Fires raged near Lake Placid, Newcomb, Lake George and Saranac Lake during the spring of 1903.
A lack of rain had spurred a 72-day drought which dried out the leaves and brush from the previous year. The practices of the relatively unregulated logging and railroad industries, plus the dry conditions, made the situation even more combustible.
Despite the destruction of 600,000 acres, little was done about the problem. Forest fires were an act of God.
Perceptions, and laws, would change five years later after the fires of 1908.
The summer and early autumn of 1908 had been very dry.
Small fires were reported during the summer along the New York Central’s Adirondack railway corridor.
The railroads and the logging companies that followed them would again have a role in the destruction that followed.
Steam locomotives at the time were fueled by burning wood or coal which threw sparks up their chimneys. Laws required steel netting to catch the sparks, but it was seldom enforced and, when it was, the resulting $100 fine mattered little to wealthy railroad companies.
In addition, logging companies rarely did the time-consuming, and not profitable, practice of “limbing,” the removal of limbs from the discarded treetops which they left behind.
This created a dried tangle of tinder, just waiting for a spark.
On Sept. 9, 1908 a spark from a train started a fire that quickly spread from Horseshoe to Nehasane in Hamilton County, possibly aided by more locomotives rushing men and equipment to the scene.
Men from nearby lumber camps, fire wardens and crews from railroad companies fought the fires. Large water tanks mounted on flat cars were used.
Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, Dr. W.J. McGee of the Geological Survey in Washington D.C. said that fires in the Adirondack Park were causing $1 million worth of damage a day.
It was hoped that the worst of the fires had been contained by Sept. 26.
But the next day, the winds strengthened, and it would lead to the destruction of an entire New York village.
Long Lake West (located in Hamilton County; now called Sabattis ) in 1908 was a village of about 200 people. A Utica newspaper in 1908 called it then “one of the most prosperous villages in the Adirondacks.”
Residents had been on edge for days; a thick pall of smoke hung over the village and at night the surrounding woods glowed orange.
After the winds shifted to the south and began to howl shortly after midnight on Sept. 27, residents had only minutes to evacuate their homes.
The Utica Herald-Dispatch described the scene:
“Only those who barely escaped with their lives can realize the ferocity of the flames which blew away the town almost in a breath, leveling the buildings and driving horses and other animals in terror through the burning wood. Deer and bear mingled with domesticated animals in the mad flight and the residents who hurriedly boarded a fire train for Tupper Lake witnessed the unprecedented sight of ambling bears, jumping deer and neighing horses striving to escape the stifling smoke and blinding flames.”
The paper reported that within 20 minutes the entire village was wiped out, including a dozen homes, the church, the Wilderness Inn and the village’s school.
The intense heat twisted the railroad track, melted five barrels of nails into lumps and exploded 50 barrels of kerosene and 1,500 pounds of dynamite at Moynihan’s Storehouse, the sound of which could be heard eight miles away. (No one was injured, but the explosion put a crater into the earth.)
The Tupper Lake Herald called the village a “scene of desolation” and wrote that the once “busy and prosperous” community had been reduced to “heaps of charred embers.”
The smoke from the Adirondack fires of 1908 were seen as far north as Quebec City and the New York Times reported that New York City was clouded over for days by clouds that “held not a drop of rain.”
The flames pushed westwards but rain finally slowed their advance and frost in October kept them in check.
The old attitudes around forest fires shifted following 1908; no longer were they seen as part of God’s will.
Instead, for the first time, they were something that man had a hand in and could be prevented.
A series of laws were passed in 1909 to prevent forest fires in the future.
Locomotives could burn only oil during peak fire season, from April 15 to October 31 and logging companies were required to “limb everything” they left behind.
There was increased information and signage for visitors to the Adirondack Park and the Governor now had the authority to close public and private forests when there was a fire threat.
Fire districts were established and mountaintop fire towers, first built of wood and later steel, were erected, staffed with patrolmen, to detect fires early.
The first tower was finished in 1909 on top of Mount Morris and was soon joined by similar towers on top of Gore, Hamilton, Whiteface, West and Snowy mountains.
There were 120 fire towers built across New York State and most were maintained through the 1970s when the use of aircraft made them obsolete.