A View With A Room
by Marti Attoun
A time-lapsed photo of Mount Pisgah Lookout in the Ochoco National Forest near Mitchell, Ore.
Bruce B. Johnson
A panorama of green wilderness and blue lakes unfolds with each step up the Kane Mountain fire tower in the Adirondacks.
This view with a room was saved by volunteers. “At 5 years old I started coming here and climbing,” says Bill Fielding, 57, whose group adopted the abandoned 1925 observation tower at Caroga, N.Y. (pop. 1,407). “You can see everything from here. You can see the Catskills. I wanted my kids to enjoy the tower, too.”
Across America, groups of fire tower enthusiasts are joining state and federal forest agencies to rescue these remaining symbols of forest preservation. At their peak (literally) in the 1940s and 1950s, some 8,200 lookouts watched over our nation’s forests. By the 1970s, aerial surveillance and satellites began replacing the role of fire spotters. And the towers came tumbling down.
Only 800 towers remain—300 of them active. Members of the Forest Fire Lookout Association are determined to save them. Even abandoned, the lookouts serve as historical reminders and mountaintop classrooms that connect people with nature.
The Hickory Flats fire tower in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Morehead, Ky. (pop. 5,914), has kindled memories and affection community-wide after being rediscovered in 2002 by the Route 377 Volunteer Fire Department.
“A couple of the volunteers who’d grown up here were talking about going to the Hickory Flats lookout as kids and visiting with the towerman,” says Danny Blevins, 40, a firefighter and state director for the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
Reminiscing inspired a hunt for the tower. Land ownership had passed from national forest hands to private, and roads to the site were blocked and overgrown. But there stood the tower.
“The first time I saw the tower, I just thought that this was a piece of history crying out for someone to save it,” Blevins says. “It’s a miracle that it was still there. It had been slated to be torn down but had just been forgotten in a 1980s land swap.”
The property owner deeded the 1934 steel tower and more than one-half acre to the firefighters, who cooked up a community fish fry and pancake feed to raise $1,500 to begin repairs.
“The community has such strong ties to the tower,” Blevins says. “You’ll run into people who’ll say, ‘My dad helped drag that tower in with mules. My great-uncle did a watch there, and my great-aunt visited the tower in 1942 and kept her Squirrel Club card.’” The watchman handed the souvenir cards to visitors.
At the bottom of the 80-foot Aermotor Co. tower is a ground house, which the group plans to re-roof. They also need to replace the cab’s windows and floorboards.
“At first I thought we’d all be too busy to work on it, but you get so motivated,” Blevins says. “The view is just . . . ah, spectacular. You can see the knobs of Kentucky. You can view all the counties that border us.”
The group is working toward getting Hickory Flats in tiptop condition and listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. Another longtime lookout enthusiast, Keith Argow of Vienna, Va. (pop. 14,453), founded the registry in 1990. About 400 landmarks now are listed.
The former district forest ranger made a heartfelt promise in 1982 to his 5-year-old son while basking at 4,338-foot elevation from the Pechuck Mountain lookout near Salem, Ore. His son wondered what would happen to the lookout and learned that it would be destroyed.
“He said, ‘Dad, you can’t let them do that,’” Argow recalls. “Without hesitation, I said, ‘I won’t.’”
He wrote to the local fire district to delay removal and began an eight-year effort that led to the founding of the National Historic Lookout Register. The unusual cupola-style stone 1932 Pechuck Mountain lookout was the register’s second listing.
Stories of the watchmen who worked and lived above the treetops are being preserved, too, along with the structures.
“In the old days, you’d have an observer who would meet the hikers and tell stories and talk about the animals and fire safety,” says author Marty Podskoch of Delhi, N.Y. (pop. 4,629). “These observers were so important to saving our woods. They could spot a fire at its inception.”
Podskoch, 59, has logged 25,000 miles gathering stories and photos about the observers who worked in Catskills and Adirondacks towers. On this day, he visits Lila Morris, 85, of Speculator, N.Y. (pop. 348), who shows him a treasured 1910 logbook made of birch bark. The log was used by her father, Alfred Pelcher, when he manned the Hamilton Mountain lookout. In flourishing handwriting, hikers signed the register and added comments.
Podskoch lectures and gives slide shows about the history of the towers. He’s published two books, Fire Towers of the Catskills (Their History and Lore) and Adirondack Fire Towers (Their History and Lore—The Southern Districts), and is researching a third.
“Some of these people literally raised their families on top of the mountain,” Podskoch says. “And can you imagine stringing phone lines without telephone poles? There were glass insulators with open wires and if a branch leaned against any part, the service was out. Every morning the observer would check the telephone lines and make repairs on his way up.”
The early lookouts were crude platforms, says Ray Kresek, director of the Fire Tower Lookout Museum in Spokane, Wash. In the western United States, the first manned lookout was in 1902 at Bertha Hill near Orofino, Idaho (pop. 3,247).
“When the camp cook was done with the breakfast dishes, she’d get on her horse and ride up and perch in the tree,” Kresek says. “If she saw a fire, she’d hop on her horse and round up the timber crew.”
The retired firefighter has spent 35 years documenting the history of the towers, especially in the Northwest. Along with climbing about 1,000 towers, he has written two books: Fire Lookouts of the Northwest and Fire Lookouts of Oregon and Washington. He has assembled the nation’s largest collection of vintage fire-fighting tools, including two restored lookouts at the free museum.
“The towers were phased out when cell phones became so popular and people in the woods could spot and report fires,” Kresek says. He maintains that the lookouts still are the most accurate means of pinpointing forest fires.
To help with upkeep on the renovated towers, some groups rent them for overnight lodging. That’s the case with the Jersey Jim Lookout in the San Juan National Forest near Mancos, Colo. (pop. 1,119), where $40 buys a bird’s-eye view of four states.
Lloyd McNeil, 65, a trail guide for the U.S. Forest Service, helped spearhead the drive in 1991 to save the Jersey Jim.
“I just thought it’d be tragic to let it go. We got a permit from the forest service to renovate it. We replaced windows and roofed it and got it in perfect condition.”
The 15-by-15-foot cab has the original furnishings: a bed, fridge, propane cookstove and an alidade, an instrument for sighting fires.
“There were some skeptics who said, ‘Who in the world would want to sleep in a lookout?’” McNeil recalls. Reservations open on the first working day in March, and the lookout is completely booked within three days.
“This has been the reward,” McNeil says, referring to a log with visitors’ comments. “People will say, ‘Oh, my gosh. The stars . . . and the sunset . . . and the sunrise. One man from Chicago said it was so quiet that he could hear himself think. This gives people a fresh perspective on life and makes them feel a part of something wonderful.”
That’s the view with this mountaintop room.
For more information about fire towers, log on to www.firelookout.com or www.firelookout.net.
Marti Attoun is a frequent contributor to American Profile.
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01-05-2005, 12:59 AM #1
- Join Date
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Kentucky Fire department Restoring Fire Tower
Last edited by coldfront; 02-11-2005 at 10:16 PM.Always a day late and a dollar short!
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