Cathedral rock fire tower
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The Cathedral Rock fire tower is one of two fire towers left standing in St. Lawrence county today (the other being Mt Arab in Piercefield). For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to it as the Cathedral rock tower, as that is where it is located. (Historically speaking it would be found under the Tooley Pond Mt. name considering that was where it was in service.) The tower has an interesting past. It was originally located on Tooley Pond mountain, over eight miles away (as the crow flies). It later spent decades laying in pieces before it was finally resurrected at its present location at the Ranger school in Wanakena NY. Both sites are easily visited without today without much hassle. Fire towers in the Adirondacks have a special place in the area’s history, as well in many people’s hearts. I’m not even going to attempt to tell the story of Wanakena, instead I’m focusing on the tower itself.
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During the logging boom of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, fire became a major issue. The logging operation left the forests with a great deal of slash (limbs from the logged trees, brush, and other debris from logging). Many of the forests being logged had railroads running through them. All of this, along with other natural occurrences such as drought and lightning, contributed to an increase in forest fires. These fires could burn for days or even weeks without anyone seeing the blaze. State records show that during a five-year period between 1903 and 1908, an estimated one million acres of the Adirondacks burned in forest fires. Public outcry and the states concerns led to the first organized efforts to prevent and minimize forest fires. In 1909, first fire observation stations (constructed of logs) were placed on some of the higher Adirondack peaks. These original towers were located on St. Regis, Gore, West, Hurricane, Hamilton, Whiteface, Snowy, and the very first one, Mt. Morris (Franklin county). In the years to follow, more towers were constructed, as well as guidelines for the observers and the living accommodations.
The towers themselves were updated to metal versions, usually manufactured by the Aermotor company, a leading windmill manufacturer. Telephones to report the fires, and to contact other lookouts were to become standard. The lookouts, wardens, or rangers as they were referred to, also became an important link to the public. Many people would visit the towers, where the ranger would explain the importance of fire prevention, forest & game conservation, and good stewardship for the outdoors. These visitors were a welcome break from the monotony of long, lonely days in the remote forests & mountains. The fire observation stations prevented many forest fires from becoming major fires through the years. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw the beginning of the end for the fire towers. It became more efficient and cost effective to utilize aerial observation for fire prevention, and the towers started to be phased out, and removed in most cases.
The Tooley pond fire observation post was opened in 1913, and first manned in May of 1914 by Richard Towne of Cranberry lake. Towne was paid a salary of $60 a month. The tower we know today, was constructed in 1919. The tower was a 47’Aeromoter LS40. The towers were equipped with a map table, and a compass sight to get a bearing on smoke or fires. These were known as fire finders. This was mounted so that the observer could walk all around the table, able to fully sight the full 360 -degree map.
The observers had a small camp to stay in during fire season. These were usually a small and meager shelter, though efforts were made to improve the observers living conditions through the years.
Today cement steps at the fire tower site bear the inscription of “W.N. Pond 9-6-19”, likely scratched into the wet cement by one of the people constructing the tower. Records show that Seward Whitmarsh of Newbridge was the fire observer at that time. He drew a salary of $72 a month. The observation post kept vigil over the Cranberry lake & Newton Falls area to the South, Clare, Newbridge and DeGrasse to the North, Fine to the West and Sevey & Hollywood to the east. Through the years 16 men served the tower. The final person to man the tower was Joey Hickey of Oswegatchie. The wage was up to a bi-weekly salary of $186.98 for the final fire season of 1970. The tower was then decommissioned.
Tooley pond Mt. fire wardens
Richard Towne- Cranberry Lake, 1914-1915
Seward Whitmarsh- Newbridge, 1916-1919
Thomas Mason- DeGrasse, 1920
Howard Basford- DeGrasse, 1921-1922
Charles Kaufman- Pyrites, 1923
Fay Goutermont- Canton, 1925-1925
Benjamin Barden- DeGrasse, 1926-1927
Myron Given- Cranberry Lake, 1927
Charles Brayton- Cranberry Lake, 1928-1944
Benjamin Barden- DeGrasse, 1941 (November 1-15)
Ralph Cole – DeKalb Jct. 1945-1954
Wilfred Premo- Newton Falls, 1955-1958
Perry Medford- Hermon, 1959-1961
Clarence McKenney- Cranberry Lake, 1961-1967
Howard Wood- Childwold, 1968-1969
Joey Hickey- Oswegatchie, 1970
The next chapter of the towers story was what would become of the tower after its removal. Arrangements were made for the Ranger School to take possession of the dismantled tower. It was stored in a barn for decades, but never forgotten. Many people wanted to see the fire tower reconstructed in a new location. According to an October 11, 1999 article in the Watertown Daily Times, two men where particularly instrumental in the reconstruction effort coming to fruition were long time members of the Ranger school staff- Kerm Remele and Larry Rathman. Eventually everything fell into place, and work began. A major issue was building a road to Cathedral rock, located in the James F. Dubuar memorial forest, on the SUNY ESF Ranger school campus. Work began on the road, and sight preparation was started. The tower was slowly reassembled by school staff and local volunteers. Donations came in, and the Ranger school also purchased some needed materials.
On Saturday August 5th, 2000- the tower was officially opened and dedicated to “all rangers, observers, and wardens who have watched over our forests”. Much like many things that come to be in the little hamlet of Wanakena, slowly but surely “it WILL happen”. This is how is works in Wanakena. From the days when the sawmills picked up and left, to the recent loss of the iconic footbridge that was destroyed by ice in the winter on 2014. The hardy residents and those from afar, whose hearts belong to the hamlet, hunker down and get things done. The odds mean little to the residents, they just get make things happen. In a place where folks measure the snow in feet instead of inches, temperatures of 30 and 40 below are just another day, they don’t give up.
There are several options to gaining the fire tower, as well as two trail heads to Tooley Pond mountain. I will try to keep this as simple as possible.
Tooley pond Mt.
From NYS RT3 in Cranberry Lake NY, take the Tooley Pond road west/north-west for approximately 6 miles. You will eventually see Tooley Pond on your left, there is a kiosk near the road. The parking area is ahead on your right. Park here and continue up the road (in the direction you drove in on) for about 100 yards. There is a small sign at the trailhead, which is marked with red markers. There is another trailhead about a half mile further up the road, this is marked by a large sign. If you choose to hike this as a loop, you will finish here.
Latham trailhead- From NYS RT 3, follow SLC RT 61 towards Wanakena (south east). For about 1 mile. Turn left onto the Ranger school road. Follow this to the campus, and take the first left by the Ranger school sign. Continue up the hill, bearing to your left, to a parking lot on top of the hill. The trail starts at a gate at Old Nursery lane, near the front of the parking lot.
On NYS RT 3, about 1/2 mile north of the SLC RT61 intersection, you will find a steel pipe gate on your right (facing north). There is a sign here with the 5656 State highway Rt 3 address. Park here, taking care not to block the gate. The dirt road at the gate is the start of the trailhead.
On the trail
Because Tooley Pond Mt. was where the lookout was originally placed, it seems fitting to cover that trail first. From the Tooley Pond road, the trail heads south west, with red trail marker, through fairly young hardwoods. It’s a mixed stand, predominantly of soft maple, black cherry, yellow birch and American beech. You’ll notice that most all of the beech trees have bumps all over the bark. This is beech bark disease, and is caused by the wooly beech scale insect. It usually is fatal to the trees. At around the quarter mile mark, you will get a glimpse of Tooley pond on your left (if you’re hiking during the fall/winter months). The trail eventually bears westerly, with a gentle increase in elevation. In fact, the total gain of elevation is only 244ft. for this trail. At 8/10th of a mile you will see a rock ledge ahead, and this is the actual summit. Just before you reach the top, you’ll find a trail to your right. This is the trail that makes the loop for the hike back, if you choose to stretch it out. The tower site sits in a small opening, facing the pond to the east. Spruce trees are growing on the site of the tower. Two of the footers are visible, along with two survey markers and a set of cement steps. These are the steps mentioned earlier bearing the “W.N. Pond 9-6-19”, inscription. Another interesting thing that I noticed was an apple tree growing near the overlook. I would be willing to bet that was planted by one of the fire observers as a source of fresh fruit for years to come. Following the trail back past the fork leads through more of the forest with a few softwoods mixed in. It is ¾ of a mile to the road, and another ½ mile to the parking area. The total for this leg of the hike is roughly 2.2 miles.
Cathedral Rock from the Ranger school.
From the parking lot, head down the old nursery lane for a few hundred to the Latham trail. There is a small sign, and the trail is marked with SUNY ESF #10 markers. The trail works through many different stands of trees. These are numbered and are planted with different trees and management techniques. The trail crosses truck roads several times until you get your first glimpses of Cathedral rock. The trail up the rock proper, is a narrow path, and not to steep. Most of the year this is easily traversed- but as I found out on my first trip up in February can be slippery. The trail was covered in ice, and pretty sketchy. Signs warn of slip and fall hazards. Please use caution and if you are climbing this in icy conditions, consider following the truck road to the left (then a right at the top of the hill) before the Latham trail crosses back into the woods.
Near the top of the trail, you’ll climb a small set of stairs to a great lookout offering views to the east towards Cranberry lake and the mountains past. There is a plaque here with a poem by Kerm Remele, and placed by Larry Rathman. About a hundred yards more finds you at another fine overlook to the south east, including Cat mountain which also had a fire observation tower. A small pavilion with a couple of picnic tables sit at the overlook. You will also find a plaque dedicated to a young hiker that slipped to his death here in 2006.
This is a sobering reminder to be safe in the outdoors. The tower is behind you by a couple hundred yards. There is a plaque dedicated to “all rangers, observers, and wardens who have watched over our forests” placed on a glacial erratic boulder near the tower. The tower sits anchored on bedrock, and is open to be climbed. I am not a big fan of heights, so I only go up a few jumps- that’s plenty for me. The tower is still in wonderful condition despite the fact that it’s approaching being a hundred years old. The round trip total if you back-track to the parking lot the way you came is about 2.2 miles.
Cathedral Rock from RT 3
From the gate at the trailhead, head down the dirt truck road for a couple hundred yards, and bear right at the first intersection. This also takes you through several diverse forest plantations. Around the 7/10th mark, you will turn left and start uphill on easy grades. At 1.2 miles turn left onto another dirt road. This road will bring you to the summit of Cathedral rock at a mile and a half from the trailhead. This is probably the easiest route, and would be perfect for snowshoeing. Round trip will be 3 miles if you backtrack.
If you are looking to stretch your trek out a bit, you can go to the bottom of Cathedral Rock either by the truck trail or the Latham trail and follow trail #9A through the forest back to the truck trail. From here turn to your left and head back towards the trailhead. Another 6/10th of a mile from here you will see a wooden footbridge on your left. This leads to a small monument engraved with a different icon on each face. Combined with the truck trail to the tower, this is a round trip of about 3.8 miles. You can mix and match these as you like.
This day we hiked both Tooley Pond Mt. and Cathedral rock with the “long way around” on the way back- we clocked six miles total. This is a great hike done together or separately. It’s easy to imagine the rangers & wardens walking everyday from their crude and small cabins to reach their posts for days on end during fire season. It’s also important to remember the history of the Ranger school and those who worked to preserve this tower for us today. Take a bit to appreciate the efforts of those who preserved these forests and waters. The Adirondacks is a big piece of real estate, and Wanakena is but a small piece of that- yet it has a little more heart than most. That’s why the tower stands today. Even if you don’t plan to hike to the tower (or are not able to) you can just see it from the gate on RT3 when the leaves are off. Enjoy!
Credits, references and thanks
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
Town of Clifton Historian Mark Friden
The Ranger School: A Century in the Forest
By Brad Woodward
Clifton Fine an Adirondack Community
Adirondack Fire Tower Mountains – Bob Berch
Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA) New York chapter
New York State Historic Newspapers
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!
The author William Hill