Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Belfry Mountain – Beyond the Fire Tower

Belfry Mountain is a 1,864-foot peak located in the Town of Moriah in Essex County, just over 0.6 miles south of the Moriah-Elizabethtown town boundary and near the old iron mining communities of Mineville and Witherbee.
This runt of a peak is a popular destination for those working on the Fire Tower Challenge. It is often combined with other hikes in the region given the short, 0.4-mile hike along a gravel road from the trailhead off Dalton Hill Road, in which one ascends an “incredible” … 137 feet! Although there is not much for views from the summit rock itself, the cab of the 47-foot steel tower lets one view a beautiful panorama of the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Champlain Valley, and the High Peaks region.

Much of the history given here is apart from Belfry Mountain’s historical role in fire observation. I discuss the name origin of peak and the people connected with it. Thus, like the trail to the summit, this historical profile is short and sweet. For a well-written, detailed history of the use of Belfry Mountain for fire observation, see Martin Podskoch’s “Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, the Northern Districts.”

Belfry Mountain shown on the NYS DEC’s “Adirondack Map” (1985). The peaks appears to be located around Lots 43 and 44 of the Iron Ore Tract, but is actually located on Lot 46.
(Source: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

Location in the Ancient Land Tracts & State Land

In regard to the ancient land tracts, Belfry Mountain is located in Lot 46 of the Iron Ore Tract (see figure). Although the portion of the map of land tracts, townships and lots from the NYS DEC’s 1985 “Adirondack Map” I have included appears to show the peak around Lots 43 and 44, it is, indeed, in Lot 46. Knowing the location of the peak in the tract was critical to tracking down its name origin.

The Origin of the Name

The origin of “Belfry” was somewhat elusive and required me to delve into the deed records of Essex County. In O.W. Grayin’s 1876 Atlas of Essex County, I saw the residence of a “Mrs M. Bolfrey” in Lot 46 of the Iron Ore Tract, near what is today known as Dalton Hill Road. My experience with researching the name origins of well over one hundred peaks told me that “Belfry” may have been a warping “Bolfrey,” so this was my starting point.

The earliest appearance I could find of Belfry Mountain on a map is the 1894 Elizabethtown, N.Y. U.S.G.S. quadrangle, in which it was denoted “Belfry Hill.” I could not find an earlier reference to Belfry in writing, so I examined census records for the Town of Moriah of the late-nineteenth century. The New York State Census of 1865 showed Moriah residents George Balfrey (age 36), his wife, Mary (age 40), and their daughter, Mary (age 9). A search of “Balfrey” and similar in the newspaper archives turned up a notice in the November 7, 1889 edition of “The Elizabethtown Post,” regarding a George Balfrey of Moriah, who mortgaged a parcel of land on the north half of lot 46 in the Iron Ore Tract. This find brought me much closer to determining the name origin!

Belfry Hill (today’s Belfry Mountain) on the 1894 Elizabethtown, N.Y. U.S.G.S. quadrangle.

According to Podskoch in his aforementioned book, on May 29, 1933, the Conservation Department (today’s Department of Environmental Conservation) purchased the land where the fire tower and cabin were built from George and Julia Jacobs for $1,000. The Jacobs had acquired the land from the Dwyer family. At this point, my search took me to the Essex County deed records.

The State’s purchase from the Jacob’s is recorded in a deed in book 205, page 249, of the Essex County deed records. The deed notes that the land sold to the State included the northern half of Lot 46, where Belfry Mountain is located. This is the same lot which George Balfrey mortgaged. I found a deed in book 96, page 344, made on August 28, 1889, for the north half of Lot 46, which was made to Mary Ann and Oliver O’Shea (of the Witherbee, Sherman and Company) from Mary “Balfry,” noted widow of George “Balfry.” Witherbee, Sherman and Company was a major player in the iron mining industry of Lake Champlain. Finally, I found a deed in book XX, page 97, made on March 16, 1860, for the north half of Lot 46, which was made to George Balfrey from Simeon Locks (?) and his wife for $460.

Thus, there is a very strong likelihood that “Belfry” is a warping of the name “Balfrey.” “Belfry” may have originated from the U.S.G.S. when they were crafting the 1894 map of Elizabethtown, N.Y. quadrangle.

The Legacy of George and Mary Balfrey of Moriah
I could find very little on George and his wife, who also went by the name “Balfry.” George was born on November 1, 1817 in Limerick, Ireland. His wife, Mary, was also born in Limerick, on March 8, 1824. George died on November 16, 1871, followed twenty-eight years later by his wife, who died on December 19, 1900. Both husband and wife are interred at Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery in Moriah.

From a document regarding a 1897 New York Supreme Court case of Walter C. Witherbee v. Frank S. Witherbee, it appears that Dalton Hill Road was once called Balfrey Road.

Reference Marker No. 1 from the 1942 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Encounters in New York State Surveys

Belfry Mountain was not leveraged by Verplanck Colvin for his Adirondack Survey or State Land Survey. Around 1894, the State Engineer and Surveyor of the State of New York determined the elevation of “Belfry Hill” to be 1,892 feet, via trigonometric leveling. Today, one can see the triangulation station marker and the two reference markers that point to it from the 1942 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Photos by John Sasso

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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.

One Response

  1. Lorraine Caputo says:

    The grandkids of one of the men who drove the horses up that Mountain for the tower to be placed, live in Westport still.

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