PHOTOS: All Across the Fire Towers

Adirondack fire towers provide a glimpse of the region’s past—and beautiful views of the present.

Issue 4: Winter/Spring 2015

    Trail Blazing

                          Photos by Seth Thomas
                          Story by Claire Durham and Seth Thomas


            The 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.

         Snow began to stick to our sweaty foreheads as we marched up the last stretch of trail. The wind howled at the top.
      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. 
What happens  
     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
       spectacular view. 

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