Stillwater Fire Tower
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The Stillwater fire tower has a very interesting history, as does the area where it is located. Today it is still a remote region, accessible only by miles of dirt roads. This expanse of wilderness is vast and draws visitors and adventurers from all over and all seasons. My first attempt to visit the tower was on a D.E.C. “first day hike”. It was cancelled due to extreme cold temperatures. The make up date a few weeks later found the group of hikers gathered at the trailhead with a “balmy” fifteen below zero temperature! It did warm later up to zero. Although my introduction to the fire tower got off to a cold start, it was a great hike, and the folks that comprise the “Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower” as warm a bunch as you could hope to meet. It’s people like them that brought this tower back to life instead of letting it rot away.
The Stillwater fire tower is located overlooking the Stillwater Reservoir and the Beaver River regions. This is in the Adirondack park, and the heydays of the park helped shape this vast wilderness. It seems that controversy has also been a shaping force here as well.
As was the case with most of the Adirondacks, logging was the first forays into the virgin forests, save for a handful of hardy hunters & trappers. Much of the Beaver River’s forests were owned by John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island. He owned upwards of 200,000 acres here as early as 1798. Another later land owner here was a Dr. Webb, who this town was later named. He ran an expansive logging operation in the Beaver River region in the late 1800’s.
The first surveys of the Adirondack region began with Verplanck Colvin’s work in 1872. His work shaped the Adirondacks as we know them, and in fact, Colvin used Stillwater Mountain as a survey point with a signal tower. These signal towers had a reflecting mechanism on them for use with triangulations from other peaks. Many of these signal towers became the first fire towers, Stillwater included. This peak was originally marked as station #77 in 1882. An interesting side note to this is that at some point the bolt (marking pin) was stolen out of the stone at the summit, the exact date it went missing is not known. The odd twist to this tale came in 2015 when the bolt was found by a young fellow with a metal detector- in New Jersey. The bolt was returned and now resides at the Ranger school in Wanakena NY.
1885 saw a dam built on the Beaver River, to help with water storage issues along the Black River and Black River canal system. Mill owners had already filed lawsuits against the state and dams/reservoirs were constructed on the Black and Moose Rivers. The Moose River dam in Old Forge created the Fulton Chain lakes. The dam on the Beaver River was small and didn’t offer much help concerning the water storage issues. Nine years later (1894) the dam was raised by five feet. These were the beginnings of the Stillwater Reservoir.
Around this time the Adirondack forest preserve was formed, and 1894 the Article VII Forever Wild amendment became law. This greatly changed the way logging and forestry was conducted on state lands. It did not end timber cutting completely, but slowed it immensely. This caused quite a stir at the time.
These dams caused a controversy with the timber baron, Dr. W.S. Webb. The dam stifled his ability to drive his logs down the Beaver River to his mills. Webb filed suit against the state over this, and in the end the state would purchase 75,000 acres of timber land from him. This was the beginnings of the state’s purchases in the region. In 1922, the Stillwater dam was raised by 19 feet, creating the Stillwater reservoir that we know today.
Webb sold more of his lands to the state, keeping what was known as Nehasane Park, and as well as Beaver River, Stillwater and Twitchell Lake. His railroad ran to Beaver River and was important in creating the tourist and hunter attractions to the lodges, hotels and boarding houses. Beaver River was only 6/10th of a mile square. In 1999 Webb sold his Beaver River holdings to Firman Ouderdirk, who three years later sold it to B.B. Bullock. Bullock constructed several buildings around Grassy Point, all catering toward tourism and public use. One of these was the Norridgewock Hotel, which burned in the spring of 1914. Another was later built.
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 state’s concerns led to the first organized efforts to prevent and minimize forest fires. In 1909, first fire observation stations (constructed of wood and logs) were placed on some of the higher Adirondack peaks. Often these earliest towers were former survey signal towers. The first 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 Stillwater tower sits at a sight first used by Colvin in 1882. The elevation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2264’ – 2267’ depending on your source. The first fire tower here was constructed of wood, over the original survey tower. The year was 1912. This served for a few years until the present tower was erected in 1919. The tower was (and still is) a 47’ Aermotor LS40. Aermotor was a windmill company, but soon began manufacturing lookout towers as well. The un-assembled tower was shipped via railroad from Chicago Illinois, to New York state. The closer it got to Stillwater Mountain, the more complicated the route became. It was transferred from one railroad to another, with its final stretch ending at Twitchell Creek on an International Paper railroad spur. It would be safe to assume the rest of the route was by teams of horses.
This tower served the region well for many years until it was closed by the state in 1988, in favor of aerial observation. This was one of the longest running towers in the state. Many were closed in the 1970’s. Being that it sat on private property, (Lyme Adirondack Timberlands), the closure ended any public access. The tower sat silent and un-maintained for many years.
The first glimmer of hope was in 2009. In cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation(NYSDEC), the first incarnation of the Friends of Stillwater Fire tower (FSFT) came to be. The original organization got a slow start, and eventually stalled. The reprise came in the summer of 2015 with a new agreement between the DEC and re-organized FSFT. The DEC offered up materials, the friends pitched in labor and tools, with many local people and businesses donating along the way. An easement was fabricated with Lyme July 2, 2016 for use outside of the big game hunting season. A new trail was cut to the tower with help of the local Boy Scout troop 162. Work began and at the helm were Retired NYS forest ranger Terry Perkins, Harry Peck, and Jim Fox. Each brought another piece of the puzzle together. With them at the task were many hard- working volunteers from all directions of the map.
The culmination of the volunteer’s effort came on July 2, 2016 with the grand opening of the freshly refurbished Stillwater fire tower. 2017 saw the fire tower receive a Preservation Award by Adirondack Architectural Heritage and was placed on the both the New York State and the National Historic Registries. The FSFT organization is still very active to promote the tower and hosted a NYSDEC “first day hike” to the tower in January 2018. This was attended by several dozen outdoor enthusiasts from all over the state despite subzero temperature on a Monday (Martin Luther King Day). The future looks bright for the Stillwater fire tower.
Today there is still a small community at Beaver River. Access is only gained by water. Private boats, water taxis and even a ferry will take you there from Stillwater in the seasonable months, and snowmobiles are a common fixture once the reservoir freezes. There has been more controversy in recent years between the state and the boat and ferry owners. Despite all the turmoil, it is still a heavily visited destination any time of year. The constant to all of this is the beauty of the region and its remoteness. Well over a hundred years ago people with a hunger for the solitude of the North-woods came to spend their vacations and summer here, and that has remained. Scores of motorboats or dozens of snowmobiles are always present during their given seasons. A trip to Stillwater will let you know that this shine has not worn off.
There is no quick way to get here, but the good part of that is that you will travel through some wonderful wilderness. Part of the charm of this hike is due to the remoteness of the region.
From the North and West (Lowville region) – Take NYS RT12 to the Number Four road, travelling Easterly. Turn onto the Stillwater Road and follow this to the Big Moose Road. The trail head and parking area are about 2 miles ahead, on your right.
From the South and East (Old Forge region)- Take the NYS RT 28 to the Big Moose Road. Follow this past Big Moose Station, and the trail head is about 8 miles ahead.
*The trail is closed to the public from the 2nd Tuesday in October to December 20th yearly*
On the Trail
From the parking area, you will head South following the trail, using the blue trail markers. The trail starts on state land and leads through some great mature hardwoods. The trail is never overly steep, but it climbs steadily. It is very well laid out, and easily followed. There is a small footbridge along the way to get you over a small stream. At around the ½ mile mark, you leave state land and enter the Lyme Adirondack Timberlands easement. You will notice an immediate difference in the forest. This has been managed as a working forest, and the timber is smaller and more uniform in size. You will cross several skid trails but continue along the marked trail. Glimpses of the Stillwater Reservoir can occasionally be seen through the trees to the North. Before long you will have your first view of the fire tower ahead. The tower is about one mile from the trail head, and you climb 560 feet of ascent. The views from the summit are scant, though the tower is nestled in a wonderful stand of evergreens. The greatest views are from the fire tower cabin. The high peaks, Stillwater Reservoir and the Tug Hill windmills are all there for you to see (provided it’s a clear day). Another great thing that the FSFT is doing is having a summit steward at the tower on weekends in the summer months. I may find myself taking a turn at that, schedules permitting. The stewards add a lot to the experience for many hikers. The tower is great, and then you add someone to answer questions and tell you about the tower and its history, it really steps things up a notch.
This is an easy trek to a greatly restored piece of history. It is well worth the trip. You can visit the Stillwater Hotel for lunch, maybe even take a boat tour of the reservoir (in season). There are a wealth of outdoor activities to take part in while you are here. The DEC has 46 free camp sites on the Stillwater Reservoir.
A visit to the tower will give you a slight glimpse into the lives of the lookouts that manned these towers looking for the first signs of smoke and wildfire. These were a special breed of people. They worked a very solitary day, only broken up by visitors to the tower or by mother nature. They worked long hours for low pay and not much chance of advancement. The true value of the job will never be known. The fires they spotted and reported were soon brought under control. Without their service, many of these fires could well have burned tens of thousands of acres. Estimates place the loss of nearly one million acres of forest to fire between 1903 and 1908 in New York state. The preservation of these fire towers is a tribute to the jobs the lookouts performed.
I hope you enjoyed this, and maybe it even gives you the itch to visit the tower for yourself. Please look up the Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower on the web or on Facebook. If you can, please buy a FSFT sticker, patch, coffee mug – or simply donate a few dollars to the cause. They have worked hard to preserve this piece of history, so show them and their cause a little support.
Special Thanks to Jim Fox and Harry Peck for their gracious help with this article.
Credits and references
Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower
Beaver River Property Owner Association
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
New York State Forest Rangers
New York State Historic Newspapers
Forest Fire Lookouts Association, NY chapter
National Historic Lookout Register
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!
*ALL RIGHTS RESERVED*