Remembering a fallen DEC ranger
SARANAC LAKE — The steady rain stopped just as a forest ranger honor guard started up the rocky path that runs through the middle of Pine Ridge Cemetery Sunday afternoon.
The guard, complete with bagpiper, stood watch as a small crowd gathered on a stone-wall-dotted hillside to mark an important milestone in Adirondack history.
The subject of the ceremony was Forest Ranger James Ahern, who died on April 30, 1917 — several days after suffering grievous injuries while on patrol near Ray Brook. It was the first in-the-line-of-duty death recorded for the rangers, and it spawned changes that still reverberate today.
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer, a Ray Brook resident, said Ahern was working on state property boundary lines with a surveyor when he fell and got injured. Van Laer admits he doesn’t know exactly where the fall occurred or how high a fall it was, but Ahern and the surveyor were able to make their way 5 miles, on foot, to the hospital in Ray Brook.
Ahern was in the hospital for several days with serious internal injuries and then was sent home for the last hours of his life. Van Laer said newspaper accounts at the time said he died in the early hours of April 30.
“I can’t remember if I was searching his name in the newspaper archives, (but) I read the newspaper accounts, both in the Saranac Lake paper and the Plattsburgh paper,” van Laer said after the service. “But I had never heard the oral history of this.
“Then I found what really was the kicker, if you will: (The) documentation was the state law of 1918. They passed a state law signed by the governor, and it said the year he died, his kids and stuff, so that’s the best story I have. He doesn’t have any direct-line descendants; the family was not even aware of this when I reached out to them.”
James Ahern’s great-grandnephew was at the ceremony with his own wife; they now live in Clayburg. Michael Ahern said he was surprised when he saw a ranger parked on the side of the road waiting to talk to him about his great-granduncle, but he was also touched by the ceremony.
“It was very nice, very special,” Michael Ahern said.
Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff was master of ceremonies Sunday and said in a speech that the spirit of the forest rangers began with the creation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885. But it took a tragedy of monstrous proportions to bring about the professional organization we know today.
After a fire in 1908 wiped out much of the hamlet of Long Lake West — maybe the largest fire in Adirondack history — the state created the first full-time forest protection unit in 1909.
“A paid professional source was created to not only fight fires but to patrol the vast Forest Preserve as well,” Streiff said. Prior to this, fire wardens — the forerunners of forest rangers — were only paid when there was a fire, but after the 1908 fire, a full-time crew was put in place. “In 1912, the title ‘forest ranger’ was bestowed upon this new force and has remained unchanged ever since.”
Streiff said Ahern was hired as a ranger in 1914 at a salary of $60 per month (about $1,450 in today’s dollars). When he died, he left behind a wife and two children: James, 11, and Doris, 9.
According to a May 4, 1917, article in the Lake Placid News, Ahern was 42 at the time of his death and suffered from a rupture of the intestines after the fall. Born in Reford, he lived in Tupper Lake for a number of years and operated several businesses in the Tri-Lakes area, including a theater in Saranac Lake, before becoming a forest ranger.
“The duty fulfilled by Ranger Ahern is the same one carried out by rangers today,” Streiff said. “We are a force rich in tradition, unified in purpose, solid in our beliefs and dedicated to our mission.
“We follow the same trail today that Ranger Ahern blazed before us.”
Van Laer, who acts as the ranger division’s unofficial historian, said he found out about Ahern’s death while doing research. He said that originally, rangers’ families were not given any sort of death benefit, even if the rangers died in the course of their duties.
But Ahern’s death prompted legislative action in Albany, and in mid-May 1918, a bill was passed honoring Ahern and awarding his wife and kids a survivor’s benefit. The bill also declared that rangers worked in hazardous conditions and ensured that from then on, the family of any ranger who died in the line of duty would also receive death benefits.
Van Laer said it is thought that seven rangers have died in the line of duty since Ahern: at least four due to heart attacks while on hiking or fire patrol, and most recently in a plane crash in the 1970s.
State Assemblyman Billy Jones was at the ceremony, along with several other local officials, retired rangers and law enforcement officers.
“It’s important to be here … to honor our forest rangers and honor the jobs they do,” said Jones, D-Chateaugay. “They do it in very adverse conditions, and they don’t often get the recognition they deserve. And obviously, for this family, this was important.”
There are only about 120 forest rangers statewide, and each is responsible for patrolling an average of tens of thousands of acres. Jones, a former state corrections officer, has introduced a bill that would require safe CO staffing levels at state prisons, and he said he wouldn’t rule out a similar effort to increase ranger staffing levels.
“I think we have a low level of staffing in the forest rangers,” Jones said. “Look at the vast area we live in, and I think it’s always important that I tell my colleagues from the city and from south of here how important it is to staff this properly.
“Because when we need them, we desperately need them.”