Long Lake West Fire - 1908

Final Update: 04/11/2018 @ 1600

1885 map of fire warden coverage.The New York State Forest Rangers find their beginning in 1885 with the creation of the Forest Commission.    The enabling legislation created the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves and gave the Commission broad powers, one of which was to establish a system of firewardens (accepted spelling of the time) throughout the entire State, whose job it was to take measures to extinguish forest fires once they occurred. It set up a system whereby firewardens were selected by the town supervisor and approved and appointed by the State.

In the shaded areas, designated as the "forest preserve counties", the Commission had legal responsibility for controlling forest fires. In the remaining portions of the State, the Laws of 1885 designated each town supervisor as an ex officio firewarden and vested the responsibility for controlling forest fires with that person. Though these were State appointed positions, their salaries and expenses while fighting fires rested with the towns. This unfunded State mandate would soon cause serious problems with the entire concept.

Early Logging Practices Created a Severe Fire Danger Situation in the Adirondacks

Load of logs in the Adirondacks c. 1890

In the latter part of the Nineteenth Century loggers laid waste to vast areas of the Adirondacks and Catskills taking the best and leaving everything else.

Load of logs in the Adirondacks c. 1890

Slash that remained after a logging operation.

In some cases the pine and spruce slash was 10 feet deep, posing a severe danger of forest fires.

Slash that remained after a logging operation.

Serious Fires Plagued the Adirondack Region in 1899

The card reads: 'Adirondack Mts. N. Y.  Fire on Whiteface Mountain <i>Adirondacks</i> It was posted in 1903.'

Serious forest fires occurred in 1899, burning 79,653 acres of land in the Adirondack and Catskill regions. This was 50,000 acres more than any previous year since the warden system's inception in 1885. The severity is evidenced by a news article regarding the situation. The postcard to the left depicts a fire which burned over 800 acres on the north slope of Whiteface Mountain on August 20, 1899.

This specific fire is mentioned in the article and its severity and the negative ramifications of the town having to pay fire suppression costs in their entirety, which is documented further by the Report of Firewarden Henry Morgan from the Town of Wilmington.

Firefighters build a hand-dug line to contain a forest fire. - c. 1889

The following are 1899 photos of fire fighters constructing a fire line.

Firefighters build a hand-dug line to contain a forest fire. - c. 1889

Col. Fox Advocates for a Force of Forest Rangers

Col. William F. Fox, Superintendent of Forests

In late 1899, Col. William F. Fox, Superintendent of Forests, often referred to as the Father of the New York State Forest Rangers, issued a special report to the Commission, advocating supplementation of the firewarden system with "an adequate force of forest rangers who should be assigned to districts of a suitable area, which should be patrolled constantly and thoroughly."

He went on to say that "the ranger should be required to live on the township, and a log cabin should be built for that purpose near the center of the township. He should live in the woods, not in some distant village. During dry seasons the highways should also be patrolled because more fires start at a roadside than anywhere else."

"The duties of a patrol are different from those of a firewarden. The fire warden's work commences after the fire has started; the work on the patrol before. In his closing remarks he suggested a sum of money "for the pay of ... thirty-five forest rangers." Fox's recommendations were accepted by the Commission and legislation drafted which managed to pass the New York State Senate but failed to receive gubernatorial approval.

Fires in 1903 Burned Over 464,000 Acres of Land

Forest fires were especially problematic again in 1903 when they burned in excess of 464,000 acres of forest lands.    The following year, Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester for the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Forestry, who had close ties to the Adirondacks, ordered a study on the previous years fire season that resulted in some surprising conclusions which are described in great length in this newspaper article.

The report criticized the firewarden system by saying "the great weakness of the firewarden service is that it is not employed to prevent fires, but merely to organize a force to fight them when they come to notice." He echoed Col. Fox's words as he went on the say "the service should be supplemented by a permanent force of rangers to be continually on the lookout for fire. It will require careful study on the ground to work out the details of such service. But it is believed that this State can protect it's forests from fire at a cost no greater than a reasonable rate of insurance upon the capital which these forests represent." It was truly unfortunate that both Col. Fox's and Forester Pinchot's recommendations seemed to fall on deaf ears.

In 1908, 350,000 Acres Were Burned. The Most Noteworthy of These Was the Long Lake West Fire

Resulting damage from the Long Lake West Fire - 1908

1908 was the next year where New York's forests suffered serious fire damage. Over 350,000 acres were destroyed. The pictures here show the devastation of what was probably the worst of that years fires which burned over 30,000 acres in one day and consumed the entire community of Long Lake West, now known as Sabattis.

Resulting damage from the Long Lake West Fire - 1908

The community was totally destroyed and it's inhabitants barely escaped with their lives on a rescue train sent down from Tupper Lake. A news article of that era provides the details on that devastating fire.

The severity of this years fires reinforced the warnings of both Fox and Pinchot that the firewarden system devised in 1885 was totally ineffective, especially when dealing with serious fire conditions.

1909 Saw the Creation of the Fire Patrol, Falling Far Short of Col. Fox's Earlier Vision

1909 Fire Patrol District Map
In 1909, there were two noteworthy events to report. The first was the death of Col. William F. Fox, Superintendent of Forests, who had championed the concept of a forest ranger force for the previous ten years. The second, sweeping changes were made to the Forest, Fish and Game Law, the most important of which eliminated the firewarden (accepted spelling of the time) system and replaced it with a new fire patrol service. While this was a giant step forward, it did not fulfill all that Col. Fox had envisioned.

The laws of 1909 authorized the hiring of 68 regular fire patrolmen who were paid by the year and 109 special fire patrolmen who were paid while on duty extinguishing fires. The fire patrolmen's responsibilities differed greatly from those of their predecessors. They were to constantly patrol their districts in search of fires when the weather indicated a need. They were to inspect and monitor logging operations and the public's use of State lands and offer fire prevention advice when they encountered dangerous situations. They were to enforce all the laws relating to fire prevention and control and were granted the same powers as game protectors, in order to carry out these new responsibilities.

The law provided for four superintendents of fire and six railroad inspectors, all of whom answered to the superintendent of forests. It provided for the establishment of fire observation stations with telephone communications. It required lumbermen to lop branches from coniferous trees left on the ground after lumbering operations. It further required that railroads clear their rights-of-way of flammable material and maintain fire patrols behind their trains. And lastly, it gave the governor the power, in times of drought, to prohibit any person from entering upon forest lands.

A 1909 Fire Patrol Badge from the Chet Smith Collection

No employee of this new organization was given either uniforms or vehicles so they were required to provide their own. They were, however, given a badge like this for identification. These badges were worn by both the tower men and regular fire patrolmen.

The Establishment of Fire Observation Stations Begins

Upon creation of the fire patrol system, the Commission immediately established nine fire observation stations in 1909. The first two were on Belleayre and Balsam Lake Mountains, both in District 4 in the Catskills. These two sites already had towers that were previously erected by the landowners of the property on which they stood.


Immediately following those two in the Catskills, four additional stations were established in the Adirondacks, first on Mt. Morris in June, then on Whiteface and Gore in July and West Mountain in August. In some cases where mountaintops were denuded by fire, lumbering or the forces of nature, no towers were immediately erected. Later that same year, stations were also established on Snowy, Hunter and Hamilton Mountains bringing the total to nine.

A postcard from the Paul Hartmann Collection

Whiteface was one example where no tower was immediately erected and only a tent was provided to protect tower men from the often severe mountaintop weather conditions. Only telephone lines were constructed so that the tower men could quickly contact the local fire patrolmen.

The wooden tower on Cat Mountain.

By the end of 1910, twenty fire observation stations were established, some like this one on Cat Mountain.

Observer's cabin on Cat Mountain - c. 1913

Some mountaintop stations, again like Cat Mt., were fortunate enough to have a cabin built out of natural materials cut at the site. Many others were only provided tents which had a very short life expectancy of a year or possibly two. By 1916 all sites had some sort of cabin to allow the tower men a certain level of comfort when not on duty.

Collage of telephone line construction work by forest rangers and observers.

Communication between the fire observation station and the local fire patrolman was vital to the new concept of early detection and response. The three pictures in the collage to the right show the setting of poles, the stringing of wire and the finished product.

Building telephone lines was no easy task. A route had to be laid out and brushed sufficiently so the line would not touch either branches or other objects that could ground out the circuit. On many mountains the lines were attached to trees as the soil was too shallow to set poles. Once above the timber line, holes had to be drilled in the rock and iron poles set in them.

The design of the line had to match the commercial or private circuit to which it would be connected. Early technology utilized a single conductor as part of what was called a "ground return" circuit. While a single line caused fewer maintenance problems, the line had to be sufficiently grounded at the mountain station, which presented difficulties, especially during periods of protracted drought.

Later technology utilized two conductors in what was commonly called a "metallic circuit." These too, had to be grounded at the mountain station, but it was not such a serious issue here as it was with the "ground return" circuits.

By the time the Conservation Commission began establishing observation stations, there were numerous commercial and private circuits about the Adirondacks. Aside from the New York Telephone Company, private landowners, both large and small had a need for communications on their properties. Where none existed, they built them themselves. Landowners like the Whitney's and Webb's had extensive telephone systems on their vast acreages.

The Conservation Commission moved into the telephone business in a big way. They either purchased or constructed many miles of line to meet their needs. In 1909 it was reported that "twenty-two miles of telephone line were purchased in the Town of Indian Lake, connecting Snowy Mountain with Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake and North Creek on the east." The Commission also "put up new wire from Indian Lake to Perkins, a distance of 24 miles, purchased the Perkins line, which is 6 miles long, to the Village of Speculator and Town of Lake Pleasant" where the circuit ended at Hamilton Mountain.

Telephone line construction and maintenance to remote locations remained a function of the forest ranger and observer until the last tower was closed in 1990.

Life was extremely difficult for the first observers who manned these stations. One such observer was William Wing Sanderson. Sanderson worked on West Mountain from August 12th, when it first opened, through October 10, 1909.

Simply getting to Raquette Lake was no easy task. One would have to take the train to the Hamlet of Raquette Lake and then a motor launch to steamboat up the lake to the beginning of the West Mt. Trail in Sucker Brook Bay.

During that time, he kept a detailed diary of his daily activities.

Sanderson's diary can be viewed by clicking here.

A .pdf of the original diary can be downloaded by clicking here.

Railroads Were Probably the Most Serious Cause of Forest Fires During That Era

1909-Steam locomotive and railroad cars.

Only second to incendiary fires, railroads were probably the single biggest cause of forest fires. They may not have ranked extremely high in numbers but the damage done in remote areas along their lines was astronomical. To combat this issue, six railroad inspectors were hired to monitor their operations and enforce the Commission's regulations pertaining to them. Railroads were required to equip engines with spark arrestors on their stacks and devices on their ash pans to prevent the escape of hot embers. They were required to establish patrols behind their trains to extinguish any fires they discovered. The most notable regulation required them to use only engines converted from coal to oil during periods of high fire danger. Railroads vehemently fought this requirement but ultimately lost their battle before the State's Public Service Commission in 1909, and the regulation stood.

Rangers and railroad employees removing flammable materials from the right-of-way.

They were also required to insure that rights-of-way through forest lands were cleared and burned twice a year in order to prevent fires caused by such railroads. This practice declined over the years with the last actual burning done in 1965 on a remote section of the Carthage and Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad running from Harrisville to Benson Mines.

Early Posters Warned of the Danger of Fire

1908 fire prevention posters.In addition to detection and extinguishment of fire, prevention was a high priority and nonexistent prior to the creation of the fire patrol system. Posters such as this were widely distributed throughout the forested areas of the State.

1910 fire prevention circulars & handbills.

Public utilities and corporations, including the railroads, did their part to spread the fire prevention message through posters and handbills. Railroads had a vested interest in this endeavor, as any fire occurring on a railroad right-of-way was considered prima facia evidence that the railroad caused the fire and was therefore responsible for the cost of suppression and the damage done.

1912 Brought the Creation of the Forest Ranger Force

By 1912 many significant changes were made. Most notable the combining of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission, the Forest Purchasing Board and the State Water Supply Commission and the Commissioners of Water Power on the Black River into a single agency - The Conservation Commission. This new commission was comprised of three Divisions - Fish and Game, Inland Waters and Lands and Forests.

The fire patrol organization underwent changes as well. The number of districts increased from four to five with four in the Adirondacks and still one in the Catskills. The title of "superintendent of fires" was changed to "district ranger", "fire patrolman" was changed to "forest ranger" and tower men were now identified as "forest fire observers." The former title of "special patrolman" was changed to "fire warden" and included appointees who would supplement the forest ranger force and would be paid $2.50 a day while fighting fires.

Along with these new titles, came a new direction. In addition to the obvious, the forest ranger's duties now included the oversight and protection of the state lands within their districts from: timber theft, illegal occupancy and public misuse. Further, they were empowered to enforce all laws, rules and regulations relating to both their fire and state land responsibilities.

These title changes and additional responsibilities completed the dream of Col. Fox who died three years earlier. They were included in the legislation, in part at the behest of Superintendent of Forests Clifford Pettis and Gifford Pinchot, a long time acquaintance of Col. Fox and former head of the US Forest Service, who strongly supported both in his report of December 1911 entitled "How To Save the Adirondack Forests."

This marked the beginning of the organization known yet today, over 100 years later, as the New York State Forest Rangers. The title "ranger" dates back to the 19th century, well before the creation of the force. Back then the term described a person who was woods-wise and fell between members of the logging industry and the professionally educated forester.
By the end of 1912 there were 50 forest rangers, 36 forest fire observers and 195 fire wardens. The ranger's work schedule was not as we know work schedules today. There was "no basic work week." They were allowed "one day off in seven" and were "on call 24 hours per day." They were required to work the hours necessary to get the job done with no thought to an eight hour day or overtime compensation. The ranger position was, therefore, less of a job and more of a way of life.