We tend to think of air pollution only occurring in cities, especially over a century ago when there were no air pollution regulations in place and the industrial revolution was in its hey-day. But it appears that air pollution plagued city-dwellers wherever they went.
I spent a day at the Adirondack Museum reading through the camp diary of the Stott family on Raquette Lake (1882-1900). One of the first entries in 1882 is a remark that it was the year of the ‘Yellow Day’ because for a week or so the sky had a peculiar yellowish color to it and the sun hung in the air like a hazy red ball, obscured by fire smoke that filled the atmosphere.
This same phenomena occurred again in 1894. Mrs. Stott (or Commodore Stott, I’m not entirely sure) clipped an article and glued it to a page from the diary entry in 9/2/1894. It said, in brief, “the sun shone red in the sky but cast no shadow. …it was a dark day…lights were necessary in the cabins and churches even during the day and it left an uncanny feeling and fear.”
The Stott’s diary entry from 1894 also reveals how wide-spread the fires were. The writer says that the fine ash falling on the ladies’ skirts as they rowed back to camp from church on St. Hubert’s Isle was coming from Loon Lake (in Franklin County). The air, the writer states, was heavy, thick, and there was no breeze to clear it.
Indeed, forest fires were so far-reaching in the late 1800s to mid 1900s that in some instances the smoke reached New York City. I found a New York Times article (1903) titled “Forest Fires Make the City Miserable”. It mentions that ‘Yellow Days’ that annoyed New Yorkers in 1881 and again in 1894 were causing New York City to go dark. The cause? The forest fires in the Northern woods of New York and Vermont. The reasons for the fires? Numerous.
In the spring, the slash left behind by lumber companies, and ‘duff’ (dead pine needles and leaf litter) builds up on the forest floor and provide perfect kindling for a fire. Another cause a century ago were the steam powered locomotives traveling through the mountains. Sparks would fly from the un-screened smokestacks, landing in the forests along the way. The locomotives also dumped coal embers along the tracks which could easily start a fire. Eventually, the fine for a railroad company found not to have screens on their smokestacks was only $100.00. Hardly enough of a penalty to induce action. And it didn’t take much if the conditions were dry and a wind picked-up an ember to light a fire that would spread.
The Stotts kept copious notes on the weather conditions (that and the fish catch that year) and there are quite a few references between 1882-1894 to forest fires, a thick and heavy atmosphere, and hazy sky. It is interesting, when put into perspective, the irony of the situation. People were By then, people were beginning to travel to the mountains to escape the smell and stench of the thriving industrialized cities, only to arrive in the mountains and find civilization intruding once again on their pleasure.
Photo: Above, smoke from Quebec fires cloud Lake George in 2010 (courtesy Enid Mastrianni); and below, the Stott diary.