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From the October 2009 Conservationist

Panoramic view of forested mountains from a fire tower

Photo: Mark Bowie

Standing Tall

For 100 years, fire towers have stood guard over our forests

By Marty Podskoch

Gazing at the peaks ablaze with color from my vantage point atop the fire tower on Hadley Mountain, I concluded that the trek was well worth the effort. I was high above the tree line, and the 360° vista afforded me spectacular views of the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and the Adirondack High Peaks.

Peering over the edge, I marvel when I think of how long this tower has stood here. I think of all the people who have stood here before me, and can't help wonder what it must have been like to be a fire tower observer-spending hours in this tiny cab, on guard for the first hint of smoke that might signal a fire.

A man standing on an early fire tower platform made of wood
New York's first fire toweres were made
of wood logs; most had an open platform
on top. (Photo courtesy Forest Fire
Lookout Assoc. of NY)

I've always been fascinated by fire towers and their history. In fact, it was exactly 100 years ago this year that New York built the first fire towers in the state; a response to too many deadly fires left undetected.

Fires posed a significant danger during the early 1900s when numerous blazes raged across New York's forests. Strong winds carried smoke and ash that darkened Albany's skies. Flames surrounded many towns, threatening homes and businesses, and forcing families to flee, clutching whatever valuables they could carry. Fire wardens couldn't keep up with the battle and called on every able-bodied man to help fight the fires.

A man standing in a burned forest
In the early 20th century, New York forests
were ravaged by fires, and the public
demanded something be done.

The worst fires occurred in 1903 and 1908, when hundreds of thousands of acres of land were destroyed and many animals perished. Bushels of fish died in the streams from intense heat and from the lye (created from water mixing with ash) that leached into the water. Stands of valuable timber were destroyed, and in some areas the soil was so badly scorched that no new vegetation could grow.

Art Jennings, a surviving witness to one of the 1908 fires, recounted how a single spark from a Mohawk & Malone locomotive ignited the dry kindling along the tracks near his home in Long Lake West (now Sabattis). Approximately 150 men dug miles of trenches to finally contain the fire, but their efforts did not last long. Only a few weeks later, strong winds drove the lingering fire around the firebreak and it roared towards town. The railroad agent telegraphed Tupper Lake (19 miles north), who sent a rescue train.

Art recalled, "There were about 100 people in the town then, most of them lumberjacks. When the rescue train arrived, the women boarded first. My mother carried me on. The train plowed through smoke and flames that blistered the cars. There was a tremendous blast when a building containing four tons of dynamite exploded. It was a scary time."

Trains caused many of the fires at this time. Burning embers from a locomotive's stack, or live coals that fell from the ash pans onto the tinder-strewn right-of-way, would cause the dry wood to blaze. Other fires occurred from burning brush for agricultural purposes, or fishermen, hunters, and campers who left campfires unattended.

The damage from all these fires resulted in public outcry. New Yorkers wanted protection from forest fires, and the state responded by creating a rigorous fire prevention and control program that included building fire towers to spot fires early, hopefully before they grew out of control.

A steel fire tower under construction
By 1916, New York State began building
fire towers out of steel, which was more
durable. Here a group of men, with the
aid of horses, work to erect the tower
on Mount Adams.

So in 1909, New York State began constructing fire towers in the Adirondack and Catskill forests. Soon, fire towers adorned Mount Morris, Whiteface Mountain, Gore Mountain, West Mountain, Snowy Mountain and Hamilton Mountain in the Adirondacks, as well as Hunter Mountain, Belleayre Mountain, and on Balsam Lake in the Catskills.

The first towers were made of wood-built on trees or from logs-and most had an open platform on top. In 1916, however, many of these were replaced with steel towers that had an enclosed cab on top. Steel was more durable and the cab provided protection from the weather.

Each tower was manned by a fire tower observer, and outfitted with a telephone, maps and binoculars. At the first sign of smoke, the observer called in the location to a forest ranger. It was an effective early warning system that greatly reduced the number of acres destroyed by fires.

A fire tower observer with map, radio, binoculars and phone
Being a fire tower observer was a hard
and sometimes lonely job. Observers
spent many hours in the small tower cab,
armed with binoculars, maps and a
telephone or radio.

Being a fire tower observer was a challenging and sometimes lonely job. Observers worked six days a week (seven during dry periods), manning the tower from April till it snowed in October or November. Since most towers were located in remote areas, observers would live in a cabin near the tower and trek to town for supplies when the fire threat was low.

Hikers, who used the observer trails to reach the mountain summit, would often provide company to fire tower observers. The hikers enjoyed the panoramic view from the top of the tower- 20 to 80 feet high and towering over the trees-as well as the informative, and sometimes entertaining, stories the observers told about the plants and animals in the area.

One of New York's earliest fire observers was Sam Cheetham (1886-1953). Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Sam grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and spent many years as a sailor. After contracting tuberculosis, he traveled to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks to be cured. Only able to climb stairs on his hands and knees, he could see Whiteface Mountain from his room and vowed to climb its peak some day. So he devoted his energies into walking and working outside, and was healed. In 1915, Sam became the fire observer on Whiteface Mountain, climbing the 6½-mile trail to the summit carrying a heavy pack. Initially, Sam just had a tent and wood stove on the summit, but in 1919 a 22-foot, steel tower with a cab replaced the tent. Sam worked as observer until 1919, and then again from 1934-42.

Harriet Rega was one of the state's first women fire observers. Like Sam, Harriet came to the Adirondacks to improve her health. Her earliest stint as a fire tower observer was on a private estate, where she worked for six years. In 1930, she began working at the state fire tower on Rondaxe (Bald) Mountain. Harriet was an expert outdoorswoman, and knew the woods so well that she rarely carried a compass. Thousands of tourists visited her tower, where they learned the names of nearby mountains and lakes and heard about her hunting and trapping adventures. In 1934, Harriet told an Associated Press reporter, "I love the woods and get more fun wandering alone through the forest than going to the movies."

A young blond boy leaning against the fire tower railing at the top
New York's fire towers are no longer
staffed, but some, like the one on
Goodnow Mt. pictured here, have been
restored and provide an enjoyable
destination. (Photo: James Clayton)

By the early 1960s, more than 100 fire towers dotted New York's landscape. However, in the early 1970s the state began using air surveillance, which was more economical, making manned fire towers obsolete. And so, one by one the state began closing its fire towers.

The last of New York's fire towers (four in the Adirondacks and one in the Catskills) shut down around 1990. While 52 of the towers were removed, many were left in place and began to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. Hearing that the state might remove their local tower, several communities and groups raised money to restore the towers as historic places for the public to visit. Standing on one of those restored towers, I am pleased that they did.

As I carefully make my way down the Hadley tower, I am grateful that people had the foresight to restore these towers. While the advent of new technology may have rendered them no longer necessary for fire detection, it's nice to know they can provide another type of public service. Having climbed a number of these towers, I think it's great that those willing to make the trek get to sample a unique piece of history, and are also rewarded with incredible views.

A fire tower seen from below
The steel fire tower at St. Regis Mountain.
(Photo: Mark Bowie)

Entering the tree line, I glance back at the tower-a steel sentinel outlined against the cloudless, deep blue sky. Reflecting on what a great day it's been, I start thinking about next weekend. Perhaps I'll climb the Goodnow Mountain fire tower.

Marty Podskoch is a retired teacher and author of three books on NYS fire towers. He also writes the weekly column, "Adirondack Stories," published in five Adirondack area newspapers. Marty became interested in fire towers after climbing Hunter Mountain in 1987. You can e-mail him at podskoch@comcast.net