Thursday, September 20, 2018

Adirondack Wildfire: The Destruction of Long Lake West

Damage by Laura Von RoskOver the years I have put my canoe into the waters at Low’s Lower Dam (constructed 1907); and paddled the meandering Bog River Flow up to Hitchins Pond.

I have carried around Low’s Upper Dam (built in 1903*), many times. I usually choose to camp on Low’s Lake, so I keep on going. But occasionally a day paddle and a short hike around Hitchins Pond is in order. It’s on these day paddles that I often walk the road (actually the old Maple Valley Railroad bed), as part of the Horse Shoe Forestry Company, constructed by Abbot Augustus “Gus” Low in 1900. If you know where to look, there are “sidings” where A. A. Low’s sugarhouses were located.

A. A. Low owned forty-six thousand acres of Adirondack Forest lands, from the Village of Long Lake West (Sabattis), north to Piercefield (approximately 12 Miles along William Seward Webb’s Mohawk and Malone Railway, later the New York Central, Adirondack Division). Low connected his railroads (the Maple Valley Railroad and the Wake Robin Railway) with William Seward Webb’s at Low’s Horse Shoe Lake station. A. A. Low shipped his forest products (logs, maple syrup, spring water, wine, and vegetables) by rail all along the eastern seaboard. In 1907, it was reported, that A. A. Low produced 20,000 gallons of maple syrup.

Today, as I look out over Hitchins Pond and the Bog River Flow from Lows Ridge, or turn and look back towards Lows Lake it is hard to believe that in 1908 this entire forested landscape was divested by fire. All that remained standing were charred trees and burned stumps. Almost all of A. A. Lows Horse Shoe Forestry Empire was gone.

The Forest Fire started in early September of 1908, a few miles south, and when it was over the forest and everything in it was almost totally destroyed from Lake Lila to Piercefield and as far west as Cranberry Lake.

The summer of 1908 had been very dry, and the dry summer turned into an extremely dry autumn. According to newspaper reports as well as Conservation Commission annals there had been spotty fires along the New York Centrals Adirondack Division railway corridor all that summer. Steam locomotives of the day often burned coal and sometimes wood. Sparks could, and often did ignite the dry tops of felled coniferous trees (slash) along the rail right-of-way. While locomotives were required to have spark-arresting screens on their smoke stakes, the regulations were seldom enforced. This perfect storm of drought, sparks, and very dry tinder led to the conflagration of Sunday, September 27, 1908.

A series of small fires had been burning just south of the small logging town of Long Lake West (today known as Sabattis) since the 6th of September. Railroad crews, logging crews, and concerned residents had been working on a five-mile earthen fire line to contain the fires, and they thought that by Sunday the 27th of September any real danger had been averted.

One newspaper reported:

. . . Winds which blew up from the south on Saturday fanned to life, and beyond control, many fires which had been smoldering for weeks in various parts of the woods and sent the flames raging through the timbers. About the hamlet of Long Lake West, which is on the railroad, nineteen miles from the village of Long Lake (not on the railroad), fires had been smoldering and when the rising wind Saturday stirred them up and sent sheets of flames through the woods. The hamlet [Long Lake West] on the railroad was doomed. . . .

Many men were out fighting the fire, along the railroad and back in the woods, but the futility of their efforts at once became apparent when the wind sent the sparks flying through the air. Wherever a spark fell it was sure to start a fire, and with the whole country literally as inflammable as a pile of dry excelsior, the breeze soon put a rout to the men who had been frantically trying to keep the fire within bounds. . .

. . . At four o’clock Saturday afternoon it was seen that Long Lake west was doomed. The woods lit up in all directions the smoke was choking everybody and the town was sizzling hot. Notwithstanding all the fighting and the watching, the sweep of the fire over the station was sudden terrifying.

Preparations were at once made to leave the village and an engine of the railroad was the rallying point for the whole population of the settlement. The flight of the crowd was a scene picturesque in the extreme and one that will long live the memory of those who witnessed it. With the country turning to flames all around them, their homes beyond saving, white-faced women and sobbing children climbed upon the cars and with such few belongings as they were permitted to take, fearfully watched the clouds of smoke rolling up and the embers shooting over them.

The buildings burned were: A large hotel conducted by Mr. Smith and owned by A. A. Low, millionaire of New York city: Monyhan & Company general store, the railroad station, post-office (Sabattis post-office) and office building, a pool room and barber shop, seven dwellings, fifteen box cars used as boarding houses for railroad men who were engaged in fire-fighting and ten freight cars which stood on a siding. The total population was over a hundred.

Most of the refugees were landed at Horseshoe station, a few miles north of the fire-swept hamlet, and the rest twenty-five in number, were taken to Tupper Lake Junction, 19 miles north of the station at which the conflagration centered. Those who were left at Horseshoe were the men engaged in fire fighting for the railroad company.

In the path of the fire at Long Lake West there was a storehouse, which contained four tons of dynamite. The fire reached the storehouse in due time and the explosion, which followed tore down telephone and telegraph wires and a section of railroad track.

Rain began to fall about 10 o’clock Monday morning. The downfall was not very heavy, but it served to check the fires and they were now under control.

Another extensive account of the fire appeared in The Tupper Lake Herald, October 2, 1908, “The Destruction of Long Lake West”. This report went into great detail of the damage one by the fire.

. . . The fire train was backed out of the yard and up the track towards Horseshoe. It was not a moment to soon, for the ties had begun to burn and the train barely left the station when there was a traffic report, and the half-ton or more of dynamite had exploded. The concussion was plainly felt in Horseshoe and Little Tupper Lake, four and ten miles away respectively. . . .

. . . The day after the fire Long Lake West was a scene of desolation. A few of the inhabitants had returned and were vainly hunting over the ruins for valued articles that they hoped in some way might have escaped the intense heat and flames. Nothing remained of the village that a few hours before was a busy and prosperous community, but heaps of charred embers, while miles around in every direction were the blackened stumps of trees denuded of branches and limbs.

burned forest The terrific heat generated by the fire was quickly apparent. Barrels of nails were melted into lumps, while nothing remained of the lines of freight cars but tangled masses of bent and twisted iron. Event the rails of the main line were burned away. Here and there were the bodies of animals . . .

. . . For miles on both sides of the railroad track the woods were utterly ruined, presenting a grim picture of destruction. Trees that were but a short time ago resplendent with their thick foliage stand out like blackened telegraph poles with their leaves and branches burned away while the top soil has been burned off exposing the rocks beneath. Strange to say there were occasional clumps of timber, which in some unaccountable way seemed to escape the fury of the fire.

The Wilderness Inn, which was owned by Mr. Low, was one of the best-known hotels in the woods. It was three stories in height and, like all other buildings in the village made of wood. Adjoining it was a large barn, and in the rear in connection with the hotel two cottages, icehouse, barber shop and post-office buildings well as a new electric lighting power plant . . . .

Not until the fall of rain on Monday night were the people of Horseshoe free of fear. The Fire that destroyed Long Lake West went westerly crossing the Bog River at Second Pond and continued to Lake Marion. Mr. Low and his family were at camp Marion and intended to go south that night, but were hemmed in. The destruction of the camp for a while seemed certain. The fire stopped within a quarter mile of the house. Mr. Low is a heavy loser by the fire. . . .

Lows Ridge looking towards the southeast

There were also newspaper reports that smoke from the fires could be detected as far south as Albany and as far north as Quebec City. The New York Times reported that the city was clouded over for days. The clouds held “not a drop of rain, The over head cloud pall was merely smoke from the Catskills, smoke from the Adirondacks, smoke from Maine, smoke from Massachusetts.” The captain of a Conard Lines ship, Mauretania reported a huge bank of clouds over New York City and visibility so reduced that foghorns sounded to help navigate the great ship into the harbor.

There has always been two Forest Fire seasons in the Adirondacks. The first, In the spring (April and May) after the snowmelt and before the trees “green-up” there is a period when the spring winds dry out the previous falls leaves and dead and downed vegetation is very flammable often the result of “fallow fires” (land clearing). The other fire season is the late summer, early fall (September and October) especially after a long summer drought.

The Long Lake West Fire was not the first major forest fire in the Adirondacks, nor would it be the last. But the fire in 1908 caused the most property damage. There had been a major fire in 1880. And there had been fires in the spring of 1903, centered in the Lake Placid area with other fires in Schroon Lake, Lake George, Newcomb, and Saranac lake regions. Nor would the Long Lake West (1908) fire be the last. In May 1910 fires broke-out in Piercefield and another in the Cold River region. In late September of 1913 a huge fire broke out in the High Peaks (Chapel Pond and Keen Valley area). Rainstorms finally extinguished all of these fires. (The 1916 Conservation Commission Fire Protection Map of the Adirondack Forest shows many of the fires of this period, and is available online.)

Fire Observation Tower c 1920s Logging operations across the Adirondacks by the 1880’s were often near railroads. Other than river drives, loading logs on flatcars was the only other way to get logs to market. But there were great fire dangers. Locomotives often burned wood or coal to generate steam. Although there were laws requiring spark arrestors (screens) on smoke stacks, loggers often ignored them. In addition loggers seldom took the time to cut-up the tops of trees of the trees they fell. There were often piles of tops ten to fifteen feet high. The un-lopped tops (slash) became huge piles of very dry tinder needing only a spark to ignite. Once ignited these piles of treetops became an inferno. If railroaders were required to burn only oil and if loggers were required to cut-up the tree tops the threat of forest fire was cut radically.

The first Superintendent of Forests, William F. Fox (1840-1909), advocated for a much more aggressive plan to stop forest fires in both the Adirondacks and Catskills by early detection and control.  Superintendent Fox, prior to his untimely death in 1909, proposed to the Governor and State Legislature the plan that included the erection of manned fire towers; a new paid “forest guard” service (Forest Rangers); a “top lopping law”; new regulations for railroad locomotives to burn oil, rather than wood or coal; and reforestation projects.  In 1909 Governor Charles Hughes signed the legislation that would, over time, bring about sweeping changes in forest safety.

* Michael Kudish, after examining photographs of the locomotives and rolling stock as the dams were being constructed, reported he found the Upper Dam was constructed in 1903, and the Lower Dam was constructed in 1907.

Images, from above: Contemporary painting of a Forest Fire, “Damage” by Laura Von Rosk; map detailing the area of the Long Lake West Fire courtesy AdirondackAtlas.org; burned forest provided by Conservation Commission; photo from Low’s Ridge towards the southeast, Long lake West/Sabittis by Mike Prescott; and Fire Observation Tower(s) -c. 1920’s provided by Conservation Commission.

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Mike Prescott is a former history teacher and secondary school principal who found a new retirement avocation in paddling Adirondack waters and exploring their history.

Mike is a New York State Licensed Guide, and also volunteers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the Raquette River Blueway Corridor, the New York State Trails Council and with the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Feel free to contact him at mjpaddler@gmail.com





2 Responses

  1. Roy Crego says:

    Nice history.

  2. Kathy says:

    …and even better the recovery of the area. Makes the paddle there a path into history.

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