I revisited Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain last spring, making it at least four ascents I have done of it, thus far, from both the north and south trails. The views of the Lake Champlain region from the summit never fail. Poke-O-Moonshine, located in the Town of Chesterfield in Essex County, just 3/4-mi north of the Town of Lewis
boundary, is a peak on the Fire Tower Challenge and whose east-facing cliffs are popular with rock-climbers.
This write-up is more of a historical “brief” on this peak, as there is a bit more history surrounding it than provided here. For those interested in the history of Poke-O-Moonshine in regards to fire observation and its tower, see Martin Podskoch’s book “Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, The Northern Districts” (2003).
Next to the fire tower, the historical aspect of the peak which interests most people is the origin of its odd yet amusing name. The origin of the name is uncertain, but various theories abound. The most-often cited is from William Martin Beauchamp’s “Aboriginal Place Names of New York” (1907), in which Beauchamp says he suspects the name is corrupted from the Algonquin pohqui (it is broken) and moosi (smooth); combined, we have pohqui-moosi (where the rocks are smoothly broken off). This reflects the profile of Poke-O-Moonshine as seen from its eastern base.
The second theory is that “poke” is an archaic French term for a small bag or sack, and the peak’s name was derived from bootleggers hiding stashes of whiskey on the mountain, which provided natural refrigeration. While I have seen reports of bootlegging done in the area during the Prohibition Era (192-1933), if this theory is connected with bootlegging, then it is debunked by the fact that the name of the peak goes as far back as J.H. French’s 1860 “Gazetteer of the State of New York.”
The third theory was presented by Alfred Billings Street in his 1869 classic “The Indian Pass.” Street says that an old woman told him that Poke-O-Moonshine resembled a “dark, pokerish looking hole,” hence its name. “Pokerish” means to elicit fear, dread, or awe (from the archaic English “poker” hobgoblin).
The fourth theory was presented in Latham Cornell Strong’s 1878 work “Poke O’Moonshine.” Strong says the peak is so-called on account of a deep crevasse in its rocks, through which the rising moon casts its light.
A couple other theories I saw were presented by a letter to the editor, written by Raymond S. Spears of Northwood, NY, and published in the June 22, 1901 edition of “Forest and Stream” (Vol. 56). In his letter, Spears conjectures that Poke-O-Moonshine perhaps came from a Mexican visiting the area, and at an inn he ordered a Mexican drink called mescal. “Poco mescal! Pocotito mescal!” he shouted, apparently meaning “A little mescal.” Spears thinks the Mexican traveler may have first asked for “poco moonshine,” and that the expression eventually got legs and, for
unexplained reasons, the peak acquired the variant of this phrase. I find this highly unlikely and I am sure the reader thinks so as well, but I mention it here as a rather humorous note. Spears also proposes that Poke-O-Moonshine came from the people trekking across the mountain, and by its nature was a long, tedious crossing, “one that makes one poke along in the moonshine after sundown.”
Finally, I should note that Poke-O-Moonshine, or a variation of the name, is not restricted to the Adirondacks. There is a Pocomoonshine Lake in Alexander, Maine, which has had the variants Poke-Moonshine and Poke-o-moonshine. There is a Pokamoonshine Brook in Strafford County, New Hampshire, and a stretch of the Meramec River in Missouri referred to as Poky Moonshine. I am sure there are other examples, but these are
the most notable I could fine.
Colvin’s Adirondack Survey
Poke-O-Moonshine played an important role in the Adirondack Survey of Verplanck Colvin. When Colvin reached Elizabethtown on September 6, 1877, he caught sight of Poke-O-Moonshine (which he referred to as “Poke-a-moonshine”) and decided to use it to close what he considered an important survey triangle, as well as use the summit to determine future locations for stations for his Adirondack survey. Colvin and his crew made an ascent of Poke-O-Moonshine the following day, first reaching its southern sub-summit and then the summit proper. He wrote in his 1880 survey report that he found the summit ridge was scorched by a fire, which likely helped provide a clear view for Colvin without his woodsmen having to provide one (which was often done on other peaks, such as Ampersand Mountain). From the summit, he could see the region by the Canadian border, Lake Champlain, the High Peaks region, and numerous other peaks and passes.
Colvin noted how he could see how he could advance the triangulation for his survey northward and westward. Colvin and some of his survey party spent the night on the summit, and continued their work the following day. Copper bolt no. 26 was sunk (marking where the survey theodolite would be centered) and a tall, wooden tower was built to act as a signal station. Through barometric measurements (ie. barometric hypsometry), Colvin determined the elevation of Poke-O-Moonshine to be 2,171 ft. After completing their work, Colvin and his men descended the peak at nightfall.
The tower signal constructed on Poke-O-Moonshine was of special design, made to supposedly withstand high winds. Such towers were constructed of heavy timber, framed in a pyramidal form, 20-30 ft high, with a 10-12 ft square base. It was held down by being chained to iron ring-bolts leaded into drill holes which were drilled into the summit rock. Colvin’s portable form of evolving automatic helio-signal was placed atop the central mast, which emerged from the apex of the pyramid. Colvin found the helio-signal to be viewable from 30-50 miles. In the case of Poke-O-Moonshine, unfortunately, the tower was destroyed not long after by a storm.
There is more to be written about the history of Poke-O-Moonshine, but I will pursue such further when more time avails.
Editor’s notes: This post first appeared on April 28, 2019 on the History and Legends of the Adirondacks Facebook group. There is an annual fire tower lighting taking place tomorrow, Sept. 5. Click here for details. Top photo is from the Almanack archive. The rest are courtesy of John Sasso.