By: Nell Boucher, Archivist, Mohonk Mountain House
Over the past 150 years, the most consistent reason to visit Mohonk has been the opportunity to bear witness to nature’s awe-inspiring displays. Experiencing panoramic views from atop Mohonk Mountain, visitors can watch weather systems move over the valleys and distant mountains. Some of the most dramatic natural entertainment is supplied by storms clouds and –for the lucky viewer—lightning! (Photo above by: Rob Oleksy)
Lightning ignites wildfires and has burned many a mountaintop acre; it is blamed for the demise of the wooden predecessor of our stone tower at Sky Top. Boaters and swimmers in Lake Mohonk can stay in the water during a rain shower, but the sound of the air horn means the lifeguards have seen a lightning strike in the area—definitely time to get out! But lightning is one of the wonders of nature that can best be observed amidst acres of undeveloped wilderness.
The best month to view lightning from the mountain is July; with August coming in a close second, according to Paul Huth, Director of Research Emeritus/Associate Curator of the Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center.
Although lightning can be seen over the expansive landscapes surrounding Mohonk, strikes on the mountain are rare—but memorable. Pril Smiley remembers walking along the walkway to the ladies bath house in the 1970s, when lightning hit a tree and traveled through the concrete pavers, causing some of them to shatter into pieces and fly into the air.
Steve Dodd says he remembers hearing about a forest fire near Sky Top Tower in the 1950s or 60s that was caused by a lightning strike and was very difficult to extinguish because it traveled under the forest floor within the forest duff. After that incident, Helmut Horn worked with a company specializing in lightning rods on the Mountain House and grounding wires (sometimes to metal pipes in the ground). Often while digging near the House, crews would come along a long grounding wire—Helmut was always adamant about re-connecting them so the lightning rods would work properly.
Although the lightning rods may have been improved over the years, they were used as protection against nature’ s wrath since Mohonk’s founder Albert Smiley was on the property, according to this 1936 article from a local newspaper.
The lightning rods have done the trick for over 100 years—the engineers in the Smiley family would be happy to explain the scientific reasons for that! The only instance of a lightning strike resulting in a building fire was to a cottage on the property in the early 1950s. Dan C. Smiley, a child at the time, recounts his observations during that storm: “A bolt from a very severe and lengthy thunderstorm struck at Huckleberry Cottage and caused a fire in the electrical system. The fire was limited to minor burning along one side of the dwelling and did not cause much damage. But there was much difficulty to control the fire in the midst of the storm. Apparently, the nearest water supply had become electrically charged and would render a shock to anyone attempting to hook on a hose. I was watching the storm from the Elms and saw Quickie (Alton Quick) filling the tank on the fire engine from the hydrant located between the Elms and the Beeches. That’s not near Huckleberry Cottage, so it must have been a safe water source. My most vivid memory was seeing a lightning bolt so close that I thought it actually struck the fire engine. Obviously it didn’t, because Quickie was still with us.”
Although property damage and injury from lightning strikes is uncommon, Mohonk Mountain House Naturalist Michael Ridolfo provides the following guidance for safe viewing of nature’s dramatic light show:
During times when lightning is a looming hazard; a few guidelines can be helpful in keeping us safe. However, the immensity of the forces involved can supersede many a preemptive action so remaining aware during the entirety of a severe thunderstorm is a good practice. That being said, here are a few tips and insights to carry on your intellectual tool belt when venturing into the great outdoors in severe weather. In case of imminent lightning strike:
- A forest is generally a safe place, especially near the shorter trees.
- Span as short a distance with your body as possible. Keep feet close together. Hands off the ground.
- Sit, crouch or stand on an insulating material if possible. A backpack, sleeping bag, etc.
- Wide open areas should be avoided. Also avoid moist areas and shallow depressions.
- Lightning can splash the ground unleashing incredible currents which can travel along the ground, through tree roots, veins of water, etc. When I’ve had a storm right on top of me, I’ve heeded the advice of my mountaineer brethren and sat on my backpack, a fallen log or a small boulder.
- Taking shelter sitting or standing adjacent to a cliff is to be avoided as currents can follow its profile.
- Metal objects do not attract lightning, per se, but can have currents induced into them from a nearby strike, so it’s not a bad practice to divest yourself of your golf club or ski poles. However, in the case of a very close strike, a metal backpack frame could act as a pathway for the electrical current around the vital organs in your body.
Michael concludes: “Lightning is a powerful and elemental force in nature. It is also astoundingly beautiful. I’m grateful that we live in a time where we understand much of the physics, can enjoy the pageant of it, and stay safe in doing so.”
Click here to learn more about the history of Mohonk Mountain House!