down Roaring Brook, over the Falls, and down to the highway, where the trees and debris soon blocked the bridge; and the waters, having no other place to go, swept out onto and down the highway, right across our bridge and down the highway another hundred yards or so before sliding off into the brook on the west side of the road. When I reached the highway perhaps ten minutes later, the water was still rushing by in front of our drive, perhaps a foot or so deep, although it was no longer carrying tree trunks. They were strewn along the road. When I first saw it, it would have been worth a man’s life to cross the highway.

Route 73 a half-hour after the flood surged onto the highway

Route 73 a half-hour after the flood surged onto the highway

Looking south along Route 73 from outside Putnam Camp

Looking south along Route 73 from outside Putnam Camp

Meanwhile, the minor part of the slide, or flood, had cut sharply to the right (northwest), taken advantage of a low point in the ridge dividing the watersheds of Roaring Brook and Putnam Brook, and crossed the ridge, descending a steep gully and meeting our brook perhaps 500 yards above Camp. Thence it came barreling down our brook, trees and all, until the trees finally jammed at a point 50 yards above the Doctor’s House and directly opposite the woodshed. The waters then dammed up, overflowed, and spread out through the Upper Camp, carrying mud, sand, and minor tree debris. It was part of this overflow that we saw. As it came down through the Upper Camp, it, in turn, split into two main channels. The lesser one came down the logging road to below the Stoop, then down the edge of the garden, and back into the brook by the Shop. The greater amount of water came against the P.A. [Parent’s Assistant, next to another cabin called The Nursery], down under the edge of the Chatterbox and Woodshed Cottage [the manager’s residence, formerly the Camp’s main woodshed] before swinging away down along the edge of the Chatterbox hill towards the Wheelers [our next-door neighbors on the Keene Valley side of Camp].

Some ten minutes after the flood came down, when I was convinced that the worst was over, I ventured out to see what was happening. Mrs. Art Newkirk used our phone to call the Valley and alert the authorities as to what had happened. Her husband had seen the flood coming and drove up our driveway just in front of it. I judge the flood, its leading edge, did not come at a breakneck pace, perhaps slowed down by the mud and trees it was pushing. Once they [the mud and trees] had been deposited, the waters moved plenty fast. From Mrs. Newkirk I first heard of the flood on the highway and went down to see. Four cars were stranded just above our bridge. The occupants of one, a couple with two small children, had come down the road across the bridge but were now stranded, very much frightened, just across the road from our driveway. They were helped to cross about thirty minutes later when the waters subsided.

Looking north on Route 73

Looking north on Route 73

The subsidence of the stream at our drive was caused not by so much as a lessening of its volume, but because a few trees had become jammed across the road and against the power pole at the far side of the bridge and dammed it up so that the main body of water was diverted on both sides into our brook. This formed an uneven bridge that the active and agile could cross, and an hour or so later a group of young men from the Valley crossed to go to the aid of the occupants of the other three cars. They had scrambled to a bit of high land near the Nielson field on the far side of the road, and the boys formed a human chain and brought them, including four elderly people, over to the rear side. The water was still swift, and one man had his feet swept out from under him just as he was supporting the stoutest of them. They both went down but were caught before they were carried away….

In Camp the damage was light, all things considered. Apart from the water line, which had the upper 200 feet destroyed and the pipe broken in three-to-four other places, and the footbridge, the most serious damage was to the P.A. The flood broke open the rear door and filled the building with mud and debris to a depth of two feet….The Doctor’s House john shed was knocked loose slightly. Most of the rest of the Upper Camp was covered with mud, sand, etc., to depths varying up to a foot, although some choice spots, such as the path from the Ark to the Stoop, the ferns below the Stoop, and the Campfire were untouched. The Lower Camp was virtually unmarred….

The P.A. was the only cabin damaged by the water and mud.

The P.A. was the only cabin damaged by the water and mud.

Inside the P.A. after the flood

Inside the P.A. after the flood

The cleaning out process commenced immediately. Susan Lee [who presided over Camp], Ruth Hayward [the “housekeeper’], and the choregirls arrived Monday, July 1. They had to stay at Pru Taylor’s [a B & B in the Valley] overnight, because of the uncertain state of the water. They came up Tuesday a.m. to start opening cabins. Meanwhile, Dick Upjohn and Matt Hale [the “choreboy”] commenced a massive digging-out operation….

July 19: Carl Putnam and Chuck Dean [two of the guests] took a good look at the muddy waters pouring under the footbridge and decided that this business of Roaring Brook emptying into Beede Brook have to stop. They gathered crowbars, shovels, and we set off up the Giant. Jim Goodwin and some other kindhearted mountaineers had started the job of returning Roaring Brook to its bed, but there was more to be done. Our crew spent a happy morning rolling rocks with such effort (and success) that by the time they were finished, it would take a good rise in the volume of the stream before any part of it could roll over the ridge to disturb our dreams.

Av63_RBrook_Falls_SeptJuly 22-27: This week was wholly set aside to work under the leadership of Gordon and Sara Glenn [guests who were volunteering their labor instead of vacationing.] Elmore Edmunds sent up a truck and men, and they spent three days cleaning up around the Nursery and P.A., carting away load after load. [Guests] painted the P.A. floor, cleaned the furniture, fixed and rehung the doors, and operated on the ancient Franklin stove.]

July 28: The P.A. was opened for guests after a full-scale ceremony.

Remarkably, the highway department repaired the collapsed portion of Route 73 at Roaring Brook by Wednesday, July 3, just in time for the long holiday weekend.

Remarkably, the highway department repaired the collapsed portion of Route 73 at Roaring Brook by Wednesday, July 3, just in time for the long holiday weekend.

That concludes Dick Upjohn’s account of the flood. When I arrived two months later, I saw all the remarkable changes.  First of all, Roaring Brook Falls was no longer modestly surrounded by trees:

Above the falls (but I don’t recall where), Roaring Brook trickled through this ugly field of boulders and debris.

There was one positive result from this event, and every local climber knows it: Many new slides to climb on Giant, including a new one — the Bottle Slide, easy to spot in this photo of Giant taken from the Ausable Club golf course in the summer of 1950.

Giant_fr_Club_golf_course1950And again in 1963 from the same location.

Thirty years later, on August 12, 1993, two Putnam Campers, climbing Dix on a rainy day, were less lucky than the hikers on Giant in June 1963: they were almost swept away by the avalanche that created a wide new slide on the north face of the mountain. They recorded what they saw in the Camp log book: “We beat through the spruce thicket as high as we could, seconds before rocks, mud, and water tore into the bottom of the slide exactly where we had been standing, and scattered live trees like pick-up sticks.”

Giant_from_golf_course1963Then in the spring of 2011, when the Ausable River and Champlain Valley were flooded, houses started sliding down Little Porter.  With huge rain storms apparently becoming the “new normal,” I wonder if LiDAR or other such technology could be used to help us predict and possibly prevent future landslides.  At the very least it might show us where we should not build.

Note: To read more about the 1963 slide, see Christ Knight’s excellent article “A Giant Landslide”.  It is also worth hunting down Landon G. Rockwell’s “The Great Avalanche on Giant,” in the Sep.-Oct. 1963 Adirondac (the magazine of the Adirondack Mountain Club).

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

4 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    My father, Jim Goodwin, not only noticed the diversion of Roaring Brook into Beede Brook but also alerted the State Conservation Department (now DEC) in Ray Brook that Roaring Brook Falls would no longer be a regular falls due to the diversion. This resulted in many forest rangers spending two weeks building a substantial dike that has so far diverted Roaring Brook back to its original course. I checked this dike after Hurricane Irene, and it survived just fine (water may have briefly overtopped it) to continue with the original intent.

    Otherwise, thanks for the historic photos of the road in the immediate aftermath.

  2. That’s a wonderful first-hand account. This happened right before my father came up and purchased property in Upper Jay, before I was born. I remember hearing about it as a child. I’d not seen these photos, but garnered a few other off historical collections on the net; then there was Jim Goodwin’s account of the event.

    The damage to Giant after Irene wasn’t as substantial as in 1963. i think the largest change to any of the slides was with the Tulip Slide. The former bushwhack from Roaring Brook to the slide proper was previously a steept climb up a moss-slick brook. It’s now a splendid scramble up a double fall line.

    Most of the runout had also regrown in the ensuing years. Irene carved a new swath of destruction through the new growth, though it wasn’t nearly as wide.

    I had a hunch that you might be contributing a first-hand account of this when you suggested it on the Slide Bottle post. Thanks so much for this! Well done.

  3. Dave Mason says:

    I was 10 years old then and we had just arrived in Keene Valley for the summer that afternoon. We had unloaded the car and were sitting on the screened porch during the storm, but not taking any special note of it. But our place was off Airport Road, just north of the hamlet and it didn’t get the rain that Giant did. So we had no idea what had happened except the phone was out – which wasn’t all that unusual.

    It was the next day before we knew about it. We were stunned by the damage that such a localized storm could cause. It was a mess, but nothing compared to Irene’s impact two years ago.

  4. Sally says:

    Great article, Bill! And some amazing photos! So glad to see you post for the Almanack!

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