Sunday, July 1, 2018

Azure Mountain’s Fire Tower Centennial

azure mountain The first time I went up Azure Mountain, it was because I’d read about it in a trail guide – it was only a mile hike so I thought it would be pretty easy. The trail started out very gradually, passing a small clearing with an old stone fire place and a picnic table. (I would later learn that’s where the fire observer’s cabin was located.) But after that, the trail became steep. Only a few switchbacks, then practically straight up the mountain – a 900+ foot elevation gain in a pretty short distance. On one stretch there were even a couple of bare poles, leaning at rakish angles, with insulators on the top. (They once held the telephone wire that went up to the fire tower).

It was a sullen, overcast November day. I met a couple of young guys on their way down, but when I got to the summit – out of breath – I had it all to myself. The low cloud ceiling seemed just above my head. It’s a partially wooded summit with a broad expansive 180+ degree view to the east and south from open rock ledges. Most of the High Peaks were in sight, appearing to touch the clouds. The rusty old fire tower just stood there in solitude. Windows were broken out, with shards of glass scattered on the rocks below. The 2 sets of lower risers were missing and there was graffiti spray-painted on one side. It just looked sad. I enjoyed studying the view with what seemed like miles and miles of forest stretching as far as the eye could see. Not a house in sight. Somewhere below the middle branch of the St. Regis River wound it’s way down to St Regis Falls in the north, and on to the St. Lawrence River.

On that day, I did not have a thought about the fire tower. It was junk. It didn’t belong on this wild, beautiful mountain summit. But things would change. By August 2001, my hiking companions in the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club found out that the DEC was planning to dismantle and remove the Azure Mountain fire tower, probably in September. The Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Architectural Heritage, as well as smaller “friends” groups had been forming to save other Adirondack fire towers. Little did I know that I would be caught up in this movement and that my perspective would spin 180 degrees to become a passionate supporter of fire towers! September 11th happened and the state police helicopters were diverted to more important things than helping the DEC remove aging fire towers. That allowed us the precious time needed to rally and form the Azure Mountain Friends. Apparently, if an educational purpose could be developed for a fire tower, which was not in designated Wilderness, then the state would allow the tower to remain.

The rest happened quickly. The tower was nominated for the State and National Historic Registers. The Azure Mountain Friends met regularly, incorporated as a not-for-profit, had members from the local St. Regis Falls/Santa Clara area, many from Canton and Potsdam, and even fans from further north in the St. Lawrence valley. This little mountain turned out to be surprisingly popular. A fund-raising campaign started, I designed the logo and built a website, and by 2003 the state had come through with assistance to restore the tower. Freshly painted with steps replaced and iron angle window framing (minus glass), there was a Restoration Celebration held on September 27, 2003 and the Azure Mountain Fire Tower was officially reopened to the public. We had already developed a volunteer summit steward program, assembled and published a small Azure Mountain summit guide book, had patches made and t-shirts printed, and even started a scholarship program to involve are young people as summit stewards.

Lawrence BaileyThrough this experience, I learned so much about how a “place” can inspire people and can develop passions that span generations. I met a man who single-handedly hiked Azure over and over, through every season, and documented the trees, plants, berries, wildflowers, birds and animals that lived at the various elevations. Just because he wanted to! He explained to me how there were tundra-like plants on the bare summit because it was so exposed to the harsh winds of winter. I visited another man whose father had been a Ranger and who had spent much of his youth hanging out on Azure Mountain. He recalled being pulled out of grade school to help fight a forest fire! I found stories published by the St. Regis Falls Historical Society about how one of the Fire Observers had been in the cabin when there was a lighting strike that raced down the telephone line and nearly electrocuted him and a visitor. I learned that one of the Observers could do a handstand and drink a beer! People have been engaged or spent their honeymoon on the mountain. As one of the Summit volunteers, I met families who returned to climb Azure every year, and did so with multiple generations. It really means something to a lot of people.

Fast forward to today. These steel Aeromotor towers were anchored to the bedrock by steel bolts encased in concrete footers. On one of Azure Mountain’s footers this was inscribed in the wet cement: W. H. Finney, Keeseville 7/29/18. That is 1918 when the footer was poured. One hundred bitter cold winters, shrouded in frost. One hundred years of fierce winds scouring the rocks. Black flies, black bears and blueberries on the summit. And one hundred years of change! Unregulated timber harvesting to the State Land Master Plan. Fire observers spending lonely hours scanning the horizon for plumes of smoke to no real need for fire towers.

The Azure Mountain Friends are having a Centennial Celebration on July 29, 2018. There will be some guest speakers and a ceremony on the summit at 10 am. Then there will be a party, display, slide show, presentations, sharing of memories, cake, refreshments at the Adult Center in St. Regis Falls at 2 pm. Everyone is invited. The AMF have also launched a Centennial Fund campaign, our first fund-raising effort since the original one in 2001, and are accepting donations to help support the education, maintenance, and scholarship programs. I have donated the above painting and raffle tickets are available, with the winner to be drawn on July 29. The hundred year old tower appears to be in excellent shape, but there is no guarantee how long the steel structure will be safe, so we want to be prepared in case repairs are needed and the state cannot do it. We have received a grant from Parks & Trails New York to fund publicity for the Centennial Celebration, the replacement of the safety fencing along the 5 sets of risers, and for some trail work on the summit to help control erosion.

So, if you have a place in your heart for Azure Mountain, or fire towers, history and the Adirondacks in general, or just like helping out grass roots organizations, the Azure Mountain Friends need you! We are always in need of volunteer summit stewards. We try to have someone on the mountain every weekend from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Tax deductible donations would be most welcome. More information, raffle tickets, and donations can be made through our website, AzureMountain.org. And please come to our party and help us celebrate the last 100 years and kick off the next 100 years of the Azure Mountain Fire Tower.

Photos, from above: Azure Mountain painting by Sandra Hildreth; and Lawrence Bailey.

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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting.

Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

Sandy’s work can be seen on her website sandrahildreth.com.




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