|SRF Historian Newsletter, Vol. 5|
|History of Azure Mountain comes to light.|
The Beginning of the End
"Observer Cabin Hit by Lightning"
Tuesday, July 13, 1915, mountain fire observer, Fred Smith listens quietly to an approaching thunderstorm as he goes about doing his routine duties. His seven-year-old son sleeps peacefully on the bed in the observer cabin.
The cabin is built on Blue Mountain (Azure Mountain) and was occupied by Fred during the "fire season". Mr. Smith was employed by the State Conservation Commission as part of the Fire Observer Watch Program initiated around 1909.
As the storm grew nearer, Fred withdrew to the cabin to wait it out. Inside the cabin there was a telephone which was used for routine checks and to report fires. Standing by his son's bed, Fred glanced at the clock. It was 5 o'clock. Just then lightning raced through the telephone line and around the cabin striking him on the left hip to his knee. The lightning cut a hole through his wallet shredding a store receipt and cutting his huting license in half. Some coins in his pocket were found on the floor the next day soldered together. Shocked, but still, conscious with his left leg burned severely, he quickly extinguished a smoldering fire on the bed. The telephone was demolished and a hole ripped through the cabin wall near the phone. As the lightning raced through the cabin it went between the springs and matress of his son's bed before tearing another hole in the cabin wall. Mr. Smith's son, fortunately, was not injured. At this point Fred placed his son in his pack basket and with a badly burned leg made his way down the mountain
to the Blue Mountain House where one of the guests happened to be Dr. W.A. Wardner.
Dr. Wardner treated Fred and he was sent home.
That story of Fred Smith and the observer cabin on Blue Mountain (Azure Mountain) is the earliest written record we have of an observer cabin and of an observer on Blue Mountain.
Mr. Smith doesn't give a description of the cabin except it had a telephone, two beds, and was built someplace on the mountain. All evidence points to the fact that it was replaced by a second cabin. We are not sure of the date or who built either cabin. What we do know is, after the early 1900's, watch towers and observer cabins were built on strategic mountain peaks for the detecting and quick reporting of fires. The present steel watch tower on Blue Mountain was build during the summer of 1918, three years after the cabin was hit. It is listed as a 35-foot galvanized steel Aermotor type tower. The steel and other materials were hauled, some say by mule, others say by horses, up and around the mountain to the ledges, where they were block-and-tackled to the top. During construction, W.H. Finney of Keeseville, New York, wrote his name and date "7/29-18" in wet concrete at the base of the northeast tower leg.
In the 1930's a telephone line was strung from the observer cabin at the base of the mountain up to the steel tower at the peak. Head Ranger, Bert Camp, asked Gerald Palmer for the use of his team of horses to skid poles and cable up the mountain . Gerald agreed and sent his team, named "Dick & Lily", along with his hired hand, Grant Thomas, to handle the horses. Tommy Hewitt helped and Ortie Johnson did the wiring of the cable.
The cabin pictured in the newsletter was probably built after the tower. It was built entirely of wood on top of a fieldstone block foundation. Exterior siding was of slab wood stained brown. Inside there were three rooms, all wood panelled. The largest room, which was half the size of the building, was the office or living room. The large fieldstone fireplace was in the center of the front wall. Behind the living room, on the right side, was a bedroom, and on the left side was a kitchen or pantry. A back door from the pantry opened up to the wood shed. Under the cabin was a small basement that contained a galvanized water tank with spigot. Water was piped in by gravity feed from a spring to the left of the cabin. Behind the cabin was a storage shed an "outhouse" (privey). A small flowerbed, with old fashioned hollyhocks and ferns, had been planted in front of the porch.
In July, 1995, eighty years since Fred Smith's Lightning Strike at the first observer's cabin, the DEC forest rangers, with the aid of correctional facility inmates, demolished the cabin on Azure Mountain. Since its closure in 1978, the cabin has been vacant and at the mercy of vandals and the elements. For safety reasons it was decided to have the cabin removed. The tower has also been scheduled for removal in the near future. To those who had worked there, or had family members who were observers, it was a great shock. Do you remember any of the following observers or stories about them: Fred Smith, Bert Parks, Roy Whitcomb, Harry Fournier, Earl Johnston, Lawrence Bailey, Earl Forkey, Mike Richards?
Earl Forkey left a personal notebook of the thirteen years he spent as an observer. Mike Richards was the last observer in 1978 and remembers a lot about his last two years on Blue Mountain.
We hope to be able to share their stories and others with you in future newsletters.
By Doug Egeland
With special thanks to Sherry Chapman, Mike Richards, Ralph Farmer, Marshall Brabon, John Johnson, Bonnie Drew, Judy Wever and any I forgot to mention for sharing their time and information with me. Fred Smith story from Adirondack News July, 1915.
|SRF Historian Newsletter, Vol. 6|
|Azure Mountain Fire Observers (1914-1978)|
The year is 1978.
It is the end of the fire season at Azure (Blue) mountain, and observer Mike Richards removes the phone, radio, batteries and binoculars before locking up the Tower. Winter is approaching fast and it will be months before the tower will be opened for another season.
Unfortunately for Mike and Azure Mountain, there wasn't another season. Since the establishment of an observation station at Azure (Blue) Mountain, at least nine men were appointed observers over a sixty-four year period.
Who were these men that would hike the mountain everyday thru all kinds of weather, spending hours at a time on a lonely surveillance? What were they like?
[1914 - ??] Fred Smith appears to be the first observer at Azure Station. He is remembered principally for his endurance and courage during the lightening strike incident at the cabin with his son. (details of story in Vol. V Newsletter). Fred most likely "helped" construct trails, build the cabin, and built some type of observation post at the top of the mountain. He worked under district ranger J.A. Latour of Saranac Lake, along with Bert Parks and Bert Camp.
[1920 - mid-1920's] Bert Parks replaced Fred Smith before 1920. It is believed that Bert Parks and his long-time friend Bert Camp were on the work crews that built the original cabin, hauled steel sections for the tower up the mountain by horse, and helped construction of the initial phone lines to the Tower. Mr. Parks was the first observer to use the new panoramic map for fire detection in 1921. Bert reported numerous fires during the two years he was appointed observer. One fire he reported on June 2, 1923, three miles south of Azure Mountain, burned 400 acres along with Earl Day's Hunting Lodge, before being extinguished.
Maurice Camp an early resident of the St. Regis Falls area, remembers Bert Parks and writes, "I visited Bert Parks frequently with my Dad, enjoying his camp and hospitality. I remember Bert had an icehouse near his cabin where he kept vension jerky and passed it around."
In 1920 Bert Parks close friend, Bert Camp, was appointed Ranger and remained in that position until 1953.
[late 20' - early 1930's] Roy Whitcomb was appointed to replace Bert Parks. The late 1920's and early 30's saw many changes on Azure (Blue) Mountain. A new cabin was erected and the original cabin was moved back up the hill to the right and used for storage. New telephone lines were constructed, converting ground circuits into metallic circuits on poles. Besides helping with the new construction Roy was kept quite busy reporting fires. Sixty one fires were reported between 1927 - 1932 by Roy, including one at the Blue Mountain House on June 4, 1932.
During this period the State opened its public relations campaign. Hiking trails were improved to the observation sites and the observers and rangers were to show the visitors around and
explain their purpose. Sometimes that didn't work out as planned. Roy was known to holster
a pistol at times while on duty. Occasionally he would shoot it off, and for unsuspecting
visitors, the shot scared them off their feet. Pearl Palmer (Potter) and her girl firend had
that happen to them once.
Maurice Camp writes of Roy. "I remember Roy Whitcomb well because I, as a teenager visited him often. Staying with Roy was frequently in my plans for fishing and hunting in the area; and of course, I spent many enjoyable hours with Roy in the observation tower."
Before Roy was replaced, Albert Leo-Wolf (pilot) flew the first fire observation plane in 1931. One year later a larger plane with a radio, took to the sky with flying ranger Fred Mclane. The use of airplanes eventually led to the termination of all manual observation stations. [I was not able to get a good quality copy to scan for this page.]
[late 30's - early 40's] Doris LaGray seems to be the least remembered as an observer. Jimmy Jackson remembers Doris and his wife with a friend staying at the cabin. Jimmy and Gerald Palmer both remembered Doris for his unusual stunt he would perform on a bet. It seems he had the uncanny ability to stand on his head, while propped against a wall, and drink a bottle of beer. I wonder if he ever lost a bet?
[early 40's - 1946] Mr. Fournier worked only a few years as an observer, unfortunately ending in tradedy. On August 18, 1946 Mr. Fournier went into the cabin and sat down behind the table in a rocking chair. He lit up a cigarette and sat back for a moments rest. Several hours later, after Harry failed to report in, a ranger was sent out to check and found that Harry died suddenly while setting in the chair. He became the only observer to die while on duty at Azure (Blue) Mountain.  Earl Johnston was quickly appointed to fill the vacancy after Harry Fourniers death. Maurice Camp mentioned in one of his recent letters, ["Charismatic Earl was a hunter and fisherman and loved the out-of-doors. He was a natural for the observer's job, especially when it came to greeting the numerous visitors and sharing his expertise with them. Earl retired in 1954 (55) due to poor health. Katherine and I, and Earl and Inez got together quite often for a meal etc. both at the observers cabin and my cabin across from the mountain, which I built in 1953"] Before Earl retired Lymond (Jim) Camp, Bert's son was appointed State Forest Ranger.
[1956-1969] Like his predecessor, Lawrence bailey was very knowledgeable of the out-of-doors. He took great interest in plants. His daughter, Bonnie, said that Lawrence planted trees on Azure Mountain, besides his primary duty of fire observer. She remembers going out to visit her father and he would point out various trees to her, especially the two trees that grew together (or married) forming one.
Lawrence would commute to the Mountain each day, but occasionally stayed at the cabin to entertain visitors. When he retired in 1969 he still maintained his close relationship to plants. I can still remember the beautiful gardens he grew.
[1970-1976] Earl Forkey transferred over to Azure (BLue) Mountain from Loon Lake Mountain, where he had previously been observer for six years. Earl was also very fond of the out-of-doors. He loved to fish, and would fish his way back and forth to work when time permitted. Earl's note book, recalls various aspects of his duties and events of Azure Mountain. "Oct. 26, 1973 reported fire 3:00 PM. 6:30 PM fire out. 5-6 acres two miles McCavanaugh Pond." "March 5th, 1971, 18º, road closed in blizzard snow." "June 10th, 1972, cleaned around camp, rain and snow all day." "1975, Doe with fawn on top of Mountain all summer." "1976, telephone poles and lines
badly in need of repair." "November 1, 1976, 67 years old, terminated with one day
notice." This was a shock for Earl. He really loved the mountain, but knew it was just a matter of time.
December 31, 1975 talk of closing the tower. The early 70's saw increased airplane surveillance thru-out the State and numerous manned observation stations were permanently closed already.
[1977-1978] The following spring, 18 year old Mike Richards replaced Earl Forkey. Mike received 3-4 weeks training under Eddie Samburgh at St. Regis Mountain before he took over Azure. The year was quite wet and he worked for awhile in the woodshop at Lake Clear Hatchery, making new screens, doors, etc.
When Mike returned to Azure he stained the cabin, fixed the screens and doors, dug a new privy hole, besides building a new privy. The phone lines had to be repaired and sometimes Eddie Samburgh, from St. Regis Tower, would come over and help with the lines. Everyday the weather, wind, temperature had to be recorded in a log. Now that airplanes were in use they had to be recorded and checked in during the day. Mike remembers one fire by Lake Ozonia (Trout Lake) that burned 4-5 acres and was extinguished before reaching a small camp.
Hikers and visitors totaled well over 1200-1300 per year at the mountain. Observers now had an added responsibility to report lost and injured visitors. Each year a bus load of ROTC students would climb the mountain to rappel over the ledges for training. One fell while Mike was on duty and the St. Regis Falls Rescue had to skid him down off the rocks. John Trippeny was in charge of the rescue at that time. Mike started the fireplace in the cabin on rainy damp days and shared it with hikers. The outside fireplace (which is still there) he would use to cook on and boil traps.
The era of manned observation towers for fire detection ended at Azure (Blue) Mountain, that last fall day of 1978 when Mike Richards locked up the buildings for the winter. Three quarters of the stations were closed by now and replaced by aerial detection flights. In 1990 the last operating Tower atSt. Regis Mountain closed ending 81 years of mountain observers. They were a rare breed of men devoted to the protection of the forest for their children and all generations to come. Our thanks to each and every one of them. May they never be forgotten.
by Doug Egeland
Special thanks to Maurice Camp.
Maurice taught school at SRF and Santa Clara before going into the service in 1943.
He also served one year as fire warden in 1942.
Maurice taught school at SRF and Santa Clara before going into the service in 1943. He also served one year as fire warden in 1942.