The Volunteer Fire Lookouts Of Maine’s York County

The first forest fire lookout at Squaw Mountain in Little Squaw Township, ME, was placed into service on June 10, 1905. William Hilton of Greenville, then 19 years old, was the first observer, or “watchman,” as he was called.

The first entry in the log kept by Hilton reads: “Commenced work Saturday, June 10, 1905; clear, South wind.” As he sat in a chair perched at the top of Squaw Mountain on June 24, he soon spied a wisp of smoke drifting along a railroad right of way. He left the chair in a bound and hurried part-way down the mountain to a logging camp, where he telephoned William Shaw, the chief fire warden, to notify him about the potential fire.

Hilton served as observer from 1905 through 1908. During the first year, he lived at the M.G. Shaw logging camp, making the trip up and down the mountain each day. The value of the Squaw Mountain lookout was demonstrated many times in the years that followed.

It was a special breed of men and women who staffed the remote lookout towers. In the early days, they moved into their camp and tower by walking or by tote team and did not leave until fall. They were usually good in the woods, hardy and dependable, with a knowledge of the surrounding countryside. They did their own cooking, sewing, camp repairs; cut their own fuel wood; and caught rain in barrels from the gutters at each corner of the camp for their washing. Some kept small gardens and maintained vegetable cellars. It was necessary to maintain high fences to keep out the deer. Marauding bears were another matter. Broken cross-cut saw blades were used to guard the windows against the raiding of these animals in their search for easy food.

Supplies were toted in and left in specially made boxes at the foot of the mountain to be backpacked up the steep trails by the watchmen. Attempts were made in later years to supply the watchmen via “free fall” and parachute drops, but this method was not successful.

From 1905 to 1907, the watchman’s only method of notifying the warden of a fire was to run down the mountain to report it! Squaw, Attean and Bigelow mountains had ground lines leading into lumber camps or offices. These first lines of communications, like the towers themselves, were paid for by the landowners. In 1909, with the creation of the Maine Forest District, came the rapid expansion of a fire protection system, with the growth of the telephone system into a giant web for each of the four geographical divisions of the district.

Moose caused a major problem with the telephone line systems. These animals were known to get entangled with low hanging wires and walk away, tearing off a as much as a half mile of wire, which was never found. During the spring patrols, moose were often found strangled or dead from exhaustion in their efforts to free themselves from the wire. Still another problem was the proper grounding of telephone lines against lightning. There were many instances of lines and telephone sets being knocked out of service by severe electrical storms. Many watchmen have related to some harrowing experiences with such storms.

The abundance of materials needed to sustain the system was also almost overwhelming – hundreds of barrels of split porcelain insulators packed in sawdust, hundreds of cases of glass insulators, strings of wooded brackets, miles of galvanized iron wires in half-mile rolls, many coils of double-twisted/covered lead-in wire, hundreds of wall telephone sets, cases of dry-cell batteries and hundreds of pounds of staples. There was also lineman’s tools, belts, climbing irons with straps and pads, various types of pliers for cutting and splicing wire, field test boxes, canvas bags for carrying insulators, etc. In addition parts such as switches, sleeves, coils and ringers had to be stockpiled.

Telephones were the only means of communications between 1909 and 1949. By the end of this period, the Maine Forest Service (MFS) owned and maintained a system of 1,728.5 miles of telephone lines tying together the lookout towers and Chief Warden Headquarters. The peak development of the telephone network was reached in the early 1950s with approximately 3,500 miles of ground and metallic circuit lines. After that, many of the lines were gradually abandoned with the increase of radio communications.

Many difficulties were encountered by the MFS in establishing a radio network between the fire towers. The goal was to eliminate the thousands of miles of telephone wire in the woods. The map table and alidade made up the fire-finding equipment.

Most towers use a standard map, taken from a larger master state map, and are set up on a true-north basis, at a scale of one-half inch to the mile. The map contains azimuth circles of the surrounding towers. They are useful in pinpointing a smoke by cross azimuths. Every feature seen from the tower helps the watchman make an accurate report.

An azimuth is the reading in degrees taken across the map table after lining up on a smoke. Azimuth is the horizontal angle from true north to the smoke sighted. The azimuth is obtained by sighting across the alidade’s cross hairs to the smoke. After the sighting is taken, the smoke is somewhere along this line, as the azimuth gives direction, not distance. If another tower can see the same smoke, and a second azimuth is given, the point at which the two lines cross on the map is the fire’s location. If a second cross is not available, the watchman must then use his knowledge of the landscape to be able to determine the fire’s location.

Many towers also use a grid system to help locate a fire’s location. The system is used with U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map sheets. Each quadrangle sheet contains the map of an area, consisting of 15 minutes of latitude and 15 minutes of longitude. Each map is named and also has a letter-number designation. Each row of quadrangles in an east-west direction is numbered, beginning with “1” on the western edge of New England and ending with “28” in easternmost Maine. In a north-south direction, each tier of quadrangles is designated by a letter, beginning with “A” in northern New England and ending with “Z” in southern New England.

Each quadrangle is further broken down into nine blocks, each designated by a number only. These blocks are then broken down into 25 small sections, also designated by a number. Many fire departments and town wardens carry these maps of their areas so they can coordinate with the towers via radio about the smoke locations.

In the early 1980s, there were many threats to close the fire towers across the state. This spawned many letters to congressmen and state officials from concerned citizens and firefighters statewide, but the State of Maine Forest Service closed its system of fire lookout towers in July 1991. This meant that the only forest fire detection would come from two or three airplane flights each day, if the fire danger was high.

A group of firefighters and others in York County sought permission from the state to staff the Agamenticus tower in York during the fire season. Dave Hilton and Chris Balentine of York began the program in July 1991. Their presence at the Mount Agamenticus tower in York prompted others to open the Mount Hope tower in Sanford and the Ossipee Hill tower in Waterboro later in the season. Thus the volunteer fire watchers of York County were born.

The volunteers are proud to be going into their 10th year of service. They boast spotting hundreds of brush and woods fires before anyone on the ground reported them. Other fires – involving houses, vehicles, chimneys and boats – have also been reported from the towers. Thousands of hours have been spent at the towers, waiting, watching and maintaining. This also lets the public visit the towers. They offer commanding views of Maine, New Hampshire and, from Agamenticus, parts of Massachusetts. All towers are open to the public when the watchmen are there.

There is also a move afoot to preserve the history of the Maine Forest Fire Lookout towers. Dave Hilton has published a 200-page book about their history, containing over 210 photographs of the Maine towers and many facts, stories and listings. If anyone is interested in purchasing a book or has any old pictures or info about the towers, please contact: Forest Fire Lookouts of Maine, 8 Camden Ave., York, ME 03909.

David N.Hilton was born and raised in York, ME, under the shadow of Mount Agamenticus and its fire lookout tower. He retired from the York Fire Department after fighting fires for 15 years, then became active in the volunteer tower watch program in 1991. Hilton and other volunteers continue to staff the Mount Agamenticus fire tower and other towers each season. He is also active in the nationwide Forest Fire Lookout Association and is co-founder and vice president of the Southern Maine Fire Radio Notification Association.