Adirondack fire towers provide a glimpse of the region’s past—and beautiful views of the present.
Issue 4: Winter/Spring 2015
Trail BlazingPhotos by Seth Thomas
Story by Claire Durham and Seth Thomas
WinterThe trail to the Wakely fire tower was treacherous. The snow that had collected at the mountain’s base the previous
night melted in the afternoon sun, filling the pathway with ice-cold mud puddles. One slip — and there were several slips
— meant soggy, freezing feet. As the trail bent upward toward the summit, the storm raged on. A large boulder, which
would’ve been easy to scale in normal conditions, became a major obstacle. After a couple members of my party managed
their way to the top, they clasped hands, forming a human chain to hoist the others up.
We reached a wooden platform where we first laid eyes on the fire tower. We were both exhilarated and terrified as
we ascended its steps. The storm seemed stronger the higher we climbed. My friends bailed, taking refuge on the
porch of a nearby cabin. I braved the conditions to make my way to the top. The snow-capped trees blended into the
dark gray clouds rolling in. If we had climbed toward the snowstorm on the way to the summit, we had stepped inside
it being in the fire tower.
Advice: If you want to appreciate your time in a fire tower, check the weather.
These old fire towers embody the his- tory of the Adirondack Mountains. They were once used to watch for forest
fires. New technology made the towers obsolete, but they still stand sentinel over the valleys below. Many of these
historic structures are on the National Historic Lookout Register and are part of a “Fire Tower Challenge,” completed
only by hikers who summit at least 23 of the 28 peaks dotted with fire towers. Lyon Mountain is the tallest in Clinton
County with an elevation of 3,830 feet. It is nearly as high as Couchsachraga Peak, the last of the 46 High Peaks, but did
not make the “official list” when it was made over a century ago.
Just a short distance west of Dannemora, New York, Lyon hosts one of the first fire towers in the Adirondack
region. Erected in 1917, the 35-foot steel tower was officially closed in early 1989. The view from this tower
stretches toward Montréal, the Green Mountains of Vermont and New York’s High Peaks. As visitors drive
through Dannemora, they drive through its history as well. Mining was once huge here. Its mining history dates
back to the 1880s when the old Republic Steel Co. was the largest employer in Clinton County. Over 300 miners
and 700 residents worked for the company in the emerging boomtown. Now, family hikes are the main attraction.
On St. Regis Mountain, located in Santa Clara, New York, stands what was the longest operating fire tower in New
York state. The observation tower was erected in 1910 and built on William Rockefeller’s property. He started buying
his land in 1896 to establish a summer home. The actual fire tower wasn’t constructed until eight years later. According
to a letter his son wrote, Rockefeller gave permission to establish an observation station on the mountain.
Was that noise a bear?
These woods are totally haunted, aren’t they? This is how slasher movies start.
if I get lost out here? It wasn’t long before my thoughts drifted from my manufactured problems to a real crisis: The trail
had been washed out. It turns out the biggest challenge of night hiking isn’t the fatal- ism of your internal monologue. It’s
crossing a bridge of downed branches in low lighting. After making my way to the top, my mind returned to the original
mission: seeing the first hint of brilliant orange light from the top of the Poke-O-Moonshine fire tower.
I was nearly blind as I trekked through the heart of the woods at 4:30 a.m. on an unfamiliar trail about 25 miles
south of Plattsburgh. A head cold that had been brewing all weekend took its toll, rendering me drowsy and weak.
The cheap $7 headlamp strapped across my temples felt like agony. I removed it and let it swing around my neck.
I would occasionally hold the light in one hand, scanning the area in search of trail markers. The worst part was
hiking alone. Had I a travel companion, I would’ve had a distraction from the constant flurry of sinister thoughts
cycling through my mind.
He also gave some tips to run phone signal wires down the mountain’s north side so it would be easy to notify the
family if fires sprang up on their property. The fire tower was closed in 1990, along with the other fire towers in the
region, because helicopters could spot fires more effectively. Now, the fire tower’s bottom half of the stairs are missing,
so visitors can’t climb the tower. At least the tower remains, allowing climbers who summit to see more than just a