The Big Burn
A century ago, a half-million acres went up in smoke
by Sandra Weber
IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 1903 there were no signs of trouble, no indications of the dire drought and horrendous fires that would ravage the Adirondacks. In March Lake Champlain was at its highest level in memory. Two months later the water would drop thirty-three inches.
April and May were usually dangerous months for fires, according to William F. Fox, superintendent of New York State Forests in 1903. That time of year the snow had melted and the green leaves were not out yet. The ground was covered with dead leaves and piles of brush from logging, which made abundant, extremely dry fuel. A single ember from a smoking pipe, a campfire left smoldering or a spark from a locomotive was enough to light the tinder, and a strong breeze could quickly spread the flames.
A few fires early in 1903 were quickly extinguished. Still, the April rains did not come, and dry winds raked the region. Incipient fires sprang up, from Lake Placid and Elizabethtown to Long Lake, Old Forge, Cranberry Lake, Tupper Lake and the St. Regis Lakes.
Fires were common near railroad lines in the wake of freight and passenger trains. By the end of April, burns broke out along the tracks of the New York Central, the Chateaugay, the New York & Ottawa, and the Saranac & Lake Placid Railroads. Fire warden C. W. Rowe reported that the engines on the Delaware & Hudson Railroad set fires on the mountain south of Port Kent nearly every day.
A law specified that locomotives used in the woods must have steel netting or screens to prevent sparks from escaping. Railroad authorities knew of the danger but continued to run engines without screens. The only penalty was a hundred-dollar fine—not much of a deterrent for wealthy railroad companies.
Ella Flagg of Saranac Lake reported an engine named Grace set a fire and ruined much of her property. She said, “It would have burned our cottage only for myself and daughter fighting fire until the fire department arrived.”
W. K. Benedict traveled on the New York Central from Saranac Lake to New York City. While standing in the last car, he observed, “At very frequent intervals the tracks in the rear of the train were strewn with live coals, dumped from the locomotive, and in many instances these coals, dropping on the wooden ties, burned into bright flames, which only required a slight breeze to spread to the side of the tracks and to the forest.”
As the number of fires grew, there simply were not enough local people to handle the situation. The New York Central sent carloads of Italian laborers to help fight fires along the company’s line. Even with the extra help, conditions worsened, and on May 7 some freight runs were temporarily discontinued in hopes that rain would soon relieve the drought.
However, trains were not the only problem. Farmers burned brush to clear fields. Laws forbade farmers to kindle fallow fields between April 1 and June 1 because of dry conditions. Not everyone obeyed; fallow burns were the second leading cause of forest fires in 1903. Wardens fined fifty-six offenders and collected more than seventeen hundred dollars in fines.
Fishermen and tobacco smokers caused blazes. Hunters, wintergreen pickers, incendiaries and sparks from chimneys were blamed in a few cases. Fires were also started by wind-whipped sparks from other fires.
Superintendent Fox noted other odd causes: “lunatic, dooryard fire, children at play, smoking out a hedgehog, burning a straw bed, burning ferns, blasting stone, sparks from torch and lightning.” Some blazes were allegedly set by men in order to gain employment, but Fox reported that “no evidence whatever has been furnished thus far in support of that theory.”
The law made no provision for paying fire wardens and their men for patrolling or preventing fires. They were only paid for time spent fighting blazes. Whenever a fire broke out, wardens hired a gang and set them to work. During the spring of 1903, 6,487 men were conscripted to fight fires.
The wardens used a variety of methods to control the fires. Surface fires were stopped by raking the leaf litter. The crews used water if they could find it. At Inlet, men carried water by hand until they were able to connect a pipeline and turn a one-and-a-half-inch stream of water on the burning ground. But water sources were not always available, as reported by a fire warden in Fulton County: “The fire is still burning in the ground at places. It cannot be extinguished now, as there is no water.”
The manager at Dr. W. Seward Webb’s Nehasane preserve, in Hamilton County, resorted to extraordinary measures: he invited scientist and inventor Carl E. Myers to bring his “explosive balloon” to cause artificial precipitation.
At times men set backfires or plowed ditches to keep fires from spreading. They also used shovels to dig trenches. Dry duff made it necessary to dig the trench from one to four feet wide and down to the mineral soil. In St. Huberts, 250 men dug a trench to encircle the town completely and save it.
Women helped too. A. N. Skiff, from Onchiota, wrote, “The women fought two nights, all night long, and waded brooks clear to their knees. I say they fought fire better than the men, they were that scared, and were more thorough in putting it out than the men were.”
On April 30 high winds quickly spread the flames. The New York Times reported, “Nothing but a good long rain will save the woods in many places. . . . Telephone and telegraph wires are down, and but few details are at hand to-night, but enough is known to make it certain that the worst forest fire in years is raging.”
Dangerous conditions continued through the month of May, which was the driest in seventy-seven years. The wardens and fire fighters worked fifteen hours a day, week after week, sometimes camping in the woods near the fires. Reports of fires kept coming. The Hurd sawmill at Tupper Lake, the largest in the country when it was erected, caught fire and was destroyed. A thousand acres burned near the site of Fort Gate, south of Lake George. Chazy Lake, Standish, Schuyler Falls and Keene all reported fires.
“Yesterday was a terrible day here, and I never wish to see the like again,” wrote W. Scott Brown from St. Huberts. “Fire came over the Giant [Mountain] about 11 a.m. yesterday with a strong wind. Some say the flames went 200 ft. high. . . . Wind was high and air filled with firey [sic] pieces of wood, bark, etc. . . . It took the grit out of some people here quick.”
In nearby Euba Mills, on the Boquet River, an old sawmill burned, and the Proctor family barely escaped with the clothing on their backs. In an adjacent stream, men found hundreds of dead brown trout weighing up to two pounds. The Elizabethtown Post asked, “What killed these trout, extreme heat, lye, lime, oil or fright?”
The top of St. Regis Mountain was burning; at Dannemora crews were keeping watch on the prison. Other state property was in danger in North Elba. Reuben Lawrence, custodian of the John Brown Farm historic site, reported that fires were near the farm and state lands. “The men are doing all they can to keep it from the house. . . . We are living in hopes that God will send rain. . . . All the men in this town are tired out and sick and exhausted. Still they will have to work.”
Areas far removed from the flames witnessed the effects. Smoke from the Adirondacks settled over New York City and caused a “yellow day.” The New York Times reported that grass and flowers in Central Park “looked as if they had been daubed with yellow paint, owing to the peculiar reflection due to the smoke.” In Lake George, ash fell like a heavy snowfall, and in Utica, noted the Times, “the sun did not cast a shadow, but hung like a red ball in the heavens.”
By June, the situation grew desperate. In North Elba, brush left from lumbering made good fuel, and fires swept over ten thousand acres in one afternoon. At Heart Lake, Henry Van Hoevenberg’s Adirondack Lodge and fourteen other buildings were destroyed. Somehow the flames spared one flimsy bark shelter, which contained a half-box of dynamite. Van Hoevenberg made a brave move; he stuffed the dynamite under his coat, ran across the smoldering ground to the lake, and tossed the explosives into the water.
Along the shore of Heart Lake lay fish that had been cooked to death. The same thing had happened in the inlet of Big Moose Lake, where the fierce heat of a fire raised the water temperature.
The road between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake was filled with snakes, rabbits, porcupines and deer that had been scared out of the blazing woods. The Elizabethtown Post reported many dead deer were found in the ruined forests. “Some of these deer were badly burned, some appeared to be only slightly scorched and some bore no fire marks. Query: Do deer sometimes die of fright, pure and simple?”
Relief came on June 7 as rain fell on the region. Hundreds of men dropped their tools that day. The six weeks of fire fighting were over.
People celebrated and gave thanks for the rain. And the showers kept coming. Near Keene, rain continued for twenty-four hours, and it certainly did lots of good, but then it became too much. Streams rose until they flooded. An iron bridge and several wooden bridges were washed away, and landslides cut off roads. “What next? It seems as though Fate were against us,” wrote W. Scott Brown.
By the time the fires were extinguished, about 464,000 acres burned in the Adirondack forest, according to Superintendent Fox. He estimated that more than eight hundred thousand dollars had been lost in timber, logs, pulpwood and property.
But according to the report by forester H. M. Suter for the United States Department of Agriculture, “over 600,000 acres of timberland in northern New York were burned over,” and the direct loss was approximately $3.5 million. This document explained that the accurate determination of the losses “is an impossibility.” Reported losses were just over $1 million, but that number was known to understate the damage, so it was modified.
How could there be such a discrepancy? Suter’s estimates included the region of “northern New York” while Fox examined the Adirondack lands, which meant looking at each county and determining how much of the damage was actually inside the Adirondack Park. (The park in 1903 was about half its current size.) It also appears that the state was trying to minimize the disaster.
In a New York Times article, the Forestry Department reported burns were much less extensive than previously stated, and the loss of virgin timber had been exaggerated. Fox told the Times, “The Summer visitor will see no changes in the woods as he looks out upon them from the hotels, cottages and camps.” The article explained the department’s motivation for such a statement: “The Forestry Department is interested in the maintenance of Summer business in the Adirondacks.”
Local newspapers and officials also tried to assure tourists that the scenic beauty had “not been marred in the least.” The Elizabethtown Post blamed New York City papers for “overdrawing the fire picture” to sell more copies. “One unacquainted with the actual condition of things here would think . . . that there wasn’t anything left to look at but black fire tracks,” claimed the Post. “However, such is not the fact. . . . There is not a single black fire track visible from this village.”
That wasn’t true, either. Certainly the destruction of Euba Mills marred the scene and the blackened summit of Giant loomed near Elizabethtown. Tourists taking the fashionable hike up Mount Marcy were in for a shock, too. “We had never seen anything like it. For mile after mile, there was nothing but charred blackness,” noted one hiker. “Every bit of the Marcy trail was burned away, as was the forest floor covering of leaves, duff and everything else.”
The Post article was correct that there had been exaggerations. Reports claimed that the fires caused several fatalities; they hadn’t caused any. Other reports overstated the danger faced by the grand hotels; the only significant building destroyed was the Adirondack Lodge.
As a result of the fires, authorities tried unsuccessfully to persuade railroad companies to convert their wood- and coal-burning locomotives to oil. Loggers and residents were asked to help prevent the careless and criminal use of fire. However, Suter felt improvements to the fire patrol system must be made. He said, “should another long drought occur, the State would be powerless under present methods against fire to prevent a repetition of the calamity.”
Despite Suter’s warnings, new methods and improvements to fire services did not come fast enough. When another drought hit in 1908, fires raged through the region. Not until 1909 were measures taken, including establishment of a paid fire patrol, a top-lopping law requiring loggers to cut tree branches and leave them to rot, and the construction of mountaintop observation towers. A test of their effectiveness came in 1911, during another drought. This time the fire damage was limited.
Over the decades, fire patrolling moved from summits to small airplanes, and fire towers were eventually abandoned. Today, with well-trained response organizations using modern equipment like helicopters to battle occasional blazes in the forests, it is unlikely the widespread destruction of a hundred years ago will ever happen again.