Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Fire in The Adirondacks

The burning of the Straight House Hotel in North Creek also set the adjoining Methodist Parsonage on fire. (courtesy Johnsburg Historical Society)

Out west the summer of 2022 will long be remembered as the year of fire, but the Adirondacks also has a history of fire.

The years 1903 and 1908 were two great fire years in the Adirondacks. An article titled “Years of Fire” in the March/April 1981 Adirondack Life notes that “During both years the northeast suffered from drought. Due to sloppy logging, the woods were filled with piles of slash, the discarded tops, and limbs of trees. The railroads, which crossed the Adirondacks in the 1890s, failed to equip their wood and coal burning locomotives with spark arrestors. Although mandated by state law the penalties for violating the equipment law were so insignificant the railroads ignored them, and fires started all up and down the rail lines.”

The Great Fire of 1903, according to a report of the U.S. Bureau of Forestry by Henry Suter and published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1904, indicates that the main fire was actually started, not by coal burning locomotives, but rather by a farmer in Lake Placid practicing fallow burning that April. Fallow burning consists of setting to fire old vegetation in a field before planting. This releases nutrients to the soil. By the time the fire was extinguished it had burned for 6 weeks and burnt over 600,000 acres.

USDA Map of the fire of 1903

USDA Map of the fire of 1903

In September of 1908, states an article in the Adirondack Journal, New York City and Quebec City to the north were blanked in clouds of smoke from fires in Hamilton, Herkimer, St. Lawrence, Franklin and Essex Counties. An article by Jonathan Croyle notes that Long Lake West (located in Hamilton County; now called Sabattis ) in 1908 was a village of about 200 people. A Utica newspaper in 1908 called it then “one of the most prosperous villages in the Adirondacks.” Residents had been on edge for days; a thick pall of smoke hung over the village and at night the surrounding woods glowed orange. After the winds shifted to the south and began to howl shortly after midnight on Sept. 27, residents had only minutes to evacuate their homes.

That same year a fire started along the Delaware & Hudson tracks in Stony Creek in southern Warren County. Before it was extinguished it had headed north over the top of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg all the way to Thirteenth Lake, threatening the operation of the garnet mine there. The smoke from these fires could be seen all the way south to New York City and it is said cinders fell as far south as Albany.  The smoke was so thick in New York harbor it was first mistaken for fog. Once folks realized it was smoke, word quickly spread that “The Adirondacks are on fire!”

Fire at Thirteenth Lake Lodge (courtesy Johnsburg Historical Society)

Fire at Thirteenth Lake Lodge (courtesy Johnsburg Historical Society)

Those great forest fires combined burned almost one quarter of the Adirondacks. It can be argued that the loss of the old growth forests of the Adirondacks was primarily due to forest fires rather than to unregulated logging operations. Old growth forests, many inaccessible to commercial logging operations, were not immune to fire.

The State of New York responded to these great fires by banning wood and coal fed locomotives in the Adirondacks and mandated “top-lopping” which required loggers to cut the tops of trees into small pieces that would then lay close to the damp earth and rot rather than become dry tinder for fire. They also erected a series of fire towers, 61 in total. Although many of the fire towers have since been removed, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation still actively monitors the area for fire. Last year there were 200 forest fires in New York State; 125 of them were in Regions 5 & 6 which principally cover the Adirondacks. Identified early, they were quickly put out.

It was not just forests that burned. Fire was especially problematic for the big old hotels as well. Once started by a chimney fire or careless handling of candles or kerosene, fires in these old wooden structures, tinder dry and built without fire breaks in the walls, were almost impossible to put out. The list of famous Adirondack hotels destroyed by fire is a long one: The Prospect House in Lake George (1880 as a result of a forest fire), The Lake Placid House (1885, just 7 years after it opened), Fort George Hotel, Lake George (1888), The Aagawam Hotel, Bolton (1890, re-built ad burned again in 1912), The Sagamore, Lake George (1893), Blue Mountain Lake Hotel (1904), Kattski House on Kattskill Bay, Lake George (1908), Fort William Henry Hotel (1909), Whiteface Inn (1909) and Paul Smith’s Hotel (1930).

Burning of main house at Fox Lair (courtesy An Adirondack Archive: The Trail to Windover  by Elisabeth Hudnut Clarkson)

Burning of main house at Fox Lair (courtesy An Adirondack Archive: The Trail to Windover by Elisabeth Hudnut Clarkson)

Each town had its own list of fire tragedies.  The first real hotel in North Creek was the American Hotel, built by John McInerney in 1871 just as the railroad was coming to town; it burned in 1903 (it was later re-built in the 1920s). When the Adirondack Hotel in North Creek burned in 1916, it blew out the windows in the North Creek Bank which was then located across the street. That left only the Straight House for lodging in the town. In 1928, the Straight House burned to the ground. The Straight House was owned by James Straight. His brother, Ben built one of the earliest resorts in the area on the Old Farm Clearing Road, Thirteenth Lake Lodge in North River. Thirteenth Lake Lodge also suffered from fires; twice. On a Wednesday morning, June 24, 1931, the lodge caught fire. Three died in that fire; one an unidentified young boy of 12. Ben Straight quickly repaired the damage and soon they were again taking in guests. When Ben died in 1931 the property was sold to Bill Doyle, an engineer from Schenectady. Bill’s mother, Lynette ran the place. On August 23, 1961, the lodge was hit by lightning. This time it burned to the ground. “Gables”, the last home of railroad baron Dr. Thomas Durant who helped drive the golden spike at Provo, Utah, uniting the Transcontinental Railroad in this country, burned to the ground March 22, 1959.  On February 10, 1965, a major fire swept through the village of North Creek and destroyed many of the old wooden buildings in the town’s business district.

Not all fires were by accident. Fire Insurance Companies noted a sudden increase in fires after a particularly slow tourist season. Harold Hochshild, in his book Township 34 tells the story of “a certain resident of Indian Lake, who had twice collected insurance on fires in his store, announced one day that he had to leave the next morning for Glens Falls on business. On the dawn of his departure, he pulled down the window shades, packed his personal belongings into a carpetbag, planted a lighted candle in a pile of wood shavings on the floor and left the building, locking the door behind him. On his arrival in Glens Falls late that night, he found awaiting him a telegram from his neighbors reading ‘Come back, we put it out.”

North Creek famous Fire Bell (photograph by author)

North Creek famous Fire Bell (photograph by author)

The fire bell at the North Creek Fire House has its own special history. In 1854 a bell was cast for the North Creek Tannery at Muneeley’s West in Troy. When the Tannery burned on May 9, 1890, its bell was relocated to the St. James Church that stood near today’s St. James Cemetery. When that church building burned down, the bell was again saved and transferred to the North Creek High School. The school burned down in 1925. The bell was then moved to the North Creek Firehouse in the center of town on Main Street—a concrete and stone building. In time the North Creek Fire Company needed more room and they moved to their present location at the south end of town on Main Street. The old firehouse was sold, and the bell transferred to the present firehouse on property adjacent to the North Creek Bowling Alley—which had burned to the ground in 1966. This famous bell, which has survived multiple fires, is presently on display at the North Creek Firehouse.

October 9th-15th this year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of Fire Prevention Week. Fire Prevention Week was established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in 1922 to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Fire remains a threat to property and life even today. Fire Prevention Week is a great time to teach your children how best to escape a burning house fire, a time to replace the batteries in your fire/smoke alarm and time to get that wood stove chimney cleaned.

Photo at top: The burning of the Straight House Hotel in North Creek also set the adjoining Methodist Parsonage on fire. (courtesy Johnsburg Historical Society)

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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.


6 Responses

  1. Alan G West says:

    Some of those fires were deliberately set in order for blueberries to grow. Also, the picture of the main house at Fox lair was deliberately burned by the state to put the land into the forest preserve, not from a forest fire.

  2. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Agree about Fox Lair; so noted in my first book “Echoes in These Mountains” (2008). Blueberries? Maybe…Story is that Henry David Thoreau set Emerson’s woods on fire near Walden Pond by not properly overseeing the burning of fields to bring back the blueberries.

  3. Marisa Muratori says:

    Fire is essential for the health of natual landscapes. Fire suppression is detremental. Some say the Smoky the Bear campaign was the worst thing to happen to North American forests…we have out of control catastrphies because fires have been continually stamped out over the last century. Selective logging? Too difficult to manage in widerness areas. So…I guess we need to bring back extinct megafauna to thin out forests…as has been planned, for instance, in the tundra…the reintroduction of wolly mammoth, mastadon, the ancient bison etc….

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Glenn L. Pearsall says: “Story is that Henry David Thoreau set Emerson’s woods on fire near Walden Pond by not properly overseeing the burning of fields to bring back the blueberries.”

    Recently I was going through my Thoreau literature and came upon this incident once again, which Thoreau wrote about, and was reminded (once again) of the craft in that cosmic soul’s writing, and also the humor he had when employing his craft.

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The years 1903 and 1908 were two great fire years in the Adirondacks…..”

    > Times are different, ands so are determinants regards fires. New York state, and the northeast in general, are faring well (as yet) compared to many other places regards disruptions due to global warming, though my guess is that it is only a matter of time when this neck of the woods starts drying up and fires will become more of a threat and a reality. How can it not? We should start preparing for such if we’re not already.

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