From the Archive: The Great Blowdown
Forty years after the North Country's biggest, baddest weather
by Joan Potter
It was the last day of hunting season, November 25, 1950, and Joe McKillip was in the Moose Pond area of St. Armand. On that morning, McKillip, who was eighteen years old at the time, had separated from the rest of his party and was hunting alone.
A wind had started to blow early in the day, recalls McKillip, who now sells real estate in Lake Placid, “and it just kept getting stronger all the time. It was an area of huge hemlock trees and other evergreens. The wind would blow down those big trees, and I would rise up three or four feet on the root systems.”
Toward the end of the morning McKillip started to realize that “it was more than just wind.” He decided to head back to camp, about two miles away. “I couldn’t travel very fast,” he says. “Limbs were falling around me. I saw sixteen deer that day but I never lifted my rifle. The deer were running aimlessly; they didn’t know what to do either. Between figuring out how to get back and trying not to get hit, it took me about three hours.”
The big blow that sent McKillip stumbling back to camp turned out to be a devastating hurricane that hit the Adirondacks from the east, bringing 105-mile-an-hour winds that uprooted giant spruce, balsam and pine, snapped off tree limbs and sent them slashing through the air, and resulted in the complete or partial destruction of almost a half million acres of forest—more than half in the state-owned forest preserve. As the storm whipped through the mountains, it slammed ferociously into some areas but left others untouched; its eastern blasts toppled trees whose root systems had become acclimated to winds from the west. The storm was the most damaging ever recorded in New York State. In fact, the Conservation Department’s 1951 annual report read, “There is no recorded act of man or Nature that resulted in creating in this State such an extensive area of impenetrable tangled trees.”
On that fateful morning, Joe McKillip finally made his way back to camp, where the other members of his party were waiting. He recalls that “it was one mile from our camp to Route 3. It was lucky we had a chain saw. We cut twenty-six trees that were across the road so we could drive our car out, and as we went trees were falling down behind us.”
McKillip and his friends were fortunate to have escaped from the woods so easily; close to a hundred hunters were marooned in Franklin and Essex counties, and twenty-six men spent two days using axes, chain saws and a bulldozer in an effort to reach thirteen hunters stranded in the Cold River area.
John Hickey, a retired forest ranger who lives in Keene, was a member of one of the rescue teams. Hickey was about four miles into the woods near Johns Brook on the day of the hurricane, closing a Conservation Department cabin for the winter. “The wind started to blow with no warning,” he recalls. “It blew down a lot of trees around the cabin. Instead of staying overnight we decided to come out of the woods and go home. The next day we were called over to Saranac Lake to open some roads to where hunters were trapped, over toward Ampersand. The roads were all blocked and we had to go in and cut the timber. I was running a bulldozer to push timber out of the way so cars could get through.”
Clarence Petty, of Canton, was then a district ranger for St. Lawrence County. When the hurricane struck, he was hunting alone in the area of Ampersand and Stony Creek mountains. “I saw a deer with a big rack on it and shot it,” Petty recalls. “The wind was blowing so hard and trees were falling all around me. I left the woods and went back the next day to get the deer, and a tree had fallen on top of it. Fortunately it was a rotted tree, so I managed to pull it off.”
The next day, Petty says, “we had to start looking to see what had happened to the fire towers. We had to get the phone lines open in case we had a severe drought. Telephone lines were down all over the Adirondacks.” The department also had to immediately start cutting out trails to the towers. Vehicles and equipment could be driven in to clear the truck trails but, recalls Petty, many foot trails leading to the towers “were pretty well filled up. In what is now the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, trails were blocked by hundreds and hundreds of trees. We couldn’t get it all cleared out until the following spring.”
Besides trapping hunters, downing power lines and destroying large areas of forest, the great blowdown raised significant political issues. In light of the constitutional prohibition on removing timber from the forest preserve, how would the state handle the fire hazard created by the vast tangle of downed trees and limbs? The Conservation Department urged an immediate cleanup to reduce the possibility of massive forest fires. Preservationists, on the other hand, while concerned about fire hazards, were worried that the cleanup would be a first step toward allowing lumber companies permanent access to the forest preserve.
Although aerial and ground surveys of the damaged areas began immediately, the extent of the destruction was still unknown when, two and a half weeks after the blowdown, conservation commissioner Perry Duryea wrote to state attorney general Nathaniel Goldstein. While noting the loss of timber, which he estimated at 1,250,000 cords of softwood, Duryea said, “… of equal, if not greater, importance is the unprecedented fire hazard which has been created. Vast acreages of broken and twisted softwood trees, hung one upon another so that they may not be expected to rot down for a decade or more, represent a fire hazard not only to the remaining areas of state forest preserve but to large holdings of private land as well.”
Eliminating the fire hazard, Duryea said, would mean a major logging operation that Conservation Department forces could not handle. In fact, he said, the cleanup “would probably require the combined assistance of all the experienced loggers in the Adirondacks who could help us.”
But standing in Duryea’s way was Article XIV, Section I of the state constitution, which provided that the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” and that the timber thereon could not be “sold, removed or destroyed.” Noting that the framers of the constitution probably meant this ban to apply only to live timber, Duryea urged the attorney general to decide on the legality of using private logging companies to remove the downed trees.
To eliminate the “unprecedented fire hazard,” the attorney general decided to bypass constitutional prohibition by allowing fallen trees to be removed from the preserve. The state legislature, with the blessing of the attorney general, quickly passed a law giving the state permission to solicit bids from logging companies to take out fallen timber. The law, to be valid until June 30, 1955, allowed the Conservation Department to “arrange for the removal, use or sale” of “fallen or seriously damaged trees” in the forest preserve wherever “the standing timber shall have been blown down or seriously damaged by wind.”
The earliest efforts of Conservation Department foresters were directed toward clearing blowdown areas adjacent to public highways. One of the foresters assigned to the job was Floyd Olcutt, now retired and living in Ticonderoga. The plan, Olcutt says, was to clear fallen trees, limbs and brush five hundred feet from each side of main roads to decrease the likelihood of fires started by passing motorists. In early spring, Olcutt and two other foresters were sent to Newcomb, where they were to lay out five-hundred-foot strips on Route 28N, along the Boreas River. As Olcutt remembers it, “We had to drag a tape through the blowdown, climb under, over and around and mark a tree at the end of five hundred feet. Then we went down the road a certain distance and did another five hundred feet and marked it and then connected the marks. It was a terrible job. We did this till early summer, and then they let contracts to clear the five-hundred-foot strips.”
Rangers and foresters who were sent into the woods after the blowdown found their work arduous and exhausting, but avid hikers couldn’t wait to return to their favorite territory. In the March/April 1951 issue of Ad-i-ron-dac, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) magazine, Paul Van Dyke wrote that he and two friends, “unable to restrain ourselves any longer,” set out on December 9, two weeks after the blowdown, to hike the trail from Tahawus to the Duck Hole. On the way to Bradley Pond, a number of fallen beech and balsam trees blocked the trail, but the hikers had no trouble climbing over or around them. They planned to finish the three and a half mile hike along a lumber road from Bradley Pond to Duck Hole before dark but, Van Dyke wrote, “it came as a rude awakening to find the lumber road in many places buried under a crisscrossed tangle of balsam blown down by the windstorm. The windfalls covered acres in which there was scarcely a conifer larger than six inches in diameter left standing. The tangled masses of roots, trunks and top branches made an impenetrable barrier under which we completely lost the road and trail markers.” Finally, the increasingly desperate hikers, using carbide lamps, topographical maps and their knowledge of the territory, reached the Duck Hole lean-to well after dark.
An ADK member named Billy Burger, also writing in Ad-i-ron-dac, described a six-hour struggle hiking the four and a half miles from Plumley’s Dock, on Long Lake, to Shattuck Clearing, on Cold River. He and his companion had planned to follow telephone lines, but gradually the lines, and eventually the poles, disappeared. At one point, Burger wrote, “there were poles behind us but none in front or on either side of us for the very good reason that trees lay just as if they had been mowed by some gargantuan scythe with a very dull blade. Many of the trees had been torn up by the roots . . . All we could see was one tremendous windfall, with here and there a solitary survivor or a trunk stripped bare of limbs. It was ghastly.”
The winter precluded much cleanup, but as spring approached, Conservation Commissioner Duryea took two actions: he began letting contracts to lumber companies and he officially closed sections of the forest preserve that presented the greatest danger of forest fires. The most extensive was the closure of sixty thousand acres in the Cold River watershed. The closed areas were marked with posters that read, “WARNING! Heavy Blowdown—Forest Fire Danger Acute!”
In February 1951, the state started advertising for lumber companies to submit bids on salvage projects. The first ad was for sixteen projects in Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and Herkimer counties, selected on the basis of the most critical fire hazards. The department assigned foresters to supervise lumbering activities. They were told that when determining whether or not a tree was seriously damaged, “they were to resolve all doubts in favor of the State in order that no standing, undamaged tree be cut through intent or inadvertence,” according to the Conservation Department’s annual report.
But foresters who monitored the projects found it impossible to capture every violator. “You had to have men out there all the time watching,” recalls Clarence Petty. “Some would cut live trees unless they were being watched. One group I remember would fell one tree onto another and then say the other was damaged.”
Floyd Olcutt was assigned to monitor cleanup projects in the Lake Placid area. Part of his job, he says, was to mark trees “that were leaning enough so we didn’t think they would survive.” The fine for cutting an undamaged tree, Olcutt says, was ten dollars a tree plus three times the stumpage value. For example, if a tree had a volume of a thousand board feet worth thirty dollars a thousand, the fine would be a hundred dollars. “From time to time,” says Olcutt, “you were offered bribes from some contractors. They often wanted to take you to lunch and so on. If you valued your job, you didn’t accept too many of those.”
When the cleanup began, says Olcutt, contracts were let only to big lumber companies. Later, the state hired local contractors, two or three men with chain saws and a horse or truck. “A lot of the local contractors,” says Olcutt, “were hunters or fishermen who would discover small blowdowns and ask for the contract to clear them. They would do a better job than the big ones. They were not as much in a hurry and they didn’t have to make as much money. They wanted to do a good job so they’d be hired again.”
The lumberjacks left the forest preserve in 1955, much to the relief of environmentalists, and left the somewhat more disheveled woods to the hikers, fishermen and hunters. The state had sold 443,376 cords of softwood and 32,570 board feet of hardwood from about 170,000 acres of state land, considerably less than the conservation commissioner had originally estimated. And the giant forest fires that the department had predicted never occurred. The only major fire was in 1953 near Shattuck Clearing; it was controlled after destroying fewer than a hundred acres.
Though the closure of vast tracts of blowdown-strewn lands affected all outdoor enthusiasts, the most frustrated were the mountaineers who were in the process of climbing all forty-six Adirondack peaks over four thousand feet, thus earning membership in the Adirondack Forty-sixers. Grace Hudowalski, the group’s historian and the first woman to climb all the coveted peaks, wrote a reminiscence of the blowdown’s effect on aspiring members for The Adirondack High Peaks and the Forty-Sixers, published in 1970. “One could not climb the Sewards or Seymour,” she wrote. “One must steer clear of Santanoni, Panther and Couch-sachraga. For a time, blowdown meant even the popular Lake Colden area was off-bounds. This seemed a hard pill to swallow, especially for the climber who needed only a few peaks to finish the forty-six.”
Jim Goodwin, a retired teacher from Keene who had been a professional guide since the age of twelve, spent the summer of 1951, along with other ADK members and Forty-sixers, rebuilding some trails and taking climbers up peaks, like Giant and Noonmark, that were not off-limits. Seven of the forty-six peaks had been closed and, says Goodwin, “All those Forty-sixers were waiting. A few sneaked in, but they didn’t claim Forty-sixer status until 1955.”
The organization had urged hikers to obey Conservation Department restrictions. “We issued a broadside,” says Hudowalski, “saying we would not recognize any climbs until the trails were opened on the closed peaks.” In the summer of 1953, Hudowalski flew over the mountains in a Conservation Department plane. “It looked like you’d taken a giant box of matches and dropped them,” she recalls. “It was a terrific mess. You wondered how people would survive if they got into it.”
As the cleanup of the great blowdown. wound down, the Forty-sixers were jubilant. “Good news came at the end of 1954,” wrote Hudowalski, “when the Department announced that the woods were again open. By late spring of 1955 a number of the more hardy climbers had polished off their remaining summits.”
One of the first to return to the trailless peaks was Jim Goodwin. In these areas, where no salvaging had been done, “route finding was very tough,” he recalls. “It was very rough going. But it was kind of fun, it was challenging. Everybody would help a little bit by breaking off branches. These became the herd paths.”
Paul Jamieson, in an essay about the Forty-sixers called “The Class of ’58,” wrote, “… when the Cold River was finally opened again in 1955, we had pioneering of our own to do in charting courses through the appalling blowdown on the Seward and Santanoni ranges. In the next three years many articles in The Ad-i-ron-dac dealt with our trial-and-error route finding—articles that probably contributed to the herd paths of today. Whatever our literary indiscretions, we were game . . . Our oldest member, Adelaide Marble, after conquering Emmons, her last peak, set the tone of gallantry for our class in remarking: ‘I couldn’t let a hurricane thwart me.’ ”
Today, climbers traversing old blowdown areas still must pick their way through the legacy left by the great winds—second growth, mostly balsam and spruce, that has pushed its way around and between fallen trees. “It will be many years until all evidence is gone,” says Clarence Petty. “It will be centuries … I remember a surveyor in Saranac Lake saying, ‘We’ll never see the time in our life when we can walk through the Adirondacks like we used to.’ ”