Mount Chocorua’s bare, rocky summit is attributable to a succession of forest fires from the early 19th to early 20th centuries.
Historians believe that the peak of Mount Chocorua first burned in about 1815 in a fire that extended from the south flank to the summit and burned over 3,000 acres. The date of approximately 1815 coincides with the famous Gale of 1815, which flattened much of the forest in northern New England. As Christine Goodale of Cornell University notes in her excellent article “Fire in the White Mountains”:
"The complete loss of forest and soil ....may have resulted from a sequence of catastrophic events: the 1815 hurricane downed timber that dried and burned in 1820.... Trees downed by this 1815 hurricane may have fueled subsequent fires started by lightning or nearby farmers."
On August 28, 1882, residents of Albany, Tamworth and other towns, watched Mount Chocorua turn into a “towering inferno” as a fire started by a careless traveler raced to the top of the mountain. In 1903, another fire burned about 1,800 acres. In June 1915, a fire broke out between Mount Paugus and Mount Chocorua on land heavily logged in previous years. The map for this tract suggests the fire covered 1,422 acres, although the fire was likely larger by up to 50 percent. An anecdotal account reported that the 1915 fire reached north of the area mapped to Champney Falls.
In 1902, the New Hampshire Forestry Commission noted:
“The absolute nudity of the summit of Mount Chocorua....is a striking instance of what a succession of forest fires will accomplish. That bald, naked, glistening, and serrated cone so absolutely distinguishable among all New Hampshire summits is much below the normal timber level in its altitude, and yet the growth with which it was once covered has been entirely removed by the flames, and the soil upon which it stood has also gone, leaving to nature the slow work of again creating the conditions for forest growth.”
The last major fire in the White Mountains occurred in July 1923 in the Sandwich Range Wilderness, along the line of the then-active Beebe River logging railroad, which likely caused the fire. Fueled by slash left over from large-scale clear cutting, the blaze on Flat Mountain's southern slopes burned uncontrolled for four days, consumed 3,500 acres and cost the life of one firefighter. Sensing his fate, he scribbled a note on a piece of paper and pinned it to his coat: "John Gray died July 13." The fire was so intense that the smoke could be seen from 25 townships. The fire was still burning in the ground two months later. After the fire, visitors described the Flat Mountain Pond area as a barren and desolate place.
In response to the devastating 1923 fire, Ingersoll Bowditch founded the Chocorua Fire Patrol, which was supported by voluntary private contributions and overseen by local residents, to guard against forest fires that might be started by visitors using picnic spots around Chocorua Lake. In 1968, the Chocorua Lake Association was formed and assumed responsibility for the patrol, which has since been renamed the Chocorua Lake Patrol and continues today under the authority of the Chocorua Lake Conservancy.
In 1921, Charles Howard Walker, a noted local architect, built a stone fire tower on the Middle Sister Peak. This ten-foot high stone structure replaced the fire stand on the summit of Mount Chocorua, and remained in service from until 1948. It was later used to house radio repeater equipment. Today, the stone foundation remains intact and some odds and ends linked to the groundhouse can be found at the site.
Banner: Middle Sister Groundhouse (1927-1948). Photo: courtesy Iris Baird.