The Frank D. Layman monument is located on South Mountain along the blue-marked Escarpment Trail in the North Lake area. It is located a short distance from Kaaterskill Falls and is accessible only by foot. The site offers a commanding view of upper Kaaterskill Clove as it faces towards Twilight Park and the distant Hunter Mountain. Just below the monument is a steep ledge that drops off into the clove.
The inscription on the monument reads: “In memory of Frank D. Layman, of Haines Falls, who lost his life on this spot Aug. 10, 1900. While with others fighting a forest fire which threatened to destroy the homes and business interests of the people of this place. By those grateful for his devoted service this monument is erected.”
Frank D. Layman was the son of Charles “Tollgate” Layman (1846-1913) and Philena [Roe] Layman (1845-1919). On the 1900 United States census Charles was listed with an occupation of “Farmer” and Frank had an occupation of “Laborer (Farm).” As of 1900 Charles and Philena had been married for 30 years. The 1880 United States census showed two siblings, Arthur, age 9, and Effie L., age 5.
The devastating Catskills fire of 1900 in which Frank Layman (1872-1900) lost his life started on August 10th (at around either 10am or 3pm, depending on the source) in Kaaterskill Clove below Kaaterskill Falls in close proximity to the Laurel House, and a little further from the famed Kaaterskill Hotel. Guests of both hotels were the first to smell the smoke. The fire would reach within 300 yards of the grand Laurel House hotel. Some of the hotel patrons left in fear, while others had their trunks packed and were ready to leave with short notice.
An initial force of three hundred people from Tannersville and Haines Falls turned out to fight the fire. Among them was a 4-man party that included Oscar Ford, Arthur “Bird” Layman, and 27-year-old Frank Layman, Arthur’s brother and son of Charles Layman of Tannersville. It was reported that volunteers were paid $2 a day to help assist in fighting the fire. At the time Layman was working at Twilight Park, the nearby private residential community.
As the fire spread the call went out to the village of Catskill for additional volunteers. Potential firefighters were offered $5 per day. However, “Few cared to go, however, and take the chance of losing their life even for this sum.” (Catskill Daily Mail.)
While fighting the fire, according to various newspaper reports, Frank and Oscar were cut off at the bottom of the steep ledge of rocks, with the fire closing in. “There was nothing left but to climb to the top. That was the only way by which they could hope to save their lives. They started on an awful journey up the jagged face of the cliff, their hands and feet cut at almost every step by the sharp stones. The flames were so close that the clothing of the men was scorched, but they struggled on desperately. Ford at last reached the top utterly exhausted. He crawled a few feet into a place of safety and then fell in a dead faint. Layman was only a few feet behind him. The hair was singed from his head and his clothing was on fire. He had just reached the edge of the shelf of rock that meant life to him when he fell back into the flames below. When the fire had passed that section of the forest a searching party found Ford and took him to Haines Falls where he lives. Layman’s charred body was found sometime afterward where he had fallen.” (Catskill’s Wood Burning and Big Hotels Menaced.” The Evening Telegram. August 11, 1900.) The two other men of the party escaped without harm.
In a second version of Layman’s and Ford’s struggle, they were trying to get down the ledge, as opposed to up the ledge, as described in the previous article. The four men in Layman’s party “were so busily engaged in fighting flames that they paid little heed to the direction of the wind, which had changed and was blowing the fire toward them. The flames made such headway that Layman and his companions were compelled to flee for their lives. In some way they lost their bearings and brought upon the top of a high ledge with the flames close on them. The three men with Layman succeeded in getting down the ledge, but Layman was burned to death. Frank Layman’s body was burned beyond recognition, with the remains only identifiable by his watch, which had stopped at exactly 4pm.” (“Burned to Death.” Poughkeepsie Eagle-News. August 13, 1900.)
Oscar Ford suffered severe burns, and “is delirious. It is feared the shock of his experience has rendered him so.” (The Brooklyn Citizen. August 11, 1900.) Arthur Layman suffered two broken legs from the jump from the ledge.
Supporting this down-the-ledge version, another newspaper wrote “Some idea of the fierceness of the fire can be conceived when it is learned that the flames where Layman was fighting the fire leaped fully one hundred and fifty yards, starting another fire which quickly formed a semi-circle hemming in the men on one side while at the other a ledge fully twenty feet high with jagged rocks below stared them in the face if they would escape; and this dangerous leap they took and succeeded in escaping, but Layman, not so fortunate, was overtaken by the flames before he could reach the ledge, and perished.” (Catskill Daily Mail.)
Although no one knows specifically how the fire started, the first theory, and the most published, attributed it to the lengthy regional drought that dried the trees and land. One newspaper article stated that it hadn’t rained in nearly 40 days. A second theory was that the fire was accidentally started by “tramps” camping out in the woods. Perhaps it could have been a combination of both possibilities.
Interestingly the fire conditions of 1900 in the Catskills were the exact opposite of the year prior. “In 1899 there were no fires in the Catskills, while in the Adirondacks they occurred to a remarkable extent. This year the conditions were reversed, the Catskill woodlands suffering to a considerable degree while the Adirondack fires were few and did little damage.” (Sixth Annual Report of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission of the State of New York. Albany, NY: James B. Lyon, 1901.)
The fire destroyed several hundred acres of forest land. The hotels were saved. Other fires caused by the dry conditions were also raging at the same time in the Catskills at Cairo Round Top, Black Head Mountain the Plattekill Clove.
Firefighting work on South Mountain included the digging of trenches and back fire. Some reports had the number of firefighting personnel as high as 500 people. By Monday, August 13th, with calm and favorable winds and a timely rain storm, the fire was under control.
Within a few months of Layman’s death, community residents and guests of the nearby hotels raised over $700 to construct a monument to the brave hero, which was erected in 1901 on the spot where his body was found. The plot of land for the monument was donated by George Harding, owner of the Hotel Kaaterskill which had been threatened by the fire. The parcel deed stated that the monument was to be built within one year, and that the parcel was “expressly given and intended only for the use and purpose of a site for a monument . . . commemorating the death of one Frank Layman.” (Indenture between Harding and Twilight Park Association, 14 March 1901. Courtesy of Mountaintop Historical Society, Haines Falls, NY.)
The National Register of Historic Places states that is believed, although not conclusively, that “the Terns brothers, masons from Haines Falls active during the period, probably designed and built the Layman memorial.”
“With stones gathered in the vicinity a huge mound was built, upon which is surmounted a boulder of titanic size. In the mound, in key-stone form, will be placed a marble tablet, 2x10, to commemorate the deed of Layman. The tablet was made by William Mould, of Saugerties.” (“Memorial Tablet for A Hero.” The Argus. July 6, 1901.) “The mound and tablet are situated near the Laurel house and are a fitting appreciation of the gallant service given by Layman in behalf of others.” (“To Erect a Memorial to a Brave Young Man.” The Evening Enterprise. July 8, 1901.)
“The monument is pyramidal in shape, four-sided, and batters upward from a base approximately seven feet in diameter to a height of approximately eleven feet on its west facing side. It is constructed of indigenous fieldstone, laid up with mortar in fairly regular courses. The monument is surmounted by three square-shaped capstones, each smaller than that below it. Above the uppermost capstone rests a small boulder, mortared in place. Centered within the monument is a dressed marble tablet, the outside edges of which batter inward as they rise to follow the taper of the monument’s walls.” (“Frank D. Layman Memorial.” National Register of Historic Places.)
In 1903 the monument was finalized, with over 200 people attending the dedication ceremony. “In August 2000, local residents again honored Layman’s memory with a ceremony, one hundred years after his death on South Mountain, fostering a continued interest in his service to community.” (“Frank D. Layman Memorial.” National Register of Historic Places.)
The land immediately surrounding the monument is owned by the town of Hunter, to ensure no conflict with the Catskill Forest Preserve’s mandate of being “forever wild.” In 2009 Daniel Coughlin III, then a Boy Scout working on promotion to Eagle Scout, undertook a restoration project of the monument. Work including restorative masonry work, water bars for erosion management and general landscape work around the monument.
The Frank D. Layman Memorial was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 as “a locally significant example of rustic wayside monument design.” The memorial “has come to symbolize the contribution made by Layman and other firefighters, as the same time its aesthetic qualities have provided an expression of local craftsmanship and a strong sense of place.” “The use of indigenous stone lends the monument a rustic character sensitive with its site, as does the cairn-like pylon form, and provides for the memorials distinctive sense of place. Overlooking the Kaaterskill Clove, the understated monument is nonetheless a noteworthy expression of local design with considerable symbolic value.” (“Frank D. Layman Memorial.” National Register of Historic Places.)
Frank D. Layman is buried at Maplewood Cemetery (Section 1, Row 9) in the town of Hunter. Also buried at Maplewood is Frank’s mother and father, Charles Layman and Philena [Roe] Layman. The cemetery is located along Route 23A west of the village of Hunter.