A few years ago I made a list of the Seven Human Made Wonders of the Adirondacks. Taking a look at Martin Podskoch’s two-volume Adirondack Fire Towers: Their History and Lore, I feel like I left one wonder off that list. Podskoch’s endeavor to chronicle the history and lore of each of the nearly 60 Adirondack fire towers deserves a spot on the shelf of not just those interested in the history of the Adirondacks (where it’s an essential volume), but also those with an interest in the history of forestry, conservation, wildfires, rural labor and community life in remote places. Podskoch’s extensive interviews with those familiar with the towers serves as an important Adirondack oral history of New York’s leadership in wildfire suppression.
After the great fires of 1903 and 1908, when the fire tower system was young, spotters in their lofty perches reported the majority of Adirondack fires, and Forest Ranger set out to put them out. “Times changed for both fire towers and rangers,” Podskoch writes “With advances in telephone communications and a greater awareness of the dangers of fire, more and more fires were being reported initially either by a passerby or by the person who caused the fire.” A 1987 study confirmed once and for all that the fire towers were no longer necessary compared to cheaper overflights. In the previous four years, observers had reported just four percent of the state’s 2,383 wild fires.
Today we don’t generally think of Adirondack forest fires as a threat (that much), but in the early 1960s, dry conditions fostered thousands of fires – 1,532 in 1962. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller closed the Forest Preserve completely on three occasions during 1963 and 1964. More visitors and second home owners in the late 1960s meant more fires, but at the same time better spotting and reporting using aircraft meant better control.
Still, damaging forest fires seemed so threatening as late as 1971 during the debate over creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), that Chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors James DeZalia could argue against the APA by saying that “these proposals call for the removal of fire spotting towers, exposing the property and homes of the people in the Adirondacks to destruction by fire.” Thirty years later the debate continues over whether to remove long abandoned fire towers (see Almanack pieces by Dave Gibson and Phil Brown).
There had once been 57 fire towers in the Adirondacks (public and private). In the 1970s and 1980s the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed more than 40. In 1990, when the DEC closed the last of the Adirondack fire towers – Bald (Rondaxe), Blue, Hadley, and St. Regis mountains – just 26 remained standing. During the 1990s historic preservationists, local community boosters, and other began organizing to save their local fire towers. Although the Whiteface mountain tower was moved to the Adirondack Museum in 1974, the Blue Mountain tower was the first of the abandoned towers to be restored in 1994.
The two volumes of Adirondack Fire Towers, covering the southern and northern districts, are filled with pictures, memories, and stories, but also hard facts about the origins, locations, and life of the observers who lived and worked them.
Podskoch is now working hard on a new book about Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the Adirondacks.
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