LOWVILLE — A well kept semi-secret source of first-hand, real-time weather information on Tug Hill is the brainchild of a Rochester man who fell in love with snowmobiling and the area thanks to an old college pal.
Landing on the northernchateau.com website, users instantly have access to 41 live feed webcams situated around Tug Hill and the surrounding areas in Lewis, Jefferson, Oswego and Onondaga counties, providing images updated every five minutes.
Site founder Paul Francia was first introduced to the north country via his roommate at the Rochester Institute of Technology, whose family had a cottage in the Thousand Islands.
“I told him now we’ve got a place in the summer so we need a place in the winter for snowmobiling,” Mr. Francia said.
He set out looking for a year-round cottage equivalent on Tug Hill about 23 years ago and found it in Worth. The Cottage was the birthplace of his website brainchild.
“I got into sledding and was active with Barnes Corners SnoPals since about 1997, 1998. Back then there was no social media and you didn’t really know what kind of snow you’d find when you got up here. When you’re coming from far away, like Pennsylvania, even Rochester, that’s a long drive to not have snow,” he said.
That problem gave the mechanical engineer a problem something to solve.
In 2001, he set up the first webcam at The Cottage using dial-up internet and for three years it was a matter of trial and error.
The big challenge, then and now, is the unreliability of internet service in the region, but at the beginning, using dial-up was especially unstable.
“At first I had to play with auto dialing in case the signal dropped,” Mr. Francia said, but over the years there have been many odd causes for cameras to go down.
Earlier this week when Mr. Francia looked into what was causing the cameras at the Snow Ridge Ski Resort, Turin, to not work, “four or five mice jumped out of the box” holding the internet and power wires, which had been gnawed through.
“It’s always something,” Mr. Francia said, but his original camera, which was the only one for the first 10 years of the website, has been online about 97 percent of the time.
Now his system is more high tech, with some cameras powered by solar panels and a mix of satellite internet, Verizon air cards, cell service boosters and a slightly older version of portable router ensuring relatively stable internet service.
“Years back, the National Weather Service called out of Buffalo and asked me how I did the website and they couldn’t believe it. They said if their guys had done it, it would have cost thousands.”
Going to northernchateau.com is like shopping for snow as visitors click on each camera to see the biggest accumulation or how a storm is progressing.
It’s a great resource for anyone heading to or through the Tug, wondering what the unpredictable weather is doing at any given time.
“Last month when I checked, we were 145,000 away from 10 million visits,” Mr. Francia said, “It’s really pretty crazy. It doesn’t have to snow to drive traffic to the site, it has to threaten to snow.”
The original name of the site was trailconditions.com, but his old roommate’s children helped to choose the one that has stuck.
“They had just watched the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ or something like that, so they wanted to call it ‘chateau.’ I added the ‘northern’ and there you have it,” Mr. Francia said.
After the first camera of the site’s expansion was placed at Whiskey Jack’s in Constableville and a friend in Redfield asked to host a cam, Mr. Francia found the other camera sites by approaching businesses and snowmobile clubs in key locations and asked them to host a camera in exchange for internet service, if possible, and electricity. In exchange, the businesses are prominently featured on their camera’s live feed page.
His website had such a great response that Mr. Francia separated out all camera sites that aren’t on Tug Hill or in the immediate vicinity and created a second site, gotsnowcams.com. Between the two sites, he provides live feeds from 56 locations from as far north as S. Colton in St. Lawrence County to as far west as Cassadaga in Chautauqua County, with dozens of cameras in between.
“For me, it’s a really fun hobby. People are really great and the feedback has been nothing but positive,” Mr. Francia said, “I’m not far from retirement and here is where I’ll be.”