Saturday, May 2, 2020

History of Arab Mountain – Beyond the Fire Tower

Arab Mountain (or, more often, Mount Arab) is a 2,539-foot peak located in the Town of Piercefield in St. Lawrence County, almost five miles west of Tupper Lake and nine miles east of Cranberry Lake.
The hike to the summit is relatively easy and short (a two mile round-trip), and one can climb the steel, 35-foot Aermotor fire tower (built in 1918) and enjoy the beautiful panorama of the Adirondacks from the cab. Just across from the fire tower is the old observer’s cabin which has been restored and turned into a museum. The museum, established by the Friends of Mt Arab (FoMA), contains a wealth of information on the use of Arab Mountain for fire observation. The cabin is open when the summit steward is on duty, from the late spring to early fall. In regard to peak-bagging challenges, it is part of the Fire Tower Challenge and the Tupper Lake Triad. (Editor’s note, fire towers are currently closed due to COVID-19, and the Fire Tower Challenge is temporarily suspended
Much of the history given here is prior to Arab Mountain being established for fire observation in 1911. I delve into the history of its name, appearance on nineteenth-century maps, and use in early surveys. I also briefly discuss a nearby peak that is virtually unheard of and is unmapped: Gull Pond Mountain.

For a well-written, detailed history of the use of Arab Mountain for fire observation, see Martin Podskoch’s “Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, the Northern Districts.” I also defer to Fred Knauf of the New York State Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA), the resident expert on fire towers, as well as FoMA, for more information on Arab Mountain in this context.
In regard to the ancient land tracts, Arab Mountain is located in Lot 54, Township 3, in Great Tract No. 2 of Macomb’s Purchase. Knowing the location of a peak on a land tract map can give one clues as to whether the peak was used in a survey, such as Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey. For example, if the boundary line of a major land tract (e.g. the Totten & Crossfield Purchase), township, as well as a county or town, runs over or near a peak, then chances are that peak may have been used as a signal or triangulation station in the (re)survey of that line.
What’s in a name
At this point, I will go into the topic which I think interests people the most about Arab Mountain: how did it get its name and when?

Arab Mountain shown on the NYS DEC’s “Adirondack Map” (1985). Arab Mountain is in Lot 54 of Township 3, in Great Tract No. 2 of Macomb’s Purchase
(Source: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

To begin with, there is absolutely no evidence the peak was named in regard to the Arab world. According to FoMA, the name of the peak is believed to the a result of an inaccurate translation of the French word for “maple,” which is érable (pronounced “aye-ra-bl”). In this case, the ‘l’ was omitted and the pronunciation of é (“aye”) changed to æ (as in “cat”). I have been unable to find any historical document, such as a newspaper article, which referred to this mistranslation of érable. Furthermore, I have been unable to find any reference to Mont Érable, Mount Maple, Maple Mountain, or similar. However, I believe I uncovered enough information to give one an idea of when the name for the peak came about, and the possible connection to maple trees.

Before the Town of Piercefield was established in 1900, it was part of the Town of Hopkinton. According to John Homer French’s 1859 “Gazetteer of the State of New York,” the Town of Hopkinton was entirely wilderness except for the extreme northern part and a small tract by “Tuppers Lake” (Tupper Lake). A footnote for this tract notes that this tract was purchased on October 23, 1853 by Charles G. Atherton, John H. Gage, and Daniel H. Dearborn of Nashua, N.H., Eldridge G. Read and William D. Beason of Chelsea, Ma., and Moses A. Herrick of Boston, Ma., for its lumber. This was also noted in the 1873 “Gazetteer and Business Directory of St. Lawrence County, N.Y.” by Hamilton Child. The township was called Mortlake, but also went by the name of Atherton. In the spring of 1858, thirteen families settled in Mortlake/Atherton, with the intent of forming an agricultural settlement. Charles G. Atherton (1804-1853) was a U.S. Senator who was a close friend of President Franklin Pierce and author Nathaniel Hawthorne. No further biographical information could be found on Atherton’s associates.

Andrew E. Rogerson’s 1858 “Map of St. Lawrence Co., New York” shows the Mortlake township in Township 3, in the Town of Hopkinton. Although Arab Mountain is not denoted on the map, inscribed near Pleasant Lake (today’s Mt. Arab Lake) is “Nashua Land & Lumber Co.” (see figure). I could find very little about this company, except for a reference to it in “The Massachusetts Register” (Issue 91, 1857), where Moses A. Herrick is listed as “agent.” For a zoomable version of Rogerson’s map, see

E.A. Merritt’s 1858 map “Atherton, St. Lawrence County, New York, Township No. 3, Great Lot No. 2, Macomb’s Purchase.” This is the earliest map found denoting “Arab Mountain.” Note the reference to maple timber on the northeast side of Arab Mountain.
(Source: NY Public Library Digital Collections)

The earliest map I could find denoting “Arab Mountain” is Edwin A. Merritt’s 1858 “Atherton, St. Lawrence County, New York, Township No. 3, Great Lot No. 2, Macomb’s Purchase” (see figure). This map was drawn for the survey of the Mortlake/Atherton township, which commenced in 1853 by J.E. Potter and completed in the winter of 1857-8 by Merritt, a surveyor from the Town of Colton in St. Lawrence County. One will note the reference to maple timber on the northeast side of Arab Mountain on the map. Merritt also denoted “Arab Mountain” on his 1860 “Map of the Racket River between Stark’s Falls and Tupper’s Lake.”

Thus, the name Arab Mountain appears to have come about around 1857, around the time of the company established the township of Mortlake/Atherton. As for the origin, the reference to maple timber on Merritt’s 1858 map lends further credence to the idea to the érable (maple) connection. Could there have been French-speaking people involved in the Nashua Land and Lumber Company, or who assisted Merritt in his survey, who referred to the peak as, say, Mont Érable (Mount Maple) or similar? I acknowledge this is speculation but beyond this, I can find no other reasonable explanation for the name “Arab.”
In writing, the earliest mention I have seen of the peak is in the January 2, 1872 edition of “Courier and Freeman,” in which Arab Mountain is referred to as the “Arab” (in quotes).
In his 1860 classic, “Woods and Waters, or, the Saranacs and Racquet,” the famous author and poet, Alfred Billings Street (1811-1881) described his travels in the Tupper Lake region. In particular, Street mentioned boating along “Tupper’s Lake” (Tupper Lake) and seeing Mount Morris (which one of his guides, Harvey, said was also called “Tupper Lake Mountain”) to the east, and “Gull Pond Mountain” along the western shore. This struck me, as this peak is not present on any of the U.S.G.S. maps of the area, nor any maps in general. The only other text I have seen Gull Pond Mountain mentioned is in E.R. Wallace’s 1876 guidebook “A Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks.” Wallace described Gull Pond as lying at the base of Gull Pond Mountain. Gull Pond is less than a mile from the eastern shoulder of Arab Mountain.
At first, I thought Gull Pond Mountain may have been another name for Arab Mountain. In fact, a 1941 newspaper article claimed it was. However, Street says that the peak is along the western shore of Tupper Lake; Arab Mountain appears too far off the western shore. Wallace denotes “ARAB MT.” in the 1876 edition of his “Map of the New York Wilderness” (which accompanied his guide). Finally, in the 1894 edition of his guide, he mentions both Arab Mountain and Gull Pond Mountain, separately. In conclusion, Gull Pond Mountain could not have been another name for Arab Mountain. Gull Pond Mountain may be the unnamed peak at (44.1979, -74.5404), which is much closer to the western shore of Tupper Lake and is about three-quarters of a mile southwest of Gull Pond. The eastern-most sub-peak of the Arab Mountain ridge, located at (44.2052, -74.5565), was also considered a candidate for Gull Pond Mountain, as it also overlooks Gull Pond, but it considering that Street said the peak was along the western shore, I considered the peak at (44.1979, -74.5404) to be the more likely candidate.
In regard to surveys, I could not find any mention of Arab Mountain by the surveyor Verplanck Colvin, famous for the Adirondack Survey and State Land Survey of the late nineteenth century. Colvin must have taken note of Arab Mountain but chose Mount Morris instead for his survey of Tupper Lake. Morris, which is higher in elevation than Arab, has a more extensive view of Tupper Lake and the surrounding region than Arab. This may partly explain why Colvin chose Morris as a triangulation station. I verified the viewing area from Morris compared to that from Arab employing a Viewshed Analysis layer on each in (see figure). In the figure for the viewshed analysis I included for this historical profile, the viewshed from Arab is red and that from Morris is blue. Clearly, the viewshed from Morris is much more extensive, especially across Tupper Lake!
The U.S. Geological Survey established Arab Mountain as a secondary triangulation station around 1901. According to the U.S.G.S. report “Results of Primary Triangulation and Primary Traverse, Fiscal Year 1901-02” (1902), the station was situated on a “partly cleared mountain.” The station mark was a bronze triangulation tablet cemented in solid rock, located near where the fire tower is today. The NGS data sheet for Arab Mountain (PID PH1676) says that this disk is not stamped, and is cemented in a drilled hole in an outcrop of bedrock on the western slope of the mountain.
I conclude this historical profile by noting that Mt. Arab Lake and Eagle Crag Lake, located to the south of Arab Mountain, were once called Pleasant Lake and Eagle Crag Lake, respectively (see the portion of the U.S.G.S. Tupper Lake, N.Y. quadrangle map from 1907, which I include here). These beautiful lakes are easily viewed from a rocky outcropping to the west of the fire tower.
Editor’s note: This post first ran in “History and Legends of the Adirondacks”: Reprinted by permission.

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John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.

One Response

  1. Alan Tarbox says:

    I lived in Piercefield for 60 years. Born in Tupper Lake and lived in Piercefield all my life until I became a full time RVer. Never heard of Gull Pond Mountain. Everybody that we knew called it Station Mountain. Thank you for your very informative history of Mt. Arab and Station – Gull Pond Mountain. My earliest knowledge of the name of Mt. Arab was that it was anglicized from the French “erable”.

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