This post has been in the making for at least the past month or at least once I learned that Azure Mountain’s Fire Tower celebrated its centennial on July 29, 2018. This post is a little more personal than usual because I grew up hiking Azure Mountain yearly and also because the fire tower on Azure was constructed with the intent of being part of the fire detection network New York State created in the early 20th century. It oddly has some relevance given the fact that the state of California, where I currently reside, has had a hard recently with wildfires throughout the state.
Azure Mountain is located in the township of Waverly in Franklin County and is one of the mountains located in the Adirondacks in New York State. The mountain to though, is not one of the 46 mountains that make up the Adirondack High Peaks. The Adirondack High Peaks were all originally thought to be mountains that were all over 4,000 feet. Today it has been determined that four of the mountain peaks do not actually hit 4,000 feet. Azure Mountain in comparisons is only 2,518 feet tall, so it’s far off from being a high peak. But even though it’s not one of the coveted mountains of the Adirondacks, I still think it is the prettiest. I could be biased though because I’ve been up the mountain so many times.
While the view from the summit never changes, every new trek adds to my memories of Azure Mountain. The following is a collection of photographs showing the same view from Azure Mountain’s summit just during different times of the year!
I can’t remember how old I was the first time I hiked Azure Mountain (most likely around 3rd grade) but I know my Dad dragged my brother and I up the mountain not too long after we moved to Northern New York from Osceola, NY. We would typically make our annual trek up the mountain in the fall when the Adirondacks are in full color and the mountain top blueberries are ripe enough to eat. Some falls we could determine- based on how many blueberries were left on the summit- that we had beaten the local boy scout troops up the mountain for their annual hike to the summit. On one fall hike, we convinced my mom to join us, another time we brought along some of my cousins Kyle and Derek- Kyle almost killed himself by running down the mountain, and then there was another fall trip up the mountain that I took with the modified and varsity girls soccer teams that we did in lieu of practice on the field.
When I graduated from high school in 2008, I received a scholarship from the Friends of Azure Mountain. In return for the scholarship, I had to be a Fire Observation Tower “interpreter” on the summit five different days during the summer. Being an “interpreter,” meant hanging out around the fire tower and welcoming visitors to the mountain’s summit, as well as answering any questions that they may have had about the mountain, the Adirondacks, or the fire tower. There were also other things to do other than answer questions, such as documenting the conditions of the trail, picking up any litter seen in the parking lot or on the trail, and even moving stones around the summit to help slow erosion. Was I good at being an interpreter? No, it’s because I was super nervous talking with strangers but I did hang around the tower to be there is people had questions. But I was super good at documenting trail conditions and moving rocks around to areas that needed erosion prevention. I did this adventure five times during the summer of 2008 and I dragged my brother with me every time. Two years later, my brother repaid me by also receiving the same scholarship and dragged me up the mountain a number of times during the summer of 2010. Every time there was a hike, it would be a race to see who could get to the summit first. I think Cody often beat me but there were a few times I made it first.
As you can imagine, I’ve been up the mountain many times, so many that I can visualize most of the winding trail from the parking lot to the summit. The trail starts from the parking lot, which is gravel and located in a stand of coniferous trees. There’s also a sketch outhouse in “front” of the parking in between the trees. At the end of the parking lot headed in the direction of the trail head there is a pile of stones, which super dedicated hikes can pick from and transport rocks to mountain summit. There is a pile at the end of the trail at the summit where the stones can be dropped off at. The stones are used by volunteers to help slow erosion on both the summit and along the trail. There is like a type of warm-up trail that goes from the parking lot to the actual base of the mountain, which is actually an old jeep trail. This trail stays mostly level for its duration and goes through a swampy/marsh area where you can see frogs and then goes into a heavily wooded area. Eventually, you’ll come to a mini wooden sign-in “station,” which is a common sight on trails in the Adirondacks.
The old jeep trail ends in a small clearing where the site of the former fire tower observer’s cabin was once located. The cabin is long gone but there still exists the ruins of a stone fire place indicating that there was once more to the clearing than meets the eye. The cabin went through three different incarnations, the original structure was constructed in 1914, with later reconstructions occurring in 1919 and then in 1936. The cabin would have last been used in an official capacity 1978, the same year the tower was last used to detect fires. Over the years, the cabin fell into disrepair much like the fire tower but wasn’t as lucky- it was officially removed in 1995.[i]
The hike continues through a forested area on a natural dirt path with some sections slightly altered by volunteers through the addition of stones or logs to help keep the trail intact from erosion. Along the first half of the hike, I have my favorite rocks and trees I like to stop at to catch my breathe. The so called “halfway” mark of the hike is at a rocky outcrop that’s on the right-hand side of the trail as you climb upwards. You won’t miss it. My brother calls it the, “caves.” There are some good rocks to sit on and the cave can be explored to some extent. I don’t think there’s any real caves though, it’s just the way the rock formation has shifted and eroded over the years, which gives the idea of there being caverns.
While it is a great place to stop, eat a quick snack, take a water break, and seems like a “halfway” point of the hike, it’s all a lie. You’re not really half way up the mountain- trust me. I consider the real halfway point to be slightly further up the trail at a ledge with a great view of the surrounding mountains and forest.
From that point onward, it’s an even more vertical climb up Azure, kind of like stairs. Eventually, the trail curves to the left and that’s when you know you’re almost at the summit because you can start to see specks of light through the tree canopy. The last 100-200-foot climb is steep but you just have to do it because the summit is close. The trail evens out at the very end through some underbrush and you walk out below the fire tower. To the right of the end of the trail there is a pile of stones where you can drop any stones you carried up the mountain.
Which brings me to Azure Mountain’s claim to fame, which is its historic fire observation tower that at one time was part of New York State’s main line of defense against forest fires in the Adirondacks. Before the current fire tower was constructed, there was a fire observation station constructed of wood up on Azure Mountain in 1914. That’s also the same year that the mountain’s name was changed from “Blue” to “Azure.”[ii]
The construction of the fire observation station at Azure followed a common trend in the Adirondack Preserve in the early 20th century- the construction of a number of observation stations on mountain peaks to help combat devastating fires. For example, in 1903 a fire in the Adirondack Forest destroyed 428,180 acres between April 20 to June 8, and only ended because of heavy rains. While in 1908, another fire caused by railroads burned an estimated 368,000 acres of the Adirondacks. In both instances, New York City experiences falling ash and smoke from the Upstate fires. In response, by 1909, a fire detection system was put in place and by 1910, 20 fire observation stations had been built.[iii]
The early fire stations were typically constructed of wood but as anyone can guess, wood doesn’t always stand up well to mountain top weather, lightening, or wind. Many of the early structures didn’t fair well and by 1916, the State had started to replace the wooden stations with steel structures and by 1918, there were a total of 52 steel towers in the State. Also, in 1918 the present galvanized steel tower was constructed on Azure Mountain- materials were transported up the mountain using horses most likely.[iv] Now the exciting thing is that the fire tower is a specific model. The steel frame was manufactured by the AerMotor Company of Chicago and they actually specialized in wind mills. The cool thing is that their wind mill structures could be easily adapted into a fire tower station, instead of the windmill on top, a cabin could replace it. Azure Mountain’s fire tower is the AerMotor Model No. LS-40, which is considered the “heavy construction type.” These models used heavier steel for the tower legs and angled “X” braces, as well as integrated stairs, with a square steel and glass cabin with a hip roof. Because Azure’s tower has five flights of stairs that means it’s 35 feet tall.[v]
A quick search through historic newspapers from 1900 to 1980, found the first mention of Azure in a news article titled, “Commission Designates Game and Forest Protections,” in the Chateauguay Record and Franklin County Democrat on September 11, 1914 where it was reported that, “Harlow Wheeler, formerly forest ranger as observer at the new mountain station on Azure Mountain.”[vi] Now this is interesting information because most sources record that Fred N. Smith was the very first fire observer at Azure Mountain and may have even helped build the original wooden observation station.
An article in the Adirondack News entitled, “Forest Rangers and Mtn. Observers,” reported that Fred Smith was designated Azure Mountain’s observer. The article stated that:
“State conservation commissioner George D. Pratt has announced the appointment of his assistants in the conservation department, including the forest rangers and mountain observers, whose duty it will be to guard the forests of the state throughout the great extent of Adirondack territory from fire also from trespassers.”[vii]
It seems that yearly announcements were made in the local Northern New York newspapers on who had been appointed forest rangers and mountain observers starting in 1914 until the late 1970’s. For example, an April 8, 1948 article reported that Earl Johnson was that year’s Azure Mountain fire tower observer. That year mountain fire observers went back to duty starting April 1 and that a number of observers would be assigned once the weather demanded it. Between Clinton, Essex, and Franklin counties there were a total of 18 mountain stations.[viii]
The Azure Mountain Fire Observation Tower was used as part of the fire detection system in New York for 60 years. The last fire tower observer was Mike Richards, who closed the tower for the season in 1978, the DEC removed the lower sets of stairs to prevent people from climbing up. The use of the towers to detect fires had been slowly replaced with aerial detection flights making the historic observation towers obsolete.
In 2001, the State began to move forward with plans to demolish the fire tower, which was in poor condition to say the least. In response, a group of concerned citizens and organizations like Adirondack Architectural Heritage quickly came together with the purpose of saving the Azure Mountain Fire Observation Tower by working with the DEC. The DEC gave those concerned with saving the tower, the opportunity to form an official group who would be involved in the maintenance efforts of the tower for long term. The group that formed was the Friends of Azure Mountain and was created largely in part to the efforts of Carolyn Kaczka and Michael McLean.[ix]
In the same year, as part of the effort to save the Azure Mountain Fire Observation Tower, it was listed on both the State and National Register of Historic Places as part of a multiple property nomination, Fire Observation Stations of the NYS Forest Preserve. Other fire towers included in the nomination consist of the towers on Arab, Blue, Hadley, Kane, Snowy, and Poke-O-Moonshine Mountains. Azure Mountain is listed under Criteria A and C because of its historic significance to NY State’s forest preserve (Criteria A) and because architecturally it is a good representative of early 20th century fire towers (Criteria C).[x]
By 2002, the involvement of a number of forest rangers helped the cause. Jeff Balerno was able to coordinate seven helicopter flights to Azure’s summit to drop off needed construction materials that would be used in restoring the tower. During the 2002 summer, a collection of people including forest rangers, Americorp volunteers, members of the Friends of Azure Mountain and volunteers worked to replace damaged and rotted wood, hardware, repainted metal, etc. basically everything you see today on the tower was done during the 2002 restoration. Eventually, a DEC structural engineer inspected the newly restored Azure Mountain Fire Observation Tower and on September 27, 2003, the tower was once again open and could be used by the public![xi]
The interesting thing is that Carolyn Kaczka trained me on how to be a fire observation tower interpreter for my internship/scholarship in 2008. ON the first day that I was the interpreter for the summer. I don’t think I saw again for a very long time. After moving back home from graduating UVM, I did occasion consultant jobs, one of which was conducting a free walking tour of downtown Potsdam, NY, which is known for its Red Sandstone buildings. I did this as part of Adirondack Architectural Heritage’s yearly tour offerings in May 2016. At the end of the tour, this woman came up to me and re-introduced herself as Carolyn and that she had enjoyed the tour! I can’t remember how the full conversation went but I do remember telling her that after graduating from SUNY Potsdam, I went on to grad school for historic preservation and was doing the occasional odd consultant job. It was a wonderful surprise to see her again and, in a way, see how somethings in life are connected. I’m not sure if being having a scholarship/internship with the Friends of Azure Mountain is what exactly got me into historic preservation but maybe subconsciously, it was there the entire time when I was making decisions about grad school.
On that note, Friends of Azure Mountain is always looking for volunteers, as is most non-profit organizations. If you live in the area of Azure or any historic fire tower for that matter, and enjoy hiking and helping preserve history and trails for others to use…. I suggest volunteering or at least contacting them to see in what ways you can help.
Thanks for reading this Adventure with Courtney.
Friends of Azure Mountain:
Historic Images of the Fire Tower: http://azuremountain.org/azurehistory.htm
History and Facts about Azure Mountain: http://azuremountain.org/azurefacts.htm
History of the Restoration Work for the Fire Tower: http://azuremountain.org/restoration2.htm
National Historic Register Lookout, a website dedicated to documenting historic fire lookouts: http://nhlr.org/lookouts/us/ny/azure-mountain-fire-tower/
Brief History of Azure Mountain: http://people.clarkson.edu/~csmith/azure-hist.html
Online Surveys and Reports of Fire Towers in the Adirondacks:
Bill Star, “A Pictorial History of the Fire Towers in New York State,” (Unpublished Work, 2009): http://www.nysforestrangers.com/NYS%20Fire%20Towers%20Pictorial%20History%20by%20Bill%20Starr%20(3-7-09).pdf
Bill Star, “Listing of the Fire Towers Operated by the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation Bureau of Forest Fire Control,” (Unpublished Work, 2010): http://azuremountain.org/New_York_State_Fire_Tower_List_by_Bill_Starr_%288-8-10%29.pdf
Thomas Kapelewski, ed., Fire Tower Study for the Adirondack Park, (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Published Feb. 2010: https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/ftowerstudy.pdf
National Register of Historic Places Nomination:
Wes Haynes, “Azure Mountain Fire Observation Station,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination (2001): https://cris.parks.ny.gov/Uploads/ViewDoc.aspx?mode=A&token=Y1kP//aSeWpM1M4gIzsYeyveaD53bfW4CS+k/lBOKffSh81hZ+fiI9qEQ6rBmRgtPHrv1qFLD8mAMhusZlYM6As1PZqN9qSRlx5Sv8nga6ja1vmqRlmR06ERYZAh7/hF&q=false
NYS Historic Newspapers:
“Commission Designates Game and Forest Protectors,” Chateauguay Record and Franklin County Democrat, September 11, 1914: http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn87070301/1914-09-11/ed-1/seq-11/#date1=01%2F01%2F1900&sort=date&date2=12%2F31%2F1980&words=Azure+mountain&to_year2=1980&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&index=0&am+p=&from_year2=1900&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Franklin&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=azure+mountain&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5
“Forest Rangers and Mt. Observers,” The Adirondack News, May 15, 1915: http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn87070345/1915-05-15/ed-1/seq-3/#date1=01%2F01%2F1900&sort=date&date2=12%2F31%2F1980&words=Azure+Mountain&to_year2=1980&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&index=2&am+p=&from_year2=1900&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Franklin&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=azure+mountain&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5
“? On Watch at Fire Towers for 3-County District,” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, April 8, 1948: http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn86033360/1948-04-08/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=01%2F01%2F1900&sort=date&date2=12%2F31%2F1980&words=Azure+Mountain&to_year2=1980&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&index=12&am+p=&from_year2=1900&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Franklin&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=azure+mountain&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5
[i] Wes Haynes, “Azure Mountain Fire Observation Station,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination (2001), 3.
[ii] Ibid, 5.
[iii] Thomas Kapelewski, ed., Fire Tower Study for the Adirondack Park, (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Feb. 2010), 39-40.
[iv] Ibid, 41-42.
[v] Ibid, 45-46.
[vi] “Commission Designates Game and Forest Protectors,” Chateauguay Record and Franklin County Democrat, September 11, 1914, 11.
[vii] “Forest Rangers and Mt. Observers,” The Adirondack News, May 15, 1915, 3.
[viii] “? On Watch at Fire Towers for 3-County District,” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, April 8, 1948, 2.