Blue Mt. Fire Observation Station - 1915

Final Update: 04/11/2018 @ 1600

By 1912 many significant changes were made. Most notable was the combining of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission, the Forest Purchasing Board, 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."

Firefighting Force Now Known by the title Forest Rangers

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.

The picture of the card is courtesy of Jay Simpson, grandson for Forest Ranger Jay Simpson

By the end of 1912 there were 50 forest rangers, 36 forest fire observers and 195 fire wardens. The rangers 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.

The Ranger School at Wanakena

About that same time the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse was contemplating a new curriculum to satisfy the demands from private landowners, lumber companies, railroads and forest estates for young men who had technical training in surveying, mapping, timber cruising and other woods skills to fill the niche between the logger and the trained forester. That same year they opened a new campus at Wanakena and they called it "The Ranger School."

Both the Ranger School and later Paul Smith's College, would provide many excellent candidates for the ranks of the New York State Forest Rangers.

First Fire Observation Stations Established

One of the major efforts put forth from 1909 through 1915 was the establishment of fire observation stations. During that period, 50 were activated. Most stations would have towers that were constructed of natural materials found at the site, like this tower on Hunter Mountain.

Other towers, like this one on Gore Mountain,
were not quite as elaborate as some.

The problem with wooden towers like this one on Blue Mountain was, they were only temporary and very susceptible to the forces of nature. Soon steel structures would be purchased to replace these earlier structures.

The Forest Ranger Force and Fire Detection System Further Expanded

By the end of 1915, the fire protection force grew substantially. By that time, there were 5 district rangers, 65 forest rangers and 50 forest fire observers and mountain stations. About that same time, the Commission began providing vehicles to the district rangers. Pictured here is District Ranger Pat Cunningham in his newly issued Ford Model T touring car.

Maps show both increases, of the Forest Ranger Force and the Fire Detection System.

Steel Towers Replace Earlier Wooden Structures

1916 brought a new era in fire tower construction. The Commission abandoned the practice of building towers using natural materials and purchased ten steel towers from a company in Chicago by the name of Aermotor. Over the years, Aermotor Co. became a primary supplier of steel fire observation towers in the United States. These first ten towers had no internal stairway but only a ladder attached to the outside.

The exterior ladder was immediately deemed to be dangerous. Consequently, no additional towers of this design were purchased. In the interest of safety, this tower on Woodhull Mt was outfitted with a wooden ladder and enclosure, adjacent to the steel ladder, to protect the observer entering or exiting the tower cab.


Thirteen years later, the Aermotor Co. designed and offered for sale an internal stairway system for their early towers. Subsequently, all ten of the original towers were outfitted with the newly designed stairway. Shown here is the Moosehead Mt. Fire Tower after the stairway had been installed.

In 1917 a new model of tower was purchased, one with an internal stairway included. Shown here are photos of the Mt. Adams both during and after completion.

Note the barn in the right hand photo. The only practical way to move steel to a mountaintop was by the use of horses. Also, note the old wood tower in the background.


Fire Prevention and Suppression Responsibilities Extend to Long Island

Until 1918 the Commission's fire responsibilities lay solely within those towns in the Adirondacks and Catskills designated by law as "fire towns." Those areas are depicted on the 1912 map above.

Fire responsibilities elsewhere in the State, mandated by the Laws of 1916, lay with the individual town supervisors and the 'fire wardens' appointed within the town. In these areas it was the responsibility of the town to extinguish fires and pay the costs of such efforts from town funds.

The Commission's area of responsibility in the State would increase drastically in the coming years. In 1918, a canvas of the supervisors was made in the wooded sections of Long Island. Wardens were appointed and sites were chosen for two observation stations, one on Flanders Hill and the other on Telescope Hill. Fish and game clubs and local landowners helped provide funds to purchase these towers which were completed in the latter part of that same year.

Though this new district was created in 1918, a district ranger was not appointed until December of the following year. The district was fully functional in 1920 and with its observation stations reporting 670 fires.

Flanders Hill Fire Tower courtesy of the Walt Tuber Collection               Telescope Hill Fire Tower - a NYS Archives Photo

Flanders Hill Fire Tower                                  Telescope Hill Fire Tower

The Conservation Commission and later the Conservation Department's forest rangers would continue to establish fire observation stations up until 1964. There were 122 different sites over the years, and of that number, 102 were operational in the early 1960's.

Improved Fire Tower Maps Aid in Detection

1917 Osorne Firefinder - A Paul Hartmann Photo

In 1919, the Commission purchased a device known as the Osborne Firefinder which had been developed by William Bushnell Osborne of the US Forest Service. By means of this instrument, a panoramic map of the territory, visible from a mountain station, could be prepared.

This made it possible for an inexperienced observer to locate fires more accurately than by using ordinary topographic maps. The Osborne Firefinder was first tried out at Poke-O-Moonshine Mt. during that same year and a map was made. It was considered so successful that in the years to follow the Osborne was carried up to each mountain station and a map created. This project took several years to complete.

Panoramic maps were ultimately provided for all towers in the Adirondacks to aid the observer in locating fires. This was a circular map with a panoramic sketch of the surrounding vista around the outside edge, as can be seen in the photo below.

St Regis Mt. Panoramic Map - 1920 - A NYS Archives Photo

The inner portion was a topographic map with the tower location in the center. A sighting device called an "alidade" pivoted on a pin in its center. Along the outer edge of the topographic portion were degree marks that could be easily read by the observer once the alidade was sited on a possible fire.

The outermost edge of the map was the panorama or a sketch of what the observer could actually see from the mountain station.

1919-Map Table being demonstrated by Forester Kinne F. Williams- - A NYS Archives Photo

These new tower maps, attached to the table shown here, were a vast improvement that proved very helpful to the observer in locating possible forest fires.

This picture is purportedly of Kinne F. Williams, then a surveyor with the Conservation Commission. In 1927, Mr. Williams would become the Supt. of Forest Fire Control and serve in that position until 1952.

Private Landowner Towers Supplement the State's Fire Detection System

Many private landowners with large holdings established their own observation stations to protect their vast investments. Wealthy families with names like Fisher, Webb and Whitney were among these.

In 1910, Clarence Fisher, of Fisher Forestry and Reality, established his first of three towers on Beaver Lake Mt. in northwestern Herkimer County near the Lewis County border.

In 1923, Fisher erected his second tower on Rock Mt., located a mile southeast of Halfmoon Lake in the Town of Watson, Lewis County. This structure was a converted windmill towers that still remains at the site in 2017. Records are sketchy regarding the length of time that this tower actually operated but it's generally believed that it was only for a few years. Rock Mt. was considered to be a "secondary tower" by both Fisher and the State and supplemented the neighboring towers on Beaver Lake and Stillwater.

Fisher would later establish another tower in 1928 at Number Four and operated this one as well as a "secondary tower" until the State took ownership of the structure and the surrounding property many years later.

Mt. Electra - A Bob Eckler Photo

Dr. William Seward Webb of Nehasane Park constructed a steel tower on Rock Lake Mt in north-eastern Herkimer Co., the name of which was later changed to Mt. Electra after his wife.

About that same time, Champlain Reality Co. erected a tower on Pillsbury Mt; the Whitney's established two, one on Buck Mt. and another on Salmon Lake and the Florida School put up a tower on Meenahga Mt.

Though privately owned, each operated in conjunction with their neighboring State towers. Most, but not all, were considered "secondary towers" and had working arrangements or agreements with the State. In some cases the State actually paid the observers' salaries.

Outdoor Recreation Increasing in Popularity in the Mountainous Areas of New York

1920 Trail Signs  - A NYS Archives Photo

By 1920, the number of people seeking outdoor recreational opportunities had increased by leaps and bounds in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. For years the Commission had encouraged the use of fire tower trails as an easy and available form of recreation. The Commission looked upon the Forest Preserve as "the people's great playground" and opened an additional 260 miles of foot trails that year.

Hikers on an Adirondack Foot Trail - c. 1920 - A NY State Archives Photo

Outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the mountains in great numbers to avail themselves of these new opportunities. The Adirondacks became a new found playground, especially for the rich.

Adirondack Leanto at Fish Creek Campsite - c. 1920 - A NY State Archives Photo

That same year 20 new "open camps," better known as Adirondack Lean-tos, were erected like this one at Fish Creek Campsite. Improvements were concentrated in certain areas with the idea that keeping the public in close proximity would afford better oversight by the rangers and lessen the possibility of forest fires.

Roadside camping in the Adirondacks - c.1920 - A NY State Archives Photo

Beyond the organized campsites, the Commission installed 96 fireplaces at popular primitive camping areas along public highways, again, with the idea of reducing the possibility of forest fires. This type of camper, usually someone just traveling through the mountains, would simply pull off the road at a scenic location and camp for the night.

Much of the work building these improvements fell on the shoulders of the forest rangers who additionally had to see that the public abide by the many rules and regulations governing their use.

 Tent Platform on Lower saranac Lake  - A NYS Archives Photo - c. 1926

To encourage even greater use of the forest preserve the Commission devised a system that permitted the construction of tent platforms by private individuals. Under this system, the platform immediately became property of the State and its use would be covered by Commission regulations. The theory was that these platforms were available to anyone wishing to use them for short periods of time. On leaving, the party would remove all of their canvas and belongings making it available for the next.

In reality, the concept failed and these platforms became private camps on State Lands and another headache for the local forest ranger.

Adirondack Sign Law Enacted to Preserve the Beauty of the Mountains

In the early 20's the Adirondack Sign Law was passed to aid in protecting the beauty of the Park by limiting the number, size and location of off-premise signage. Enforcement of this new law fell on the shoulders of the forest rangers which expanded their enforcement responsibilities beyond their traditional role.

Numerous Improvements in Fire Fighting Equipment

1921- Fairbanks-Morse Portable Pump - A NYS Archives Photo

The early 20's brought great additions and improvements to fire fighting equipment. Previously, only hand tools were available. Axes, shovels, brooms, crosscut saws and canvas pails were commonly used. Equipment to transport and utilize water were not yet invented or adapted to forest fire fighting.

Gasoline powered pumps were one of the biggest changes during the period. There were several types purchased and used, but the first was the Fairbanks-Morse, demonstrated here at the Ranger School Campus in Wanakena.

A 1921 Evinrude Portable Pump - An NYS Archives Photo

Next to be acquired and what became the Commission's mainstay for several years was the 125 pound Evinrude pump. It was more reliable than the Fairbanks-Morse and could move much larger volumes of water.

1925 Dana Pump demonstrated with an automobile as a power source - A NYS Archives Photo

Introduced in 1925, was a rather unique pump that had no connected power source. Instead, this pump, called the Dana Pump, operated by means of a belt drive off the wheel of a vehicle or motorcycle as shown here.

1925 - The FitzHenry-Guptill Pump  - A NYS Archives Photo

The FitzHenry-Guptill Pump was another tested by the Commission. Though effective in producing several streams of water simultaneously, due to its weight, it only had limited application.

1927- Pacific Pumper - A NYS Archives Photo

Finally, a Pacific Pumper was purchased for evaluation. Its four cycle engine, easy portability and reliability all made it the most desirable of all the portable pumps currently in use. Pacific Pumpers soon became the mainstay in portable pumps for the forest rangers right up to the present.

The First Fire Truck Developed and Assigned to Long Island

In 1924 the Commission added the first piece of mechanized fire fighting equipment to its inventory. It was simply a heavy framed Ford truck with an Evinrude pump, four large barrels of water and several hundred feet of hose. The unit was, in a rather loose sense, self-contained. It was the forerunner of the modern day "slip-on unit" that would be developed years later.

The Evolution of Hand-operated Fire Fighting Pumps

1925 - Double Forester Pump - A NYS Archives Photo

Portable and hand operated pumps went through the same sort of evolutionary process as did their gasoline powered counterparts. The first used was the Double Forester. It's 10 gallon tank and the necessity of two people to operate it made it rather cumbersome, though it was useful under certain conditions. It was not, however, considered a good all-around unit.

A real need was felt for a pump which could be conveniently carried and operated by one person. This new type of French made pump called the Vermorel Spray Pump was obtained in early 1923 and supplied to the district rangers for testing. The "Vermorel Eclair" Sprayer, consisted of a tank made entirely of copper. The tank was pressurized by means of a hand pump located in the fill cap. To expel water, a small lever located on the lower right side of the tank was depressed, allowing a small stream of water to be expelled from the wand attached to a small rubber hose. While this was efficient and appropriate for vineyard spraying it was deemed unsuitable for forest fire fighting in New York State.

With the failure of the Vemorel Pump as a desirable fire fighting tool, in early 1926, District Ranger Ernest Blue, headquartered at Cold Brook, approached the D B Smith Co of Utica NY, a manufacturers of agricultural sprayers since 1888. The collaboration between Blue and D B Smith resulted in making minor modifications to one of their existing products, resulted in an effective pump for combating forest fires. Known as the Smith Indian Fire Pump, after rigorous testing, the Conservation Commission purchased six hundred units with federal grant monies for the Clark-McNary Act. Subsequently, four years later the now Conservation Department would have 2000 Smith Indian Fire Pumps on hand.

In our circle, we look upon District Ranger Ernest Blue as "The Father of the Indian Fire Pump."

For their advertising purposes, Smith contracted with a local artist whose oil rendering depicted a forest ranger using a Smith Indian Fire Pump to douse the flames of a running forest fire. It's interesting to note that the ranger's uniform was identical to that worn by the New York State Forest Rangers during that era. Further, there's a strong likelihood that the image in the painting bears a striking resemblance to that of Ernest Blue, according to a descendant of the District Ranger, his son Alan Blue.

Forest Ranger Force Issued Uniforms

In 1926, uniforms were first issued to the entire forest ranger organization. Pictured below are the forest ranger supervisors taken on the Capitol steps in Albany in their new uniforms and campaign style hats.

In the front row, from left to right are: C. H. Heath, Chief Railroad Inspector; District Forest Ranger Pat J. Cunningham; Assistant Superintendent of State Forests W. G. Howard; Deputy Commissioner Francis X. Disney; Commissioner Alexander McDonald; Superintendent of State Forests C. R. Pettis and District Forest Ranger Ernest Blue.

In the back, from left to right are: District Forest Rangers Stratton D. Todd, R. L. Witherell, Clarence E. Dare, Henry A. Teal, Harry E. Ferris, Lyman H. Taft, James H. Hopkins, E. C. Roberts and Moses H. LaFountain.

Cadre of Motorcycle Rangers Created to Patrol and Oversee State Campsites

1925-2-motorchcle rangers.jpg - 79485 Bytes

Because of an ever increasing interest in outdoor recreation on State Lands, six motorcycle rangers were appointed, whose primary job was to patrol and "to look after the public campsites, prevent fires and warn the public about fire danger." These rangers, while still a part of the forest fire control organization, would soon be reassigned to the Bureau of Recreational Development to be created in 1927.

Area of Responsibility Expands

By the end of 1926, the Commission's fire control responsibility had grown in leaps and bounds. In addition to the original five districts and the new district on Long Island, responsibility extended to the Tug Hill area west of the Black River in Lewis County and Oneida Counties, the area east of the Hudson River and south of the Adirondacks, the area south of the Catskills to the New Jersey border and Pennsylvania line and still another in the southwestern part of the State.

In each of these new districts, district rangers were hired to represent the Commission and oversee the activities of the locally appointed fire wardens . In some cases, it would be years before permanent forest rangers were appointed. Once appointments took place, they were not in the numbers of rangers or of fire towers that existed at the time in the Adirondacks and Catskills. The staffing would average about one forest ranger per county who would rely heavily on fire wardens in times of high fire occurrence. This variation in staffing would carry through to present times.

The Commission Reorganized and Renamed to be Known as The Conservation Department

1927 brought more changes. The Conservation Commission was renamed the Conservation Department. With this new name came a division of responsibilities. Previously, nearly all of the field work and oversight was the responsibility of the District Forest Rangers. This change saw the creation three bureaus within the Division of Lands and Forests. Forester Kinnie Williams was appointed to the position of Superintendent of Forest Fire Control, William D. Mulholland to Recreational Development and A. F. Amadon to the Bureau of Reforestation. In an effort to consolidate state government, two new divisions, the Division of Parks and the Division of Water Power and Control were added. The new Division of Parks brought together a variety of organizations, councils and commissions under one head and would remain a part of the Conservation Department for another forty years, until 1970 when it became the Office of Parks and Recreation.

Along with these changes, new and distinctive badges were issued to every district ranger, forest ranger, forest fire observer and railroad fire inspector.

District Forest Ranger Badge worn from 1947 to 1970  - A Paul Hartmann Photo Forest Range Badge worn from 1926 to 1970 - A Paul Hartmann Photo Forest Fire Observer Badge worn from 1926 to 1970  - A Paul Hartmann Photo Chief Railroad Fire Inspector Badge worn from 1926 to 1947 - A Paul Hartmann Photo