A year ago last April I wrote about the Spring 1903 fire season during which nearly half a million acres burned in multiple fires throughout the Adirondacks. The largest fires were in Keene and North Elba; these had a personal relevance to me as they ringed Lost Brook Tract. The one sweeping into the heart of the High Peaks from the north came within six minutes of consuming the entire tract before drenching rains stopped it.
Thanks to meteorological luck as much as the brave and exhausting work by men and women fighting their advance, the 1903 fires did not result in major losses to towns or settlements. But there were incredibly close calls: the same drenching rains that saved Lost Brook Tract also saved Keene and Keene Valley from certain destruction: so imminent were the blazes in at least two directions that their heat could be felt and ash blanketed the hamlets. Residents had buried their belongings and fled; only fate gave them homes to which to return
The 1903 fires caused a great deal of damage to the Forest Preserve, much of which is still visible today despite more than a century of recovery; the bare summit of Cascade Mountain is one of the more notable examples. But surprisingly, though the scale of the fire season was immense, historians tell us that public sentiment towards the fires remained largely as it had always been, namely that fires were “Acts of God,” unfortunate features of natural life comparable to floods or tornadoes. The relative lack of property loss in 1903 helped keep this point of view in ascendance (though poor Henry Van Hoevenberg, whose original Adirondack Loj was burned to the ground that spring, undoubtedly had a different opinion).
Ironically, from an ecological perspective this sentiment was not entirely incorrect, but whatever the ecological benefits of forest fires the accumulated devastation that season was completely unnatural in scope. We know without question that most of it was either caused or accelerated to major blazes by human activities. From railroad sparks to farmers burning their fields to thousands of acres of slash left behind from logging operations with full crowns of trees dried to brittle tinder in the wind, Adirondack activity at the turn of the twentieth century showed an appalling disregard for the dangers of uncontrollable fires.
All of that changed in September of 1908. The second terrible fire season in five years caused such massive damage that at last people started to think about their own contributions to the problem instead of simply chalking the fires up to fate. That’s because tragically this time civilization was not spared. The most destructive of the 1908 fires, started by sparks from a railroad engine like so many fires of the time, swept directly toward a settlement, Long Lake West. On September 26th the fires began raining embers and flaming branches in the streets; people and horses alike barely escaped with their lives as the entire town, containing more than twenty structures including dwellings, businesses, a church, a school and a railroad station, was incinerated. Long lake West was renamed Sabattis in the 1920’s. A rebuilt school and train depot are all that mark what was once a thriving community.
After the loss of Long Lake West the State of New York moved aggressively to do something to prevent disasters of that scale from happening again. Railroads were required to use oil not wood during fire season, sparks arrestors were mandated, loggers had to limb down slash, fire districts and patrol officers were established and a system of fire towers was conceived, the first going up in 1909.
These measures and reforms largely ended the era of big fires in the Adirondacks, but not before one last year of devastation. Too little was in place just yet to cope with another tinder-dry fall season, this in September 1913, exactly one hundred years ago. In the middle of more than a month of precipitation-free weather a lightening bolt ignited the shoulder of Dix Mountain, almost exactly in the same place and manner that one of the main 1903 fires had begun.
Initially concern was not that great. As related by artist Harold Weston in his written account of the fires (published in his collection of stories Freedom in the Wilds), the flames were slowed by the damage done and fuel that had been consumed ten years prior. But before long, driven by strong winds and low humidity, they spiraled out of control. Once again St. Huberts and Keene Valley were threatened with doom.
With little organized manpower to combat the blaze an appeal was made to President Woodrow Wilson for federal troops, this plea attempted undoubtedly because Wilson had been a repeat visitor to the St. Huberts area and patron of the Ausable Club. According to several contemporary accounts there was little belief troops would come, as at that time fighting fires was not on the military’s resume. But come they did, camping in Keene Valley not far from Putnam Camp, which literally stood between the oncoming inferno and the Keene Valley settlements in the fire’s path.
What happened next makes for quite a story. Luckily for us, Putnam Camp has extensive archives along with a dedicated archivist who maintains them and knows what they hold. In this case they hold fascinating and poignant writings from September of 1913 which tell the story of the fire as seen through the eyes of two remarkable women. Next week I will finish the story of the 1913 fires as related in the accounts of Marian and Frances Putnam.
Photograph: Army tents near St. Huberts. Photograph courtesy of the Keene Valley Library archives.