Adirondack History: Fire Towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills of New York

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, enormous forest fires were threatening residents and landowners. New ways had to be looked at to try to protect and report how these fires could be managed. Two different fires, 1903 and 1908, which damaged over 1 million acres of woodlands, became known as the "Great Fires" leading to an organized system of forest fire management throughout the Adirondacks.

The first Adirondack fire tower, made of wood, was built on the summit of Mount Morris (now known as Big Tupper Ski Area) with other towers being constructed over the course of the next five years. There have 120 fire towers at various locations around New York State with 57 of them within the boundary of the Adirondack Park.

The log and wood structures were slowly replaced by steel towers between 1917 and 1930, which could be more easily maintained. A full-time work force from Forest Rangers to Fire Observers were organized to manage fire districts.
In 1918 a circular table was attached in the cab (the square box at the top of each tower) called an "Osborne Firefinder."

According to Ray Kresek's article, "The Osborne Firefinder, "The original instrument was 14" across, round, with a map of the surrounding area, and each of 360 degrees etched around the rim. This disc was secured to an 8-sided 1/8" steel base which was in turn secured firmly to a tree stump. A brass sighting mechanism consisting of a rear vertical slit and a front vertical horse hair stretched tight, pivoted precisely in the center of the circle. The location of the lookout point was situated exactly in the center of the circular map. An arrow etched beneath the rear sight corresponded with the compass reading when the sights lined up on distant smoke.

These towers and the people that manned them provided a intricate network that helped prevent other "great fires" from happening again. It was the arrival of small planes as well as overall operational costs that eventually led to the deactivation of fire towers. Bald Mountain (Rondaxe) in Old Forge is reputed to be the last operational fire tower in New York State, which was deactivated in 1990. 

(For more Adirondack trivia and history check out the Adirondack Family Time™ guidebook series, Adirondack Family Time™ Your Four-Season Guide to Over 300 Activities with 33 easy hikes for the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and High Peaks regions. or Adirondack Family Time: Champlain Valley with over 58 easy hikes, swimming holes and historical venues. 

There are 34 remaining fire towers in the Adirondacks, 20 are on Forest Preserve land while the other 14 reside on private or municipal property. In 1998 The Preservation league of NYS and the NYS Council on the Arts provided a grant to the Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) to provide the paperwork necessary to nominate 10 historic fire towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills to NYS and the National Register of Historic Places. It wasn't until 2002 that those ten fire towers were listed and approved. Since that time numerous Fire Tower Friends" organizations have rallied to save their local fire tower and preserve it for the next generation. 

© Diane Chase is the author of the Adirondack Family Activities™ guidebook series, Adirondack Family Time™, which is available online or bookstores/museums/sporting good stores. Diane is currently working on the third guidebook in the four-book series of Adirondack Family Activities™.


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