Category Archives: Forest Fires

blogs about forest fires

California Fires – 1917

Though it is not Pennsylvania, I thought it might be interesting to see what was happening 100 years ago in California. Here is just one report. From the Oakland Tribune comes this report of October 14, 1917.

TRUCKEE. Oct. 13. – One of the worst forest fires in years is burning about a mile west of Truckee. The fire started over a month ago from lightning and has been gradually spreading over the hills back of town until now it extends from Truckee almost to the head of Donner Lake, a distance of three miles and a width of two miles. Several hundred cords of wood belonging to B.A. Cassidy have burned and the wood haulers’ camp, with a great deal of supplies has been completely destroyed.

Forest Ranger Wilson of the government service, has a large force of men trying to hold the fire in check but a shift in the wind every afternoon makes it difficult to control.

From the Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1917

More than 450 newspaper articles reported on fires in California that year. Lives were lost to wildfires. Ranches, homes, and industrial sites were threatened and burned. It wasn’t the worst year for fires in California, but when it is your family or friends, your home, or place of employment, that was destroyed by a fire, it was a bad year.

100 Years Ago – October 1917

America was embroiled in the “War to End All Wars” and times were different. This week’s blog provides a look at what was happening in the fall of 1917.

The Fulton County News, McConnellsburg, PA, October 18, 1917

In the face of the fact that Pennsylvania has just passed through the worst forest fire season since 1908, Chief Forest Fire Warden Wirt reports that the average fire burned over just about half as large an area as in 1915, while the number of thousand-acre fires is twenty-five percent, under the 1915 record.

The total number of forest fires reported during the 1917 spring fire season is 1,746. The number reported in 1915 was 1,191, and in 1916, 1,013. The average area burned per fire was 157 acres in 1917; in 1916, 306 acres; and in 1916, 152 acres.

The full season for 1917, which is opening favorably, will probably reduce the average for the whole year to less than 140 acres.

The records of the Department of Forestry show that the fire wardens had to cope with unusually difficult weather conditions last spring. Two fires burned in January and even in February, a very unusual occurrence. During one week in May over a hundred fires were burning every day, the number of fires for this one week being 843, almost half the total number. The total area burned over was 275,097 acres, the total direct loss was $567,972, and the total cost of extinction was almost $35,000. Indirect losses, such as damage to watersheds and losses to labor, probably amount to several millions of dollars in addition to the direct timber loss.

Of the twelve counties which had over 50 fires each, Schuylkill leads with 108, followed in order by Luzerne with 92, Monroe with 88, Centre with 81 and Dauphin 72. Of the nine counties which had over 10, 000 acres each burned over, Dauphin leads with 20,757 acres, followed by Lycoming with 20,093 acres, Elk with 18.389 acres, Luzerne with 17,622 acres, and Centre with 15,949 acres. Of the nine counties which suffered losses of over $20,000 each, Juniata leads with a total damage of $71,714. followed in order by Lycoming with $57,609, Centre with $35,492, Luzerne with $29,458. and Blair with $25,765.

One hundred and eighty of the fires burned less than one acre; 1232 burned less than 100 acres; 1658 burned less than 1,000 acres and only fifty-nine burned over a thousand acres each. The largest single fire burned over 6,200 acres in Juniata County, and caused an estimated loss of $62,570. The second largest fire burned over 5,000 acres in Jefferson township, Dauphin County, but the damage was estimated at only $5,000.

 

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC – Part 3

Life in the camps was generally good, though many arrived at camp unprepared for what lay before them. Many of the men were from cities and had never dreamed that places like Leetonia, Livonia or Laquin even existed.

The camp day began with reveille at 6:00 a.m. followed by physical training with breakfast at 6:30 a.m., then sick call, policing the camp and at 7:15 trucks were loaded with men and tools and they set out for the day’s work. At 4:00 p.m. the men returned to camp for flag lowering, dinner, and announcements. Following dinner the men had free time until lights out at 10:00 p.m.[i] the men were fed nourishing meals three times a day and many thrived on the food and increased vitality.

There were problems and complaints to be sure. Many of the complaints centered around bad food, dirty quarters, vermin infested bedding, bullying and hazing. The Army, which ran the camps, investigated the complaints and wrote most of them off owing to the personalities of the men.

As with any group of people when put together, personalities conflicted and sometimes it led to trouble. At camp NP 2 near Gettysburg a riot broke out on the night of March 26, 1934. Following the riot, Lieutenant James McDonnell commandant of the camp held a summary court and immediately discharged two men. It was reported that lights were smashed and bunks were destroyed in the barracks. It was reported that further action would be taken against other suspected leaders in the riot.[ii] In the summer of 1934 three men from the Shingle Branch Camp were arrested for creating a disturbance in Renovo.[iii]

The camps were segregated. Black enrollees were in separate camps. Other camps were largely comprised of men from the same area. For example a camp may be composed of men from western Pennsylvania, or southern Alabama. Some of the camps located in close proximity to each other that allowed for the men from the camps to meet in the local towns caused those regional and racial animosities to come to the surface and cause problems. Camp NP2 was a segregated camp and this probably played into the mix. In another incident a shooting occurred at the Medix Run Camp in Clearfield County. Though the shooting was not fatal, it was a serious incident and turned over to the Clearfield County courts for adjudication.[iv] Another near riot with racial undertones happened at a camp near Kane on August 3, 1933. The Kane Republican reported that the seven were dismissed from the C.C.C. and sent home.[v]

On June 23, 1937 enrollees from the camps at Cooks Run and Two Mile Run, both near Westport in western Clinton County met on the streets of Renovo and began to fight. The riot which involved over 250 enrollees was caused by regional animosities. The Cooks Run camp was southern men and the Two Mile Run camp was comprised of Pennsylvanians. Though the Civil War had ended some 72 year prior, there were still grudges. Despite the fighting no arrests were reported.[vi]

Despite problems the C.C.C. enrollees became community members for the time they were there. On June 15, 1933 two C.C.C. men from the Hyner camp rescued a young girl from drowning in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at Renovo.[vii]

As the program evolved, projects in areas concluded and enrollments were up camps were scheduled for closure. Another factor involved in the closings was 1936 was an election year. FDR in an effort to balance the federal budget proposed cutting the program despite its success. When the proposal was made to Congress both parties rebelled, Roosevelt backed off his proposal to reduce the camps to 300,000 men.[viii] In 1937 twenty camps were closed in Pennsylvania and 56 remained open.[ix] The year of 1936 is generally considered the “high water mark” of the C.C.C.

The C.C.C. was so prominent in American life and culture that Paramount Studios produced a movie, “It’s A Great Life” starring Joe Morrison and Paul Kelly, that detailed the life of the C.C.C. in 1936.[x] The movie was filmed in California and enrollees participated in the film project.

On March 17, 1936 one of the most devastating floods to ever hit Pennsylvania began. Known as the Saint Patrick’s Day Flood, practically every section of the state was affected. The C.C.C. proved invaluable in rescue and recovery efforts, helping the stricken people during and after the flood.

Despite their efforts, not all were happy with the program. Pittsburgh mayor William N. McNair, a long-time critic of FDR and his administration blamed the flooding on the efforts of the C.C.C. McNair was quoted as saying, “As long as these boys are in the woods we’re going to have floods.”  He blamed the C.C.C. for clearing brush and cutting trees in riparian areas allowing for faster runoff causing the floods. In concluding his rant against the program he also stated, “And in addition to causing floods these boys cause forest fires. I’ve seen them go out for a hike or lunch and throw their pop or milk bottles under bushes. What happens? Along comes the wind and exposes the broken glass. The sun hits the glass and you have a fire. I want to take these boys out of the woods.”[xi] Whether McNair actually believed what he was saying or was just bloviating to score political points in the wake of the devastating flood is unclear.

L.S. Gross, Supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest was quick to respond to Mayor McNair’s charges, and without naming him directly it was clear that Gross was pointing out the fallacy of McNair’s accusations. He detailed how the state had been hit by an unusually large amount of precipitation over the past winter and it rapidly melted. Gross pointed out that the forest duff had been reduced by years of unregulated logging and fires thus reducing the water holding capacity of the forest floor. “Removal of vegetation over widespread areas on the watersheds has not been undertaken. The construction of forest roads and other developments represents an area so insignificant in comparison to the forested area of the state that such an assumption that the CCC is at fault is incredible. The real fault lies in man’s carelessness with fire in the forest.”[xii]

As 1937 progressed, the economy was beginning to improve. Young men were finding gainful employment and enrollment was beginning to drop. As a result camps began to close and consolidate. Across the country 60 camps would be closed because of the drop in enrollment.[xiii]

It wasn’t all trees and clean air. There were accidents and tragedy involved with the C.C.C. On June 28, 1933, Thomas Fox, 18 of Philadelphia, was killed when he fell from a service truck. Fox was a member of camp S-70 near Waynesboro in Franklin County. It is believed he was the first C.C.C. enrollee killed in the line of duty. The camp was one of the first in Pennsylvania having been erected on May 6, 1933.[xiv]

The first fire related death occurred on August 19, 1933. Stanley Ferguson, 19 of Owego, NY, was killed fighting a forest fire in Idaho when a tree fell on him.[xv]

A bizarre incident claimed the lives of two enrollees on June 30, 1933. The men were killed at the C.C.C. camp at Pine Grove Furnace, Cumberland County, when lightning struck the tent they were in. The dead were identified as Robert C. Armstrong and Herman B. Chuderwicz, both of Pittsburgh.  Lawrence McGuire also of Pittsburgh was taken to the Army Medical School hospital at Carlisle and recovered. [xvi]

George Roberts of East Berlin, Adams County was injured when his motorcycle collided with a car near Mount Holly Springs on  August 7, 1933. He was a member of Camp S-55 at Landisburg. It was reported he suffered a fractured skull and broken arm.[xvii]

Returning to their camp at Shingle Branch, Clinton County, on September 2, 1933, a truck carrying 12 C.C.C. men overturned killing William Arnold, 22 of North Bend and injuring the others. The men had been on a detail to pick up provisions in Lock Haven for the camp. Descending a grade, the truck went out of control and overturned. Arnold died of a broken neck.[xviii] On September 19, Henry Appenzeller of Philadelphia became paralyzed when he reached above his head to put away some dishes in the camp mess hall. Appenzeller was involved in the accident on September 2, and was treated at Renovo Hospital for an injury to his shoulder and lacerations to his hand. Following his paralysis he was transported to Renovo Hospital where x-rays determined he had two broken vertebrae in his neck. He was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. for further treatment.[xix]

M. Fink, 42 of Ridgway, was fatally injured when a large tree he was cutting fell on him at the camp near Croyland on November 4, 1933.[xx] Judging by his age Mr. Fink was probably an LEM.

Not all injuries were work related. Nello Collette of Camp Lowell Thomas, near Trout Run, Lycoming County died of a fractured skull on March 21, 1934. “The unfortunate incident was from a boyish fistic combat.”[xxi] On May 7, 1934 a canoe capsized on Lake Mokoma at Laporte in Sullivan County. William Kelly, 24 of Philadelphia drowned in the incident.[xxii]

Vehicles continued to prove dangerous to the C.C.C. enrollees. On July 23, 1934 several C.C.C. men in a truck on the way to a forest fire from their camp a Duhring, Forest County , were shaken up but none required hospitalization.[xxiii] A couple of months later on October 19 Franklin Page died from injuries he received when he fell from the back of a truck and was dragged some distance when his foot was caught in the rear gate of the truck. Franklin, of Sharon, PA was a member of C.C.C. camp S – 76 at State Camp.[xxiv] The following spring, on May 28, 1935 a truck carrying 25 C.C.C. enrollees overturned near Kane. Three of the enrollees required hospitalization at Kane Hospital.[xxv] The men were responding to a forest fire near Chapel Forks, McKean County. And on July 18 two men were injured when a truck carrying equipment to the new C.C.C. camp west of Huntersville, Lycoming County, ran off the road and upset.

The deadliest incident in the history of the C.C.C. occurred on Labor Day, 1935 in the Florida Keys. A hurricane, struck a C.C.C. camp of 684 veterans.  In the aftermath 44 of the dead were identified, 238 were missing, and 106 others were injured.[xxvi]

On May 1, 1936, Daniel Dallas of Philadelphia and assigned to the Tobyhanna Camp, Monroe County died of injuries sustained in a truck accident on April 28. The truck with 17 men aboard was responding to a forest fire when it overturned. Dallas was thrown against a rock. He was transported to a hospital in Scranton where he died. Three others were injured in the accident and required hospitalization.[xxvii]

On April 30, 1937, Donald C. Kresskey, 20 of Bethlehem died at the Renovo Hospital from injuries he received when a ledge of rocks on which he was standing gave way, crushing him. Donald was a member of the Two Mile Run camp. By all accounts the C.C.C. was a comparatively dangerous place with an injury rate of seventeen per thousand in 1935, many of the accidents were related to motor vehicles.[xxviii]

The worst firefighting tragedy occurred on August 22, 1937. A fire in the Absaroka region in northwestern Wyoming claimed the lives of 11 firefighters, and injured scores of others when they were overrun by fire. [xxix] But Pennsylvania was not immune to death from fires. The worst was yet to come.


[i] Pennsylvania DCNR, The CCC Years, http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/thingstoknow/history/cccyears/index.htm

[ii] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1934

[iii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, August 3, 1934

[iv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 15, 1933

[v] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, August 4, 1933

[vi] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, June 24, 1937

[vii] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA,  June 15, 1933

[viii] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010

[ix] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, September 30, 1937

[x] The Daily Courier, Connellsville, PA, February 14, 1936

[xi] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1936

[xii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 2, 1936

[xiii] The News-Chronicle, Shippennsburg, PA, June 4, 1937

[xiv] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, June 29, 1933

[xv] Lebanon Daily News, Lebanon, PA, August 19, 1933

[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, July 1, 1933

[xvii] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, August 7, 1933

[xviii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, September 5, 1933

[xix] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, September 19, 1933

[xx] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, November 4, 1933

[xxi] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xxii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 7, 1934

[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 23, 1934

[xxiv] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 20, 1934

[xxv] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 28, 1935

[xxvi] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010

[xxvii] The Plain Speaker, Hazleton, PA, May 1, 1936

[xxviii] Speakman, Joseph M. Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, Washington, D.C

[xxix] The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA, August 23, 1937

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC – Part 2

On May 9, 1933 the Harrisburg Telegraph reported that a CCC camp had begun operations at a site northeast of Waynesboro near Old Forge. It was located in the Mont Alto District and W. L. Byers was the district forester. He noted that the men would build fire breaks, trails, and roads. They would also work on erosion and flood control projects as well as being subject to call for fighting forest fires.[I] 

On May 11, 1933 FDR issued Executive Order 6129 that authorized 25,000 veterans of the Spanish American War and World War I to enroll in the program. There were no age or marital restrictions on these men and unemployed veterans rushed to fill the ranks. By the end of 1933 there were six veteran’s camps in Pennsylvania. They were located at Beaver Springs, Snyder County, Wheelerville, Sullivan County, Sinnemahoning, Cameron County, Farrandsville, Clinton County, Chaneysville, Bedford County, East Stroudsburg, Monroe County and Edgemere, Pike County.

That May of 1933 fires burned across Pennsylvania. The CCC was growing fast and the Kane Republican noted that a fifth camp for the Allegheny Nation Forest was being established at Highland Corners. The camp was originally proposed for Owls Nest but the site was moved.[ii] Camps for the young men were springing up across Pennsylvania.

On June 21, 1933 a CCC camp went into operation at Asaph, Tioga County. The camp was comprised primarily of young men from the New Castle area. A ‘special reporter’ Don Lanigan, most probably an enrollee, reported back to the New Castle News of a fire they fought on July 20, 1933. The fire reportedly burned “several acres of brush.”[iii]

Robert Bender of Lebanon wrote a letter to the Evening Report in Lebanon from a camp near Clearfield. He reported of fighting a fire that took five days to contain and extinguish.

“Our company fought the fire day and night. One group of 100 would go out and fight the flames for five hours, then be relieved by another group of 100. We worked from 7:30 in the morning until 12 o’clock at night. We used Indian water pumps which hold about five gallons and weigh seventy-five pounds, and we were tired at night.”[iv]

On December 5, 1933 a late fall fire burned over 200 acres on South Mountain in Cumberland County and CCC crews were instrumental in extinguishing the blaze.[v]

By the end of 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps was off and running. During the first week of January, 1934 Secretary of Forests and Waters, Lewis Staley was ebullient about the work being conducted by the CCC. He noted that the 92 camps on state forest and state gamelands had a compliment of 18,000 men. They had completed 1600 miles of truck trails (now known as state forest roads), 1,400 miles of foot and horse trails and built 150 bridges. They had reduced fire hazards on 1,350 acres, and cut 150 miles of fire breaks. They had erected 4 steel fire towers and worked on blister rust and pine beetle eradication. They had developed public camping areas, cleared roadsides and built and maintained state forest telephone lines.[vi] The crews of laborers were led by “Local Experienced Men” or “LEMs” who had experience in such things as construction, forestry, mechanics or other vocational skills. Unlike the enrollees these locals were hired with no age or marital restrictions.[vii]

In preparation for the spring fire season CCC crews were being trained on firefighting techniques. State officials were describing the crews “as one of the most efficient forest fire fighting units yet organized among the emergency conservation workers.”[viii]

The CCC crews were being trained in firefighting and organized in preparation for the spring fire season. “Special training during regular working hours is provided for the fire crews by forest fire inspectors. On the fire line each crew is trained to split into two parts, each subcrew consisting of one foreman, one axeman, one brush hook man, five rakers, one torchman, two patrolmen and two spray tank men.”[ix] The CCC crews at Camp Lowell Thomas at Trout Run, Lycoming County were tested on their efficiency when a fire that was begun by their brush burning activities started a forest fire that burned over 300 acres.[x]

On March 26, 1934 an announcement was made that nine CCC camps in Pennsylvania would be closed. According to the administration in Washington, D.C. the camps would be moved to other states. At the time Pennsylvania had 92 camps under state control, 7 camps under the U.S. Forest Service and 4 under the direction of the National Park Service.[xi]

On March 21, 1934, Frank Bowes, reported from Camp Lowell Thomas at Trout Run, Lycoming County that “Over thirty percent of the camp is leaving on March 31. Most of them are returning home with the prospect of jobs.”[xii] Their enrollment was up as they were only allowed to serve for five yearly quarters.

At that point there were 30,000 men enrolled in the program and many were due to leave because their enlistments were up. They were also prepared to release men, “who, in the past few months have proven insubordinate or otherwise undesirable.”[xiii]

The men whose enrollment was up were due to be replaced by new recruits. Secretary Staley was exasperated by the closures and noted that it would become difficult if not impossible to complete the projects as planned if the nine camps were closed.[xiv]

On May 10, 1934 the Morning Herald from Uniontown ran a page one article that the corps was looking for 105 applicants from the area.[xv] That same day The Evening News of Harrisburg noted that Charles Mattis of Elizabethtown had resigned his post at the Camp in Armstrong Valley and was replaced “by a man named Christ of Lickdale” who had formerly been the superintendent of the Indiantown Gap camp which had been “abandoned.”[xvi]

The summer of 1934 was particularly dry in Pennsylvania and the forest floor dried to the point that fires would burn in the duff, smoldering for days. Extinguishing these types of fires is difficult and time consuming and the labor provided by the CCC proved essential to extinguishing these fires. In the ANF the CCC men were used to patrol the forest and close roads to automobiles.[xvii]

Newspapers, for the most part were particularly eager to print news about the CCC and letters to the editor were included wherever they were found. The Daily Republican of Monongahela printed one such letter in its May 12, 1934 edition from Kard Kraus who was part of the 359th Company at Camp S-71, known as the Kenneth B. Watts Camp, near Philipsburg in Centre County. In the letter he speaks of fighting a large forest fire that burned along covered a 12 mile stretch and burned 4 barns, 2 houses, and a garage at Moshannon and the baggage room at Peale.

“….The wind was so strong and the brush so dry that we did not have much chance to check the fire. It burned from Sunday morning to Thursday afternoon. We were also handicapped by several fires starting at different places in the mountains, burning between 10 and 50 acres at each fire. And they claim they were incendiary. They had 44 CCC camps beside the Rangers and civilians fighting the fires. They worked in shifts. Sometimes we worked 18 hours in a shift when there was danger of barns or houses burning.”

“Hot meals were brought out every 4 or 5 hours and that would be all the rest we would get as the wind would blow our back fires across the line and we would have a hard time checking it again. It is a hard and hot job along the fire line trying to check it and water is hard to get, sometimes carrying it a quarter mile up the mountain from the creeks. There is also danger of being trapped as the fire was burning on 5 ridges and we had to be on the lookout and listen to the foreman who was always patrolling ahead of the fire.”

“There were thousands of acres and millions of trees burned. We are glad to have gotten the out with the help of rain.”[xviii]

In 1934 eleven more camps opened in Pennsylvania.

By the end of July, 1934 H.B. Rowland of the PDF&W noted that the CCC had been invaluable in forest fire suppression. He announced that 25,000 man-days of labor had been expended in fighting 328 or the 3,250 fires that had broken out in Pennsylvania that year. He noted that the men were largely used as reserve fire fighting units and assisted the regular forest fire wardens and their crews.[xix]

In the spring of 1935 FDR was looking to expand the CCC and make it a permanent part of the Federal government. Roosevelt was particularly concerned that another drought like that of 1934 could devastate the country. The program would create shelterbelts of tress to prevent erosion, reforest logged and burned over areas and provide employment for the unemployed.[xx]

The Daily Republican heard from one of its readers who was in the C.C.C.

Dear Sir:

Will you please send me The Daily Republican paper. I would like to know what is going on in the home town. Well here is something about the camps.

The CCC camp is just the place for a young boy of 18 years of age. They either make you or break you in these camps and they always build you up and you are out in the forest. You learn something about the forest, like different trees and forest fires and other things on the order of trees.

And that good mountain air and fresh water. It is a nice place.

Yours truly

Gildo Pietroboni[xxi]

The spring of 1935 five new camps of 216 men each were proposed for the Allegheny National Forest.[xxii] Robert Fechner proposed expanding the corps by an additional 230,000 men and making the camp infrastructure “portable” insofar as was possible. Buildings would be bolted together on assembly and could be dismantled and moved as necessary. Each new camp would be assigned 15,000 acres on which to complete various projects.[xxiii] Pennsylvania was second to New York with an increase in enrollees from 21,951 to 48,700 men.[xxiv]

With all of the other projects the CCC was completing, fighting forest fires was a prominent part of their work. Many accounts of CCC workers fighting forest fires were reported.

Henry W. Shoemaker, publisher of the Altoona Tribune, noted that an opponent of the New Deal from Pittsburgh commented on the efficiency of the CCC in particular their ability to fight forest fires and wanted to make 5,000 of the enrollees permanent firefighters in the state’s forests.[xxv]


[i] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, May 9, 1933

[ii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, May 1, 1933

[iii] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, July 20, 1933

[iv] Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, July 31, 1933

[v] The News-Chronicle, Shippennsburg, PA, December 5, 1933

[vi] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, January 5, 1934

[vii] Speakman, Joseph M. Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, Washington, D.C

[viii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, March 13, 1934

[ix] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, March 13, 1934

[x] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xi] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xii] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xiii] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xiv] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xv] The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA, May 10, 1934

[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, May 10, 1934

[xvii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, July 30, 1934

[xviii] The Daily Republican, Monongahela, PA, May 12, 1934

[xix] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, July 31, 1934

[xx] The Gazette and Daily, York, PA, April 4, 1935

[xxi] The Daily Republican, Monongahela, PA, April 5, 1935

[xxii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 10, 1935

[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 10, 1935

[xxiv] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, April 27, 1935

[xxv] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, May 10, 1935

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC Part 1

The CCC camp at Cooks Run in western Clinton County. The camp was occupied by boys from the deep south which as we shall see later caused problems.

After the 1929 collapse of stock markets, the United States, and the rest of the world, was plunged in economic chaos. By 1932 the country had had enough. They were looking for change and they found it when they elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, began “The Hundred Days,” where his primary goal was to get people back to work and stabilize the economy. One of his proposals was to recruit unemployed, unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 from families that were on the relief rolls. The men would receive $30 a month, but they had to send $25 home to family dependents. The men would work on conservation projects in the forests and parks, doing work that was not necessarily done by businesses. In this way it would avoid conflict with normal employment. FDR went to his advisors less than a week after taking office and told them to come up with a plan to put 500,000 young men to work. By that evening they had a plan.

Senate Bill S 598 was introduced and passed both houses of Congress on March 27. On March 31, 1933, the President signed the Emergency Conservation Work Act. This was the enabling legislation for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). On April 5, Executive Order 6101 was issued by the President to begin the CCC. By April 6, 1933, newspapers across the country were carrying headlines of “Mobilization of Forest Recruits Starts Today;” “Prepare For Work In State Forests;” and “25,000 Jobless Men Recruited For Work Camps.” The first enrollee was inducted on April 7, 1933, only 37 days after FDR’s inauguration.

The CCC on paper was a bureaucratic monstrosity. The Labor Department recruited the men, the War Department ran the camps, and the Agriculture and Interior Departments, along with various agencies at the state level, supervised the projects. According to DeCoster, “Logistics were an enormous problem. Most of the labor force was in the East and much of the work needing to be done was in the West.”[i] The federal Secretaries of War, Labor, Agriculture, and Interior cooperated to bring the program together, and states were encouraged to participate.

FDR appointed Robert Fechner of Tennessee, as the national director of the program. Fechner was a former official of the Machinists Union. He was described as stolid and unimaginative, and he viewed his mission in the narrowest possible context. But Fechner was not a Washington insider and he was used to getting things done his way. He was not cowed by the power brokers of Washington and was willing to cut red tape to make things happen.  He had an advisory committee to work for and with him.

From the Labor Department, W. Frank Persons, who headed the United States Employment Service, was selected. From the Department of Agriculture, which contained the U.S. Forest Service, Fred Morrell was selected. From the Department of the Interior Conrad Wirth from the National Park Service was added to the advisory council. Colonel Duncan K. Major was the overall commander for the Army. Colonel Major? The name brings to mind Catch 22 and one can only imagine the difficulties and comedic episodes that must have emerged during his military career. The Army operated the camps under Corps Area Headquarters and Pennsylvania was under the jurisdiction of the Third Corps. Colonel James P. Barney was commander of the Third Corps when the program began.

The forestry component of the organization was headed by Robert Stuart, a Pennsylvanian who was then in charge of the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to FDR’s election Stuart had supervised the preparation of the Copeland Report, which outlined potential projects in the national forests. By all accounts Stuart was a good planner and competent administrator. Because of Stuart’s Pennsylvania ties, and his planning and foresight while administering the PDF&W, the Commonwealth was well positioned to take advantage of the Emergency Conservation Work program. Unfortunately, Stuart would not live to see the full fruits of his labor. When he died unexpectedly in 1933, Ferdinand Silcox became the fifth Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

When the CCC began, Gifford Pinchot was in his second term as Governor of Pennsylvania and he readily embraced the CCC program as did Secretary of Forest and Waters, Lewis Staley. The State Emergency Relief Board (SERB) was headed by Eric Biddle who was also a proponent of the program. J. Fred Kurtz, the Assistant Director of the SERB, acted as the state selection officer. Kurtz was one of the most enthusiastic and able selection officers in the nation.

However, there was opposition to the plan. The American Federation of Labor stated the plan, “provided for the regimentation of labor in peace times and would demoralize the nation’s wage levels.” They compared the plan to the regimentation of labor in Fascist Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and the Soviet Union. Herbert Benjamin, head of the National Committee of Unemployed Councils, an arm of the American Communist Party, argued that it would “legalize forced labor.”[ii] But despite objections the measure was signed into law and the program began.

From mid-May to July 1, 1933, close to 9,000 men per day were recruited by state relief agencies in charge of selecting the enrollees. Many of the applicants were ineligible, but they were difficult to identify. The men made claims they were unmarried, or from families on relief, or they were the proper age when they were not. However, the quotas were met and the process of sending men to the camps proceeded. Pennsylvania was quick to jump on the wagon. When the final tally was completed, Pennsylvania had the second most camps; second only to California. Pennsylvania’s first quota of 5,000 men came largely from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The Scranton Republican, like most newspapers in Pennsylvania, was enthusiastic about the promise of the program. Its headline of April 6, 1933, showed it:

Mobilization of Forest Recruits Starts Today

Four Government Departments Speed Roosevelt Attack on Unemployment by Issuing Call for First Contingent of 25,000 Men; Young Unmarried Workers With Dependents Get Initial Jobs; Conditioning of Two Weeks at Military Camp Provided [iii] 

Concern that the men would be subjected to military-like regimentation was addressed by L. L. Bishop, Supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest. “Although the camps will be patterned after army cantonments, there will be no rigid discipline after working hours. We will not closely supervise the workers’ personal affairs. Rather we will depend on their own good judgement to govern their behavior. It must not be construed that the men will be confined as they are in prison camps.”[iv]

Secretary Staley noted with the beginning of the program that Pennsylvania had 14,000,000 man-days of work under the plan and the CCC would be a great benefit to the state. Staley estimated that two-thirds of the road building, trail building, tree planting, and other activities would be on State Forest lands. His plans did not include the Allegheny National Forest where the CCC would be administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Staley’s initial plan called for fifty camps of 200 men each, and four camps on state game lands. This would account for the initial 10,800 men, but they were anticipating building capacity to hold 25,000 men.

The first CCC camp in the nation to begin operation was appropriately named Camp Roosevelt and was set up at Luray in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. It began operation on April 17, 1933.

On April 24, 1933, 850 young men from Pittsburgh, broke camp at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and boarded a train for the Allegheny National Forest. They were the first contingent of CCC enrollees to pass through the induction and physical conditioning camp and head for Pennsylvania.

The CCC monument at Laurel Hill State Park

The location of the camps on state land was decided by the Department of Forests and Waters and the Army. Local politicians, aware that the camps in their areas meant business for local merchants, tried their best to persuade officials to place camps in their districts.  Almost every congressman and state legislator made some attempt to have a camp located in their district.

The first five camps in Pennsylvania in the Allegheny National Forest were officially opened on April 25, 1933. The camps were located at Frost, Marienville, Warren, and two at Kinzua. On May 6 the first camp was officially opened on state forest lands. By the end of the year there were 101 camps in Pennsylvania; this included 10 camps administered by the U.S. Forest Service, one camp by the National Parks (Gettysburg), one camp on private land (Beaver Springs), and three by state parks. The rest of the camps were on state forest lands.

The first enrollments were for six months. The administration took great pains to make sure both the enrollees and the public knew that the men would not be undergoing military training. As a press release put out by the administration pointed out. “The men will be civilians and will be treated as civilians. There will be neither military drill nor military discipline. The clothing will be work clothes, not military uniforms. The men will, of course be required to comply with such rules as are laid down for work and camp life.”[v]


[i] DeCoster, Lester, A. The Legacy of Penn’s Woods: A History of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Department of Environmental Resources, Harrisburg, 1993

[ii] The Wilkes-Barre Record, Wilkes-Barre, PA, March 25, 1933

[iii] The Scranton Republican, Scranton, PA, April 6, 1933

[iv] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, April 6, 1933

[v] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, May 4, 1933

Can You Imagine? – Wildfires in Pennsylvania Burned With Intensity

It shocks the sensibilities of the modern reader who is used to a twenty-four hour news cycle and video coverage of even minor events, that fires of the magnitude described in The Carbon Advocate on May 15, 1880 was not described in more detail.

Twenty thousand acres have been burned over by forest fires in Pike and Monroe counties.

The acreage burned over was in all probability not a single fire, but probably multiple fires. According to DCNR, Bureau of Forestry records total fire acreage for the entire state has not exceeded 20,000 acres since 1964.

That May destructive forest fires were raging in Indiana County, near the county seat of the same name. During the same month not only forests burned but the boroughs of Milton in Lycoming County, and Coudersport in Potter County, suffered serious fires which destroyed most of the towns. The fires, however, were not a result of wildfires. However the hot dry conditions that caused the flammability of the forests contributed to the desiccation of the wooden structures, allowing them to easily catch fire and burn.

May the Fourth Be With You – And Not Wildfires in Pennsylvania

May Fourth – a day when wildfires burned across Pennsylvania with reckless abandon.

The Clearfield’s Raftsman’s Journal, on May 4, 1870 noted:

Within the past week extensive fires have been raging in the forest in various parts of this county, no doubt, destroying much valuable timber. No other damage has been done so far as we know.

The Pittsburg Dispatch, May 4, 1891 reported fires near Erie, as well as in McKean, Elk, and Forest counties. During the first week of May fires burned through the woods and fields of Somerset County, east of Somerset. Thousands of acres were reported to have burned along with houses, barns and fences. At the same time a fire near Scalp Level on the Somerset – Cambria line was burning unchecked because of the dry conditions.

On May 4, 1922 a 2,500 acre fire began on the watershed of the Tipton Water Company in Blair County.

Trains starting fires were a problem that week for the Moshannon District fire crews. More than 500 acres were burned in four separate fires started by trains during the week of May 4, 1951. A fire between Medix Run and Benezette burned over 200 acres and a fire in Covington Township, Clearfield County burned over 100 acres. Smaller fires were also reported along railroad lines in Clearfield and Elk counties.

In the Poconos a fire broke out on May 4, 1951 near Hypsy Gap destroying 300, acres and a fire near Bushkill in Pike County burned over another 200. The fire near Bushkill appeared to be extinguished, but five days later it broke out again.

On South Mountain fire again reared its ugly head on May 4, 1963. Three fires burned an estimated 850 acres. The largest fire was a 600 acre conflagration that burned near Big Flat. The fire jumped the Arendtsville – Shippensburg Road at one point and burned down the mountain. Another fire near Mainsville burned 250 acres of South Mountain and the third fire at the intersection of Ridge Road and the Huntsdale – Pine Grove Road (PA Route 233) burned less than an acre.

And the infamous Two Rock Fire was declared extinguished on May 4, 1990.

May the fourth be with you.

Springtime and South Mountain

South Mountain on the Cumberland – Adams – Franklin County lines has been the scene of many Pennsylvania wildfires.  April 16, 2017 saw yet another fire.

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One hundred one years ago today one of the most devastating fires to hit the area was experienced.

April 20, 1915 saw another serious fire on South Mountain in Cumberland County. The fire was believed to be intentionally set, and began on the mountain near Huntsdale. Driven by high winds the fire fed on the dry fuels and rapidly spread through the forest. The fire burned to what is now Pine Grove Furnace State Park, causing thousands of dollars’ damage to summer cottages, farm buildings, ice houses and timber.

The large ice house owned by the United Ice and Coal Company, of Harrisburg, located at Laurel Dam contained 17,000 tons of ice. The building was burned away and the ice exposed. Efforts were made to save part of the ice by shipping it away in cars.  Three box cars were burned on the siding at the ice house. 

A camping party, that was composed of men from Carlisle, was compelled to fight the fire when flames when the fire surrounded their cottage. The members of the party were Postmaster Fisk Goodyear, E. S. Krononberg. M. Blumenthal, Norton Goodyear, Harry McCartney, W. H. Goodyear and I. C. Greenwood, of Carlisle, and George C. Boose, of Philadelphia, and Milton I. Hezberg, of Brooklyn. They had been camping in the mountains at the cottage owned by Mr. McCartney. 

The high wind caused the flames to spread through the woods and in several instances the fire fighters were cut off and had difficulty in getting away. Two men, named Bowman and Sowers, who lived in the area, were severely burned when the fire cut off their retreat and they were compelled to run through the flames. 

Several homes and summer cottages were burned. As the fire burned over the mountain the summer home of David Cameron, now Kings Gap Environmental Center, was endangered but the fire turned away from the estate.  The Mans family took refuge from the fire next to the lake and they were forced to drench themselves with water to survive. They escaped the conflagration with only minor burns. 

Hearing of the devastation Dr. G. G. Irwin and George B. Rickabaugh, both of Mount Hollys Springs began to head toward the fire to lend their assistance. Their automobile skidded and overturned on Hunters Run Road. Rickabaugh was pinned in the car for a time and suffered a broken leg. Irwin was thrown from the car and suffered severe cuts and bruises.

The area had been burned over in previous years, and it is almost certain that trees that died or had been injured by the earlier burns remained, providing fuel for the fires that ensued in 1915. The fire was reported to have covered 20,000 acres of state forest reserve and at least 5,000 acres of private land. The villages of Hunters Run and Toland narrowly escaped destruction as did the Holly In and houses on Hill Street in Mount Holly Springs. 

The fires were so destructive and threatening that the Wild Life League of Pennsylvania sent a request to Governor Brumbaugh to use “all available resources at the State’s command.” The letter to Governor Brumbaugh said in part: “In almost all the mountain counties and particularly along the rights of way of the various railroads of the State vast areas are being burned over, the small fire-fighting force of the Forestry Department being utterly in adequate to cope with the emergency in an effective way.” They asked the governor to assign the entire force of state police, fish and game protectors and the National Guard to firefighting duty.

The Harrisburg Telegraph, of April 22, 1915, in addition noted details about Governor Brumbaugh seeking help to quell the fires. The Governor was quoted as saying:

“I shall issue a proclamation asking citizens to go to the forests and the men in charge of fighting the fires that are doing so much damage. I have already given instructions for all game and fish wardens to co-operate with the men of the Forestry Department and took pleasure today in approving the Milliron bill, which requires game, fish and forestry wardens to enforce laws pertaining to any of those lines. I regard this as the first step in the conservation department plan which I outlined. That contemplated consolidating the departmental forces. Under existing laws I have authority to detail state police on emergency service and Major Groome will send his men to help fight fires.”

On the evening of April 22, 1915 rain began to fall throughout the state and it was especially helpful in the Cumberland Valley and South Mountain, eventually allowing firefighters to gain control of the fire and extinguish it.

Seventy-five years ago on April 16, 1942 a fire roared through the same area as this past Sunday’s fire.

On April 16, 1942, a large fire, incendiary in origin, broke out “at possibly 20 points almost simultaneously,” on South Mountain in Cumberland County. The fire rapidly covered 1000 acres near Big Flat.  The fire complex burned over 2000 acres. Students from Dickinson College, Army troops from the Carlisle Barracks, and students at Mont Alto were used to fight the blazes. The fire crowned at several places and was fed by a strong wind. The fires burned in the vicinity of Big Flat, Tumbling Run, Pigeon Roost, Gray Ridge and Dead Womans Hollow. At one point the hamlet of Wenksville was in danger.

South Mountain can be a challenge.

Trout Season – The Traditional Opening Day and Fire Danger in the Woods of Pennsylvania

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Trout season has traditionally opened on the Saturday closest to April 15th for years. Now there are other opening days – the early regional opener, mentored youth days, and probably more to come, but the traditional opening day is still a “holiday” for many of us. To paraphrase Robert Service, “It’s not so much for the trout that I’m going, as much as just going for trout.”

And traditionally the woods have been dry, and fire danger high. Oh sure most of us can remember fishing in snow or heavy rain but along with trout season comes fire season.

More than a century ago Dr. Rothrock in his 1902 report noted:

I am driven to the conclusion that a very large proportion of our spring forest fires can be distinctly charged to fishermen; for it is beyond dispute the burnings begin when the trout fishing season opens, and their starting point can often be traced directly to the bank of a stream. Most of the fires started by fishermen are done through ignorance or carelessness. The smoker throws his match (still burning) to the ground and passes on. In an hour “the woods are on fire.” The same occurs on roads leading through the forest. Few people recognize. (though most think they do) just how inflammable a bed of leaves is.

On April 15, 1931, the  Associated Press put out a release with a Williamsport dateline, “The likelihood that many of them might be drafted to fight forest fires confronted trout fishermen already in the hunting camps in this part of the state ready to whip the streams at dawn tomorrow.”

1971 was another bad year.

On the advice of DER Secretary Maurice Goddard, Governor Shapp signed an order April 15, 1971 which went into effect a 5 p.m. the following day. The order placed a ban on open burning and smoking in and within 200 feet of any woodlands of the Commonwealth. The ban went into effect on the eve of the opening day of trout season, a time of year when thousands would be along the streams and in the forest.

1976 was another spring that lingers in the memories of firefighters in Pennsylvania. On April 15, 1976 a special fire-weather forecast issued a warning for “High forest fire danger over Pennsylvania and New Jersey.” It would be the equivalent of a “red flag day” in today’s vernacular. On April 19, 1976 a primary electric line along State Route 44 near Haneyville on the Clinton – Lycoming County line broke. The sparking line ignited the fine fuels along the road. Driven by 14 mph winds the fire spread rapidly. The area had been devastated during the past few years by oak leaf roller, oak leaf tier, and two lined chestnut borer causing extensive mortality, leaving a large amount of dead standing fuel.  At the same time crews in the Tiadaghton District were responding to a fire across Lycoming County near Wallis Run. The Haneyville Fire spread rapidly. The fire required suppression efforts of 18 Forest Fire Wardens, 392 crew members, and 26 State Forest and Park employees. The fire burned 3,330 acres before it was extinguished on April 21. The Wallis Run Fire burned 280 acres before it was extinguished and required 166 firefighters plus men and equipment from five volunteer fire companies. At that time the Haneyville Fire was the largest fire in the history of the six-year-old Department of Environmental Resources.

So go catch some trout, renew old friendships, and be careful out there.