A striking old black and white photograph of a Forest Ranger posted on the NYSDEC Twitter feed recently caught my attention and captivated my imagination. The tweet read “Ranger w/pack basket putting up Canoe Carry Trail sign. Raquette Falls in the (Adirondacks) 1949.”
The ranger had a striking pose, wearing a Stetson, boots tightly laced half way to his knees. The ranger’s face was hidden from view, not surprising for a profession, that – especially then – toiled in the outdoors, their daily routine invisible to the public. I quickly tweeted back “Do you know who that is?” Unfortunately no one did.
The Raquette Carry sign and the photo date narrowed down the possibilities to three or four rangers. The most likely choices were James Bickford and Orville Betters. Louis Curth’s The Forest Rangers: A History of the New York State Forest Ranger Force (1987) listed Ranger Betters as having worked until 1948 and Jim Bickford beginning his career in 1949. I had seen photos of Jim Bickford before. He competed in four winter Olympic Games in bobsledding, capturing a bronze medal in 1948. This ranger appeared to be shorter than Ranger Bickford, based on the many historic photographs that exist of him. A retired ranger thought it may have been Clint West, the Colden Forest Ranger during the 1930’s whose image appears in another iconic photo, but Raquette Falls was in a district Ranger West didn’t regularly work in and he retired in 1946. Perhaps the year was incorrect. Researching further I found a relative of Ranger Betters who supplied me with a family photograph of him and his wife, taken in Saranac Lake. It looked like a match. Then, retired Ranger Captain Paul Hartmann, who has organized a website on Forest Ranger history – nysforestrangers.com – provided me with a 1947 issue of Conservationist. There was the same photo of the mystery ranger and an array of photos of the ranger I now could clearly identify as Orville Betters. The year was indeed 1947.
“Distinguished by broad brimmed Stetson hats, dark green uniforms and an embroidered pine tree on the left sleeve, this little band of public servants is thinly scattered throughout the state,” the article read. Written in the fashion of the era, it recounted the great Adirondack fires of 1903 and 1908 and emphasized the role of the ranger. It also pointed out their other responsibilities, “Day or night summer or winter, Rangers must be prepared to meet such emergencies-fires, lost persons, accidents, plane crashes.” Some things have not changed at all, I thought. I had a name to a face, but who was Ranger Betters? I found an obituary from 1949. He died when he was only 50 years old, having been a ranger for 15 years. District Forest Ranger William E. Petty eulogized ranger Betters in Conservationist, “It can be said of him as it can be truly said of few others, that his entire life was devoted to a love and understanding of our forests and lakes and mountains-and the wildlife that lives in them. His way of life and his many good deeds will always be remembered by those of us who knew him.”
That lavish praise was bestowed upon a man who patrolled what we now call the Western High Peaks Wilderness. This is one of the most remote and rugged areas in the Adirondacks. Looking intently at the photos I could envision myself paddling with him, portaging around Raquette Falls, navigating the winding river, straightening out the turns as much as the current allows.
Betters was a periodic guest of the Hermit Noah John Rondeau. A 1946 edition of the Knickerbocker News had a photograph of Ranger Betters standing next to the famous hermit. Apparently he would bring Rondeau’s mail in from Coreys. “Noah sees few persons, and among his friends are the two forest rangers who stop by every few months.” The caption reads. He even accompanied Noah on at least one of his trips to the Sportsman’s Show in New York City. I could not find any reference to him in the annotated portion of Noah’s diary, included Maitland C. De Sormo’s biography of Rondeau. However, there are two photos of them together, one next to a helicopter at the Saranac Lake airport and the other at the hermitage.
Just as forest rangers are today, Betters was involved in many emergency incidents in the mountains and lakes of the Adirondacks, which most likely included the search for six-year-old Joseph Fromaget in 1944. The son of the observer on Mt. Morris, Fromaget wandered away from the cabin and tragically, was found dead 12 days later. It was probably the largest search in the history of the Adirondacks up to that point. The location suggests that Betters must have been involved, as over twenty rangers participated, but official documentation does not exist so I can only speculate on his role.
Betters’ role was documented, however, as Incident Commander in the search and recovery operations associated with of one of the most tragic boating accidents ever to occur on Lake Placid. In 1941, Calvin Pardee III, a Pennsylvania industrialist, was taking passengers back to his camp at night in his Chris Craft. Approaching Hawk Island, on the east side of the lake, the Pardee’s boat collided with a much smaller boat with no navigational lights that was travelling in the same direction. The Chris Craft impacted the stern on the port side of a boat driven by Robert Beers. The force of the impact threw most, if not all of the passengers from Pardee’s vessel into the lake. One person, Kate Johnson, was found dead shortly after the impact, apparently from trauma received by a propeller. Another passenger, William Whitehead was badly injured, with a compound fracture of one arm and lacerations to his hip. His wife Isabel was unaccounted for, and remained missing in the waters of Lake Placid that night.
The search resumed at daylight for Mrs. Whitehead and involved state and local police, and volunteers, including the village’s mayor Luke Perkins. There were articles of clothing still attached to one of the boat propellers. It was believed to be from the dress worn by Kate Johnson. Searchers methodically crossed the lake, trolling with grappling hooks behind their boats in an attempt snare the young woman’s body. Betters was likely placed in command because he had experience and success with this type of mission in the past, having recovered the body of a young man who drowned in Upper Saranac Lake in 1940. Late in the day, searchers hooked into something substantial and began bringing it to the surface. It was the body of Mrs. Whitehead. Just as the searchers had believed, and like Kate Johnson, she suffered severe cuts from the propeller.
The following year, 1942, Ranger Betters played a pivotal role in the search for the lost Royal Canadian Air Force, (RCAF) training squadron. Originating at St. Hubert’s Field near Montreal, the flight originally included eleven planes on a night time training mission. Well off course, one by one, four planes fell to earth in the Ragged Lake Mountain and W Mountain area near Owls Head. This area contained rich iron ore deposits, known to wreak havoc with magnetic compasses. No single aviation disaster in Adirondack history, before or since, involved so many downed planes. Word of the crash and of survivors came when one of the pilots, Flight Officer E.A. Wilson, reached civilization, travelling on foot while his injured colleague lay unconscious in their wrecked Harvard trainer. The New York State Police received the initial call and Forest Rangers, Game Protectors, locals and the RCAF also responded. The Forest Rangers used their new state of the art portable radio system to talk with ground crews in the field. Forest Ranger pilot Fred McLane located three of the four planes from the air. The fourth and final plane took longer to find. Ranger Betters was the first person to reach the last plane on foot, where he found the bodies of both pilots.
While his early death cut short his career, with relative ease one can find the impact Orville Betters had on the people and resources of the Adirondacks. The simple black and white photograph of a stoic ranger working in the woods inspires those who follow in his footsteps today. His time was undoubtedly filled with many enjoyable days patrolling the wilderness. When he was called to duty for an emergency, however, he applied his accumulated knowledge with skill and expertise. Whether he was responding to smoke rising from a distant hill or locating a lost hunter, Rangers Betters was there to help. Today, Forest Rangers patrol the Adirondacks in just the same way, learning the lay of the land and nuances of the landscape that can only be gathered from living a life in the woods.
Photos: Above, Ranger Orville Betters posting a canoe carry sign at Raquette Falls (courtesy NYSDEC’s The Conservationist); below, Ranger Orville Betters (courtesy Don King).