Monday, August 8, 2016

The Rising Elevation of Stillwater Mountain

1912-18 First fire tower on Stillwater Mt. Built atop an Adirondack Survey signal tower. (Photo courtesy Maridee Rutledge.)At an elevation of 2,264 feet, Stillwater Fire Tower in northern Herkimer County has never been a beacon for tourists. It’s not even modestly high compared to the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet.

Since 1912, Fire Observers on Stillwater Mountain needed a high tolerance for isolation and resistance to boredom. Until the fire tower closed in 1988, the annual number visitors ranged from 145 to it’s record of 618. Before the mid-‘50s, when the Big Moose Road was completed, the only access to the tower trail was by boat from the Stillwater Reservoir. Even then, only hard-core hikers who would tolerate eight or twelve miles of dirt road from Number Four or Big Moose Station, enjoyed the tower’s views.

Nonetheless, views from Stillwater Fire tower have far surpassed more popular towers. Stillwater offers clear views of Mount Morris (Big Tupper), Whiteface (66 miles distant), Santanoni, and Mount Marcy. And unlike other Adirondack mountains, Stillwater can see 195 wind turbines on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau that captures Lake Ontario’s westerlies.

A volunteer group, Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower, (FSFT), partnered with the DEC in 2009 to restore the tower, but without financial backing, plans and enthusiasm faded. Then in 2015, financial support for the purchase of all materials and their transport to the tower was assumed by DEC Region 6.

With renewed energy, volunteers worked four days in the fall of 2015, spearheaded by Stillwater locals. In spring 2016, five work days saw the restoration completed, and a “Grand ReOpening” took place Independence Day weekend. Over 250 people attended, eager to take in views of the High Peaks and Maple Ridge Wind Farm from the tower and and also to hear why Stillwater now calls itself a historic site.

Original 1882 Station 77 copper bolt stolen from Stillwater Mt. found in NJ in 2013, and returned to NYS DEC in 2015. (Photo FSFT)In December 2014, two articles by Pete Nelson about the discovery of an 1882 copper survey marker from Station 77 of Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey, were published in the Adirondack Almanack. Kyle Kristiansen found the marker with his metal detector in 2013 in a lawn – in New Jersey! The location of Station 77, however, remained a mystery.

In February 2015, Jim Vianna, a surveyor and head of the “Colvin Crew” found a previously undiscovered list of Colvin’s Primary Triangulation Stations in the DEC archives. On that list was Station 77, Stillwater Mountain.

No one seems to have known the history dating back to the 1880s. No one noticed the hole bored into the bedrock beneath the tower that once held the 1882 survey marker. Visitors only recall seeing the two National Geodedic Survey benchmarks installed in the 1942. No oral history today explains that borehole once held a survey marker imprinted: N.Y.S. ADIRONDACK SURVEY. VERPLANCK COLVIN SUPT. 1882 Sta. No 77. The original Station 77 marker found by Kyle Kristiansen in New Jersey is now in safe keeping at the Wanakena Ranger School.

Unrecognized by recent generations, Stillwater Mountain was a Primary Triangulation Station. Verplanck Colvin made periodic Reports of the Adirondack Survey to the New York State Legislature from the 1870s through the 1890s. In his 1883 report, Colvin details that West Mountain near Raquette Lake, and Woodhull Mountain near Woodhull Lake were established Primary Triangulation Stations. To the north and west, Colvin’s survey crews had difficulty locating mountains high enough to easily pinpoint. Finally, he writes, “a mere blue, hazy particle, barely visible through a notch in the forest-covered hills … proved to be our old acquaintance — Stillwater mountain on the Beaver river”.

The New York State Digital Archives in Albany contain an image with an obtuse title: “Central Adirondack Triangulation Network Diagram with Primary Triangulation Station Names.” This “network diagram” is actually a map. Strong magnification reveals a gem of historical importance. It is a beautifully detailed, hand drawn map of the Adirondacks: from Lower Saranac Lake and the Great Corner in the north, down to Speculator and Forestport in the south, and from Tug Hill in the west, to Fort William Henry and Schroon Lake in the east.

There, in red ink, are ruler straight lines connecting Woodhull Mt., West Mt., and in tiny delicate script, “Stillwater Mt.”, just as described in Colvin’s 1883 Report. Stillwater Mt. is also triangulated with Mt. Cloud-Cap (now Lewey Mt.), Mt. Morris (Big Tupper). Gomer Hill on the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau and a hill north of Croghan, (both outside the Adirondack Park which was not created until 1895), were also triangulated with Stillwater.

This map has no date or identified cartographer, and the Primary Triangulation Stations are not identified by number. It is speculated that this map dates to 1882, Colvin’s most productive year in his survey of the Adirondacks.

StiSignal tower rebuilt in 1908, with Carol Fox’s grandparents, Clarence and Louise Churchill Shaver, and great-grandfather Henry Churchill in 1910. (photo Shaver-Churchill album)Stillwater Mountain has been the site of two fire towers, and at least two signal towers. The newest fire tower is the recently restored steel tower from 1919. The first fire tower was a log observation tower from 1912 that was constructed over an earlier signal tower, thus, resembling a “double decker”.

That earlier signal tower was a 25 foot tower constructed in 1908, according to the Utica Observer Dispatch. Built by Stillwater residents with observation platform and flag atop, it replaces a tower erected “by State engineers” that had fallen down “several years” before.

The earliest tower of at least four towers on Stillwater Mt. was likely an unmanned signal tower. Under the present-day steel tower, is the bore hole that once held the Station 77 copper survey marker, or bolt. No tell tale “feet” or drill holes for a surveyor’s transit were found on the summit’s bedrock. We can see four holes holding steel in lead, in the shape of a square with the empty marker hole in the middle. These are what remain of steel eyes for anchoring cables to hold a signal tower steady against the elements. Atop a peaked tower, anchored into the bedrock, and similar to ones that Colvin drew in his Reports, spun a revolving pinwheel type signal that reflected the sun as it spun in the breeze. A surveyor looking through a transit or theodolite from Woodhull Mt., West Mt., Cloud-Cap Mt., or Mount Morris, could see the Stillwater Mt. signal flashing in the sunlight atop Signal Station 77.

So, multiple towers for both surveying and forest fire observation have stood on Stillwater Mountain since 1882, when Verplanck Colvin, Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, established Primary Triangulation Station 77 on Stillwater Mountain.

Stillwater Mountain is now elevated in status among mightier peaks as a historic site, and now we can brag about our views and our history.

Stillwater Fire Tower in 2016 has already broken the annual visitors record. On opening day, over 250 people visited, and two weeks later there was another 500+. How’s that for raising our elevation!!!

Photos from above: 1912-18 First fire tower on Stillwater Mt. Built atop an Adirondack Survey signal tower, courtesy Maridee Rutledge; Original 1882 Station 77 copper bolt stolen from Stillwater Mt. found in NJ in 2013, and returned to NYS DEC in 2015, courtesy FSFT; and Stillwater Signal tower rebuilt in 1908, with Carol Fox’s grandparents, Clarence and Louise Churchill Shaver, and great-grandfather Henry Churchill in 1910, courtesy Shaver-Churchill album.

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Jim and his wife Carol live with their twelve resident neighbors at Stillwater. Carol’s Shaver and Churchill family reaches back to 1901 at Stillwater. Jim has been the organizer of Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower since 2015. Boating on the reservoir, hunting, biking, hiking, x-c skiing and boring people about ferns are his outdoor activities.

5 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    I enjoy looking at 19th C. topo maps and comparing them to today’s maps and ground features. I wonder how accurate Colvin’s information is compared to surveys done by laser instruments over the same ground.

    Also, since the weight of the glaciers has been long lifted from the Adirondacks, how much the land has risen since Colvin’s time. On a program about the Great Lakes, it was noted that land around the lakes is still rising, which I can’t help but think is happening in the Adirondacks, too.

  2. John says:

    I climbed the tower 3 weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed the day with family. Thanks for leading the effort to restore the tower. Everyone in the Western Park should take a day to visit Stillwater and climb the tower

  3. Nate says:

    The Colvin triangulation map can be found at the following link, along with other current and historic maps of Stillwater Reservoir.

  4. SS says:

    The hike was great for my 5 year old son and I, but the drive there was absolutely brutal and destroyed my car. I’ll never do it again unless they do something to that road. I live on dirt roads but that one has ripples that are horrendous 🙁

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