Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Azure Mountain – Beyond the Fire Tower

Azure Mountain is a 2,518-ft peak located in the Town of Waverly in Franklin County, about 1.5 miles west of the St. Regis River and almost four miles east of the St. Lawrence County line. Although it is a short, easy, one-mile hike to the summit, you gain about 1,000 feet on the ascent. On the summit is a steel, 35-foot Aermotor fire tower built in 1918 (pictured here). From the cab of the tower, you can enjoy a beautiful panorama of the northern Adirondacks, the High Peaks, and the hills of the St. Lawrence region. In regard to peak-bagging challenges, it is part of the Fire Tower Challenge. (Editor’s note: Fire towers are currently closed due to COVID-19.)

Much of the history given here is prior to Azure Mountain being established for fire observation in 1914. I delve into the history of its name, appearance on maps, its use in early surveys, and the lodge which once stood at its base: the Blue Mountain House. 

For a well-written, detailed history of the use of Azure Mountain for fire observation, see Martin Podskoch’s “Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, the Northern Districts.” 

Location in the Ancient Land Tracts & State Land

In regard to the ancient land tracts, Azure Mountain is located in Township 13 (also known as Dayton) of Great Tract No. 1, of Macomb’s Purchase. It appears to be situated in the corner of Lots 36, 37, 41, and 42. 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.

In regard to New York State land, Azure Mountain is located in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest (DMWF). DMWF is located in the northeastern part of the Adirondack Park, north of Paul Smiths, and is entirely within Franklin County.

U.S.G.S. quadrangle denoting Azure Mountain.

Name Origin

When it comes to the history of a fire tower peak, undoubtedly the second-most interesting topic to many is the name origin of the peak (also known as its toponym). With Azure Mountain, I will work backwards, since the peak was not originally known by that name. It was originally named “Blue Mountain.”

According to Podskoch, when the fire observation station was established in 1914 (as per the State Conservation Commission’s 1914 annual report), the State already had a fire observation station on Blue Mountain in Hamilton County. To prevent confusion, they re-named it “Azure Mountain.” This name change was not reflected on U.S.G.S. maps until about fifty years later, when “Azure Mountain” was denoted on the 1964 Lake Ozonia, N.Y. U.S.G.S. quadrangle map (1966 printing). Its last appearance as “Blue Mountain” was on the 1961 Ogdensburg, N.Y. U.S.G.S. quadrangle map.

From Colvin’s notebook of diagrams of triangulation stations, the diagram for “Mt. Azure” (“Blue Peak of St. Regis”). Inscribed at the top of the diagram is “Blue Mt on St Regis River. Angles taken December 12th 1882.”
(Source: NYS Archives Digital Collections)

Although many of us know “azure” is the name for a shade of blue, the Conservation Commission very likely did not come up with that name simply because it was synonymous with said color. The present name goes as far back as 1882, when the famous surveyor Verplanck Colvin used the peak as a triangulation station for the Adirondack Survey (which I will discuss in further detail in the next section). In Colvin’s 1883 survey report for field work done in 1882, in which he described how “Mt. Azure” fit in the survey of the northern Adirondacks, he noted “the important summit named Mt. Azure situated among the Blue Hills on the lower St. Regis.” By “lower St. Regis,” he meant the St. Regis River. In Colvin’s notebook of diagrams of triangulation stations, the diagram for “Mt. Azure” has inscribed on it “Blue Peak of St. Regis.” Furthermore, in his 1882 “Progress Sketch of the Primary Triangulation,” Colvin has “Blue Mt.” denoted as a triangulation station, which is then scratched out in red pencil and overwritten with “Azure.”

As far as the name “Azure” goes, I have been unable to find a use of this name in reference to the peak prior to Colvin’s 1883 survey report. Thus, given Colvin’s propensity for naming – and renaming – peaks, there is a strong likelihood that he originated the name for his Adirondack Survey. Surely, the Conservation Commission knew of his work and decided to leverage the name in 1914.

Had it not been for the name-interference by Blue Mountain of Hamilton County, we would likely still be referring to Azure as “Blue Mountain.” For those who ask, “What is the name origin of Blue Mountain?” I will try and address this.

According to Duane Hamilton Hurd’s 1880 text, “History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, New York,” the name of Blue Mountain “doubtless suggested itself to the early settlers from the fact that the summit always appears of such an intensely blue color.” During the year which Hurd’s text was published, the Town of Waverly was established on November 22nd, formed from the northern Town of Dickinson. Prior to this, literature and maps referred to Blue Mountain as being in Dickinson.

Hurd notes that in 1859, Chauncy (or Chauncey) Merrill “settled under the shadow” of Blue Mountain, by the St. Regis River. The earliest mention of Blue Mountain I could find, in writing, is in the August 23, 1866 edition of “The Malone Palladium.” The newspaper announced that “Mr C.B. Merrill” recently opened a house at the foot of “Blue Mountain” (quoted) in Dickinson, which was to cater to sportsmen visiting the area. It went on to say, “If you want a good time, go into the Blue Mountains.” The earliest map I could find denoting Blue Mountain is in the 1876 “Atlas of Franklin County” by D.G. Beers & Co., followed four years later in Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1880 “Map of the Adirondack Wilderness” (which was intended for travelers). It is note denoted in the 1858 “Map of Franklin Co., New York” by Taintor, Dawson & Co.

Merrill’s sportsmen’s lodge at the foot of Blue Mountain would be known as the Blue Mountain House, which I will delve into the history of later in this historical profile. It was not uncommon for people who lived near a peak, especially owners of lodging, to christen it with a name. It is possible that, as an early settler of the area, Chauncy Merrill may have come up with the name for the peak, based on its appearance. However, this is uncertain, so we will have to settle with Hurd’s more indefinite claim of the name origin.

An Important Role in the Adirondack Survey

The year 1882 would see Azure Mountain playing an important role in Verplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey. At the time, the State held no records of surveys of the boundary lines between Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties. There was also no record of the location of the joint county corner where the southern lines of both counties meet with the north line of Hamilton County. As a consequence, an accurate map of Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties could not be drawn.

Verplanck Colvin’s 1882 “Progress Sketch of the Primary Triangulation,” showing the lines-of-sight from the station on Azure Mountain to Debar Mountain, Whiteface Mountain, and Mount Morris.
(Source: NYS Archives Digital Collections)

Rectifying these problems meant extending the network of survey triangles (i.e. the triangulation network) of the Adirondack Survey northward and westward toward the St. Lawrence River. The starting point for this extension was Mount Morris, a 3,316-foot peak just west of Tupper Lake and five miles northeast of the aforementioned, critical joint county corner. Colvin established Mount Morris as a triangulation station on November 27, 1882.

ASIDE: Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly. Triangulation was used by Colvin for the accurate surveying and mapping of the Adirondacks. A triangulation network is an interconnection of such triangles.

Although Azure Mountain is much more distant from the joint county corner than Mount Morris, it would prove important to locating the northern part of the Franklin-St. Lawrence County boundary line, given its proximity to it. Within Colvin’s notebook of triangulation station diagrams is a diagram for “Mt. Azure,” which he also refers to as the “Blue Peak of St. Regis.”  Inscribed at the top of the diagram is “Blue Mt on St Regis River. Angles taken December 12th 1882.” Thus, Colvin must have been on the peak on that date. From the diagram, we see that Colvin measured angles (via a theodolite transit) to stations on Mount Morris, Blue Mountain (of Hamilton County), Mount Seward, St. Regis Mountain, Whiteface Mountain, and Debar Mountain. Many of these lines-of-site are noted in Colvin’s 1882 diagram “Progress Sketch of the Primary Triangulation.”

During his field work in 1882, Colvin established the following primary survey triangles of which Azure Mountain is a point:

Mt. Morris – Azure Mt. – Whiteface Mt. (used for the survey of the northwestern Adirondacks)

Azure Mt. – Debar Mt. – Whiteface Mt. (used for the survey of the northern Adirondacks)

Azure Mt. – St. Lawrence – Debar Mt. (used for the survey of the northern extent to the St. Lawrence River)

The 35-foot high signal station built on Azure Mountain, constructed of heavy spruce timbers, from Verplanck Colvin’s “Report on the Adirondack and State Land Surveys to the Year 1884” (Source: “Report to the Superintendent”, New York (State) State Land Survey, 1886, Google Books)

The “St. Lawrence” point pertains to the triangulation station at the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation by the St. Lawrence River, near the Canadian border. Collectively, the three triangles helped establish a complete chain the primary triangles from the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers to the St. Lawrence River, “affording, ultimately, a series of base-lines and meridian-lines the entire length of the wilderness, correcting, testing and binding together all the detached portions of survey work, and the great mountains serving as perpetual monuments of reference and record to the boundaries of the ancient patents and the lines governing assessments and taxation in the border regions.”

Colvin would revisit Azure Mountain in 1883. On September 16th, Colvin commenced doing angular measurements from the summit to remote signal stations with a theodolite transit. Colvin noted the summit commanded such a wide view that he could see more than thirty signal stations established as part of the Adirondack Survey. Using barometric measurements, he established the elevation of Azure Mountain as 2,582 feet – 64 feet short of today’s accepted elevation. He would re-ascend the peak the next day to obtain additional angular measurements.

The signal station built on Azure Mountain for the Adirondack Survey was at least thirty-five feet high and constructed of heavy spruce timbers.

The Blue Mountain House

The Blue Mountain House, which sat under the shadow of Blue Mountain (our Azure Mountain) is not as renowned as the other Blue Mountain House of Hamilton County, which now resides on the property of the Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake. Nonetheless, it is still a part of history of the St. Regis River region and, therefore, worth describing. 

As I noted in the section “Name Origin,” the original proprietor of the Blue Mountain House was Chauncy (or Chauncey) Merrill, who settled at the eastern foot of Azure Mountain in 1859, near what is known as the Sixteen-Mile Level of the St. Regis River. According to the 1860 census for Dickinson, Franklin County, “Chauncy P. Merrell” was married to Ann, and lived with their two children, “Grunneth” (“Gwyneth” misspelled?) and Frederick, and whom may be Chauncy’s father, Charles. Chauncy’s place of birth is listed as Canada East. It appears he registered for the Civil War draft in June of 1863, although whether he fought in the war is unclear.

In the August 23, 1866 edition of “The Malone Palladium,” it was announced that “Mr C.B. Merrill” recently opened a house at the foot of Blue Mountain. The Blue Mountain House was to serve as a lodge for sportsmen. The newspaper also noted that Merrill erected an observatory about fifty feet high! The purpose of this observatory, higher than today’s fire tower (assuming the height was not exaggerated), is unclear. It should come as no surprise if guests were permitted (if not encouraged) to climb to the observatory to enjoy the beautiful Adirondack panorama from the top, much the way hikers do today from the cab of the fire tower.

The Blue Mountain Hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1869, but Merrill rebuilt it. An ad in the May 12, 1870 edition of “The Malone Palladium” for the Blue Mountain House described it as a “commodius hotel, three stories high, with all the necessary barns and outbuildings nearly completed.” The hotel also provided twenty boats for sporting purposes.

Merrill’s hotel met a fiery fate again in October of 1871, where the furniture was reported to be a total loss. According to Edwin R. Wallace in the 1872 edition of his travel guide, “Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks,” Merrill rebuilt his hotel again. It appears that Merrill continued to be the proprietor of the Blue Mountain House up to 1879, for Seneca Ray Stoddard notes in the 1879 edition of “The Adirondacks: Illustrated” that he wrote i his notes from 1879, “Merrill’s Lodge, at the foot of Blue Mountain.” In Charles Suydam’s 1880 guidebook, “The Sportsman’s and Tourist’s Guide to the Hunting and Fishing Grounds and Pleasure Resorts of the United States and Canadian Provinces,” the author says that Henry Phelps is the proprietor of the Blue Mountain House.

Thus, somewhere between 1879 and 1880, Chauncy Merrill sold the house to Henry Phelps. Merrill passed away on December 18, 1878; he is interred at the North Dickinson Cemetery. His death notice in the December 27, 1878 edition of the “Franklin Gazette” was this simple sentence:

“Chauncey Merrill, the well-known sportsman of the blue mountain region, is dead.”

The second proprietor of the Blue Mountain House, Henry Phelps, was born in October of 1847 in Vermont. According to the State Census of 1875, Phelps was married to Sarah Ann and they had a son, Arthur. 

According to Verplanck Colvin’s 1885 survey report, on September 15, 1883, he made the rough ride of 38 miles from the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation to “Phelp’s at the foot of Mt. Azure,” arriving near midnight exhausted and fatigued. As I noted in the prior section, Colvin would climb Azure Mountain the next day to make angular measurements to remote signal stations from the summit.

Henry Phelps would sell the Blue Mountain House to its third proprietor, Darwin J. Day, in 1895. Phelps died from tuberculosis on July 16, 1913.

Darwin J. Day was born in Nicholville, St. Lawrence County, on January 22, 1859. With his wife, Esther, they had three children: Earl F., Ethel D., and Darwin R. (as per the U.S. Federal Census of 1900). When Darwin passed away from heart failure on April 30, 1918, his obituary in the May 3, 1918 edition of “The Republican-Journal” noted he was still he proprietor of the Blue Mountain House at the time of his death. Under his charge, the Blue Mountain House was described as:

“a well equipped hotel providing accommodations for about one hundred guest, was a popular resort, not only with the city people coming to the Adirondacks for rest and recreation, but with hunters and fishermen of southern Franklin county and St. Lawrence counties, who frequented the place in large numbers during the early spring and late fall.”

According to the February 27, 1914 edition of “The Tupper Lake Herald,” when the fire observation station was being established on Azure Mountain, Darwin supplied the poles for the telephone line to the station free of charge.

Following his death, Darwin’s wife, Esther, moved to Plattsburgh, and his son, Earl, assumed ownership of the Blue Mountain House. 

According to the September 8, 1932 edition of “The Republican Journal,” the well-known guide Ira A. Weller, served as a guide for the Blue Mountain House when Darwin J. Day was proprietor.

In late August of 1925, the “Blue Mountain House and Farm” was purchased by its fourth proprietor, Eugene M. Elliot of Washington, D.C., as a summer home. Elliot intended to remodel the building and convert it into an attractive summer house. He then intended to build one of the largest hotels in the Adirondacks on the property. 

On June 1, 1932, the Blue Mountain House met an incendiary death. According to the June 10, 1932 edition of “The Potsdam Herald-Recorder,” the main building, annex and several small buildings were leveled to the ground, causing an estimated $20,000 of loss (which was partially covered by insurance). At the time of the fire, the Blue Mountain House was closed, having fallen on hard times and shut its doors in 1929. According to the December 19, 1929 edition of the “Tupper Lake Herald & Adirondack Mountain Press,” all of the furnishings of the Blue Mountain House were sold off during a sheriff’s sale. When the fire occurred in 1932, fire observer Ray Whitcomb sounded the alarm.

In July of 1932, Paul Lemieux of St. Regis Falls purchased the 611-acre tract on which the Blue Mountain House resided, as an investment. 

For a historic photo of the Blue Mountain House, see the following web page from Azure Mountain Friends: http://azuremountain.org/azurehistory.htm.

 

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John Sasso

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.




5 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    Thx John. Have ascended and climbed the tower — quite a feat at the time — I was getting old. We came home that evening having cooked a 6# pot roast in the oven at low heat all day — all of us were famished, the roast disappeared ! We have an oil by D.Winters looking from the peak towards the SW hanging in our dining room.

  2. Any mention of Earl Forkey,he was a fire watcher on azure mtn in 60’s who climbed the mtn twice daily to watch be the forest. He was a neighbor of mine in Srf when I was young boy

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      No, because this historical profile pertains to the history of Azure Mountain outside of fire observation. The author Marty Podskoch does a superb job of discussing the history of fire tower peaks when it comes to fire observation, so I highly recommend checking out his books on this matter.

  3. Jim Fox says:

    Excellent explanation of Colvin’s “Diagram Network”, John. A well-rounded portrayal of Azure’s history and surroundings.

  4. William says:

    Thank you for the article John. Grew up there, and still have a camp at the base of the mountain. Part of the stone foundation to the Blue Mt House still exists and the some of an old stable near the bathtub still exists.

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