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This is a trip to Piercefield NY, in the southern part of St. Lawrence county. It lies between Cranberry Lake and Tupper Lake. This is what was known in earlier years as the South woods, a place for sportsman and lovers of the wilderness to come and enjoy. It’s rich forests of virgin timber later attracted the logging industry, which played an important part in the area’s settlement. Today it is a quiet hamlet. As much as time has changed the area, the forests have remained, and still draw outdoor enthusiasts from all over. While not the booming logging center that it was nearly a century ago, the woods still provide a living for many folks involved in the logging industry. One of the first things most people think of when the area is mentioned is Mt Arab and its resurrected fire tower. There is more than enough history and lore to write a novel about the area, but I’m going to give you a taste of the place and hope that you get a chance to experience it for yourself.
Piercefield was founded in 1801, and it predates St. Lawrence county- which it resides in today. The township was comprised of the hamlets of Childwold, Conifer, Mount Arab, Eagle Crag, as well as Piercefield proper. As mentioned earlier, it originally was vast forests and inhabited by those hearty individuals that could make a living here. Many locals worked as guides in the area, taking their clients or “sports” afield to pursue the abundant fish & game that the woods and water offered. It eventually became a place of industry. Logging and paper production was a major boom to the local economy. Even the business of bottling spring water was a thing at that time. One of the most pivotal events in the shaping of the area was in the beginning of the twentieth century, about 1905/1906 was when W.L. Sykes began purchasing timber land properties. By 1912, he had established and incorporated the Emporium Forestry company, based in Conifer NY. Before it was done, it would become an enormous industrial center, with logging camps all through the woods, state of the art high production sawmills and even a company owned and run hotel.
The Grasse River Railroad was created to transport the timber and lumber. All said and done, nearly 100 miles of rails were laid in the area. By 1916, the railroad had become been incorporated as a common carrier and connected the rails to the outside world. The company also had a mill and logging interests in nearby Cranberry lake. The Conifer Mill was operated by the Emporium until 1949. After that it was run by numerous other companies. As time went on the lands were sold off or leased to others. The paper mill closed in 1933. Today you can still find some traces of the past driving through Conifer. It is now a quiet hamlet of a few dozen homes. The heritage of logging is still alive, as on my most recent trip through the streets I saw several log skidders and log loaders in use.
The Mt. Arab fire tower
In the early part of the twentieth century, forest fires were a major issue. Some estimates range as high as one million acres burned in the first decade alone. In an effort to curb these fires, fire towers were placed on many mountain tops. These were manned by observers who would keep lookout for smoke and fire. This would be reported to the district ranger, via telephone lines. In 1912, the first tower was constructed on Mt Arab and made of wood. This was replaced by a forty-foot steel tower in 1918. This was made by the Aeromotor company, who also manufactured the Tooley Pond Mountain fire tower (now at Cathedral Rock in Wanakena). The earliest lodging for the observers were tents, and later cabins were maintained. The current cabin serves as a visitor’s center at certain times of the year. By the 1980’s the fire towers were deemed obsolete and removed or simply abandoned. This tower on Mt Arab, and the aforementioned Tooley pond mountain/ Cathedral Rock tower are the only two remaining in St. Lawrence county. This came about by people who cared enough and wanted to preserve the towers and their legacy.
The Friends of MT. Arab
According to the Friends of Mount Arab (FOMA) brochure (available at the sign in box at the trailhead), the organization was formed in 1997. Along with help from the town of Piercefield, St. Lawrence county, the D.E.C., and the Adirondack Club (and others), they formed to restore the tower and cabin and promote the use and enjoyment of the tower sight. They maintain the trail, and have done an awesome job of keeping the sight open and well kept. In 2001, it was placed on the National registry of Historic Places. This organization has preserved this little bit of Adirondack history for all to enjoy, and I’m sure with continue to do so in the future. According to the FOMA about/history page, it is believed that the name “Arab” came from a bad translation of the French word for Maple, Arable.
If you would like to know more about FOMA, or donate to the non-profit organization- visit their great website at- http://www.friendsofmtarab.org/index.html
From NYS RT3, you will take St. Lawrence county rt. 62 in Piercefield. Follow this road Southwest, till you come to the Mt. Arab road, on your left. Follow this road for about 8/10th of a mile, and you will find a parking spot on your right. The trailhead is directly across the road. The sign in box is a few dozen yards up the trail. This is a popular destination, and the parking area is not huge, so park courteously so others have room as well.
On the Trail
According to my GPS, the trail to the tower is 2.2 miles round trip, and climbs 649 feet. It shows the summit elevation as 2399 feet. The trail starts uphill right from the parking lot. It varies from mild to fairly steep as it winds through the hardwoods. The lower part of the trail has been logged, with an obvious concern for sustainable forestry. The trail is fairly wide and well-marked. In the spring, or during a wet spell, it can get muddy. The most recent time we hiked the trail, we had a heavy snowfall of several feet, earlier in the week. The trail had seen a fair amount of snowshoe traffic, probably the day before we hiked.
The path was well packed, but unfortunately for me- I still prefer the old school wooden snowshoes (12 x 48 Huron style). I have used these with great results for 30 plus years. Today was a different story. The trail was made by the modern style snowshoes and was too narrow for mine to work well in. The trail was packed down about a foot or so, and it was and awkward shuffle to make progress. The steeper pitches were next to impossible the “duck-walk” up. My wife had the modern style ones, and cruised right along nicely. Lesson learned, I guess I’ll be shopping for some new ones before next winter. On the way down, we ran into a fellow carrying his son in a backpack style kid carrier, who laughingly commented that I was probably the only guy in in the last century to make the climb with wooden snowshoes!
Other than that – the trail was great as always. The trees get bigger and a bit more gnarly towards the top. In winter, you will get some sneak peeks at the mountains that you miss with the leaves on. A few false summits will make you think that you are close, but you’re not there yet. Finally, after a dogleg in the trail near some ledges, you get the first glimpse of the tower, a few hundred yards ahead. The cabin sits nearby the tower, and at certain times of the year is open for the public to view a selection of items and displays about the history of the tower. There are a couple of side trails to the ledges that offer some amazing views of Eagle Crag & Mt Arab lakes. You are surrounded by mountains, and if you climb up the tower stairs, you will gain even better views. One overlook even has a rustic bench facing the lakes. Even though it was the middle of March, we still saw about a dozen people on the trail. Everyone was courteous and just as happy to experience this mountain as I was. I have no idea how many times that I have mad this climb, but I bet this won’t be the last. Plan on 2-3 hours depending on how fast you hike, and how much time you like to spend taking in the views. I wouldn’t recommend this for very young hikers or for people that can’t handle a strenuous climb. For those who fall between the two extremes, it’s a nice hike that most will handle easily.
After we returned to the car, we took a left at the County RT62/ Mt Arab road intersection, and headed the few miles to Conifer. There are still a few traces of the Emporium days left around, but nothing to tell of the scale that it once was. What does remain are hearty folks that are the real, true spirit of the Adirondacks. People that work hard, and take whatever mother nature throws their way. Living in the Adirondacks is not for everyone, but the locals take it all in stride, just like generations have before them.
In the area
These are a few suggestions that may interest you.
The Wild Center–
Tooley Pond Road waterfalls- https://hikingthetrailtoyesterday.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/toohley-pond-road-waterfalls/
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Reference, acknowledgments and bibliography
Town of Piercefield
Friends of MT. Arab
The Wellsboro Gazette from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania · September 26, 1957
St. Lawrence County Historical Association
New York State Historical Newspapers
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation D.E.C.
About the author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home. I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself, and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!