What follows is an interesting story that was republished in the “Maine Woods” in 1905, a full 79 years after the actual events took place. It relates an “original idea” concocted by State officials to put a cramp in the efforts of lumber thieves who were capitalizing on the remoteness of a still wild portion of Maine. Seboeis was not only very hard to get to, but very difficult to monitor. I particularly enjoyed the verbal report of Jim Chase, the man sent to execute the plan as delivered to his superior after he finally escaped the catastrophe. The next time you travel by Chase Mountain you can recall his unplanned two week stay on its rocky cliffs and all the time he had to ponder his plight and the disaster that he initiated. His running for miles with scores of wildlife and his reference to his feared condition of Moosehead Lake are priceless. This story quite literally exemplifies the wise old saying; “That the road to hell IS paved with good intentions”.

Enjoy this edition of Snap Shots in Time. Please be careful as you get outside to enjoy the true treasure that is the Maine woods and be sure make some less catastrophic outdoor history of your own.  

“Maine Woods” FRIDAY, FEBRUARY l0, 1905.

The Great State Bonfire of 1826

A writer In the Boston Transcript, telling about the Maine woods, relates the story of one of the worst forest fires that Maine ever saw and which was set, years ago, by the hand of authority, paradoxically in an attempt to save the timber. It is known in folklore as the “Great State Bonfire of 1826.”

At that time all the forests were owned by the state and the valuable pumpkin pine region up around Seboeis was the favorite resort of timber thieves who went in in the spring, cut and stacked vast quantities of hay from the meadows and used it to feed their oxen during the winter while they helped themselves to the splendid timber. The state authorities sought to stop this thievery and sent Jim Chase, a timber looker and a man supposed to be wise in woodcraft, one dry August, to burn this hay and thus block the timber pirates.

Jim reached the meadows in safety, touched a match to the stacks and sat down to smoke and muse on how easily he had outwitted the thieves and saved the timber. The stacks: burned splendidly and so did the neighboring forests which were lighted for miles by flying embers. The wind increased and veered, and it was but a brief half hour before this authorized incendiary was fleeing wildly with the frantic denizens of the wood in a desperate attempt to save their lives. The flames leaped hither and dither.

Now with blistered face and shriveled boots he plunged through score long; embers and choking until again gaining a stretch of forest yet untouched, but always fleeing toward his one point of safety, a bare slate peak half a dozen miles to the south. Strange was the companionship of that wild journey as bear, deer, moose, everything that could run or fly or crawl fled with him, driven by the tremendous blaze that Jim Chase had kindled in the name of the State of Maine. At last bleeding, blistered, blazing, he sank exhausted on the great rock pinnacle which goes to this day by the name of Mount Chase. For two weeks Jim dwelt on this bare bill, living as best he might while the woods burned in an ever-widening circle of fire all about him. On the 15th night a heavy rain fell and he was able to traverse the burned and blackened hills and valleys back to Bangor.

“Did you burn the hay?” asked the State agent.

“Ha!” said Jim, “Gosh a mighty! I burned the hay and the woods and the ground and every living critter in’em and if’ Moosehead Lake ain’t afire now, then it ain’t my fault!”

It was found afterwards that Jim’s official fire had burned over five townships entire and parts of six others, a total of nearly 200 square miles covered with the finest timber that ever grew. If the timber pirates of Seboeis had been allowed to cut steadily from that day to this, they could not have done half the damage that had come from this vigorous but ill-advised attempt to drive them out. That was Maine’s last State Bon-fire.