On the Lookout: A History of Fire Towers in the Northeast

On the Lookout: A History of Fire Towers in the Northeast

Men cutting down smoldering brush, circa 1920s. Photo courtesy of the New York State Archives

Anyone in Maine who was paying attention knew that by the end of September 1947, a forest fire was likely. There had been almost no rain during the previous 10 weeks of high summer. Newspapers and radios reported streams and lakes dropping to near-record lows. The leaves dried up early and fell in drifts that crackled and crumbled underfoot. Town fire crews and state fire lookouts were put on high alert.

Yet the fires that broke out across three southern counties three weeks later surprised everyone with their violence. Strong winds during the week of October 20 whipped several small fires into conflagrations like nothing the locals had ever seen. Austin Wilkins was supervising fire protection for the Maine Forest Service during the big fires. Fifty years later, he remembered the destruction in the newsletter of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine:

“It was an awesome sight to see the solid walls of roaring fire sweeping over mountains and across level areas, consuming everything in their path. At times, when the fires reached timbered growth, the flames shot into the air at heights of 100 to 300 feet. The sun did not penetrate through the thick pall of smoke for over 10 days.”

The fires burned through roughly 215,000 acres in York, Hancock, and Oxford counties, including inside Acadia National Park. Since 1932, only three California wildfires have covered a larger swath of land. The flames leveled neighborhoods in Kennebunkport and Brownfield, and destroyed millions of board feet of standing timber, pulpwood, and sawed lumber in yards.

Today, we can’t imagine a fire of this magnitude occurring in northern New England. Forest fires seem like something that happen elsewhere – a western or southern phenomenon. But they did happen, as evidenced by the construction of hundreds of fire towers that still stand on mountaintops and ridges across the region.

Devastation Inspires Action

In 1887, a sportsmen’s club in New York’s Ulster County built what was probably the Northeast’s first fire tower to watch over their Catskill Mountain preserve. Two years later, the Massachusetts towns of Duxbury and Plymouth each funded a tower to help firefighters respond quickly to fires. Soon after, a New Hampshire sportsmen’s club joined forces with a lumber company to construct a tower on Croydon Peak.

But plans for an extensive connected observation system first took hold in Maine’s North Woods in 1905, the brainchild of a group of timberland owners. They were inspired by the fires of June 1903, which “swept over acres of timberland with the speed of a racehorse,” according to then Maine Fire Commissioner, Edgar Ring. A spring drought contributed to devastating fires across the Northeast that year, burning 600,000 acres in New York. In Maine, the fires tore across the unorganized territories, blackening 136,000 acres in Aroostook and Piscataquis counties alone.

Those losses led William Shaw, who ran the M.G. Shaw Lumber Company, to hike up Big Squaw Mountain with Elmer Crowley, a recent graduate of the University of Maine trained in the young science of forestry. The peak had the best vantage of the Shaw family’s roughly 4,000-acre holding that curved around the southern end of Moosehead Lake. A Canadian Pacific railroad crossed the property and Shaw suspected that sparks from the locomotive had set off the recent blaze. He had assigned several men to patrol the rail line on the ground, but Crowley suggested he would do better to build an observation tower on Big Squaw (now called Big Moose) where one man could watch the whole area. Within three years, Shaw and other landowners built nine towers. Observers were connected by telephone so they could share information quickly.

In 1908, another drought caused large fires across New York and New England. The newly formed state forestry commissions in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire began to investigate the idea of a tower system. When queried by Vermont state forester Austin Hawes in 1909, William Shaw wrote back an enthusiastic response:

“There is no question with any timberland owner, but what this is, is the very best protection that could be possibly had against forest fires,” wrote Shaw. “A few men will do more on a fire when it first starts than a regiment can do after it gets well underway in the forest.”

That year, the forestry commission in Maine took over the private towers and, like the state foresters in other states, began building towers as fast as they could find the funds and materials. In Vermont and New Hampshire, timberland owner associations taxed themselves in order to fund the construction of towers and the laying of telephone lines.

First Line Of Defense

For the next 70 years, tower observers provided the first line of defense against forest fires. They often had long-standing, salaried positions and lived in cabins within walking distance of the towers. Writers who worked as observers, such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Edward Abbey, spread the idea of a peaceful mountaintop life.

But sometimes the reality of the job was anything but. When Henry Isenberg started work in Massachusetts 30 years ago, he got this advice from the man he was replacing: “There are two types of days in the fire tower . . . days you are so bored that you want to jump out the window, and days that are so hectic that you want to jump out the window.”

Others, as one might expect, ended up feeling very lonely. William Wing Sanderson, a young man whose journal is posted online as part of a history of the New York State Forest Rangers, worked for two months in the summer of 1909 on a mountain in Hamilton County. Near the end of his time, he wrote: “I was very disappointed about not getting any mail so I have been very blue. The weather is nice but it is so still. It does not seem as if I could stand it up here much longer.”

But some observers loved the job, which often involved sitting all day in a room that was only slightly bigger than a king-size bed. Andrea Mather grew up at the base of Burke Mountain in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and manned its fire tower between 1974 and 1984. She remembers being captivated with the tower from an early age. “Since I was six years old, I said I either wanted to be a nurse or Smokey Bear,” remembers Mather.

Love it or hate it, the work was steady through the first half of the twentieth century as the network of forest fire observation towers in the Northeast continued to grow. States’ efforts were bolstered in 1911 when Congress approved the Weeks Act, named for the Massachusetts congressman John W. Weeks, which provided matching funds for forest fire suppression projects. The federal government became more involved in the construction of towers with the establishment of the White Mountain National Forest (1918) and the Green Mountain National Forest (1932). Later, the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corps replaced many of the wooden towers with metal structures.

At the peak of the network, between the mid-1930s and late 1940s, there were around 270 fire towers actively operating during fire season (April through October) between New York and Maine, plus roughly 50 more in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But by the end of the 1960s, states had, for the most part, stopped building new fire towers. They were pursuing a new and more powerful fire observation tool: airplanes. Older towers and their communication equipment were allowed to fall into disrepair. Then, as budgets tightened in the 1970s, states began shuttering the towers.

The End Of An Era

Vermont was the first state to close its entire network of towers. “It was very costly,” said Hollis Prior, a retired fire control supervisor for the northeast district of Vermont. “And we weren’t having that many fires.”

Despite that, forestry officials did not want to remove the fire observers. Most people worked the same tower year after year and had taken on roles – tour guide, naturalist, dispatcher – that were well outside their original job description.

“You were there for public relations as much as for the fires,” said Mather, the former observer. “There was quite a bit of work just keeping up the trails and answering questions for people.”

Also, in the final years, observers provided an essential communication link between forestry employees, who often worked in valleys between mountains that blocked radio signals. That role shrank with improvements in radio technology.

“They definitely earned their keep,” said Brent Teillon, who retired after almost 30 years as chief of forest protection for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation in 2005. Still, he had trouble defending the expense in the state legislature, and the last operating tower in Vermont was closed after the summer of 1985.

New York and Maine followed suit, closing fire towers one by one. New York stopped employing observers in 1990, while Maine discontinued its system following a budget crisis in 1991. Cutting the towers saved his department $800,000, said Tom Parent, the fire supervisor for the Maine forest service at the time.

“It was either close the towers or lay off people who were on the ground ready to be suppressing fires,” Parent said.

Over the following years, more than 100 towers were taken down or allowed to collapse in New York, Vermont, and Maine. “Many of the towers were just cut down in the eighties and nineties,” said Marty Podskoch, the author of several books about the history of fire towers in New York’s Adirondack and Catskill state parks. “There was nobody out there explaining their importance and (state governments) were worried about liability.”

But this is changing. Today, in New York’s largest state parks, nonprofit groups have been successful in restoring many fire towers with the help of grants from the state department of environmental conservation and funds raised by residents of the area. Twelve of the 34 towers in the Adirondacks have been restored to varying degrees and more are slated for restoration. The Catskill Center opens the cabs of five towers to the public every weekend between early June and mid-October.

“It’s the best gig I’ve ever had, paid or not,” said Diane Sirios, who has volunteered for five summers at Overlook Mountain Fire Tower near Woodstock, New York. “People often don’t realize how much wild land still exists so close to urban areas until they get the perspective that comes from seeing the expansive view from the fire tower.”

In Vermont, the state allocated funds last year to restore the fire tower on Okemo Mountain, a popular hiking destination. And the Green Mountain Club employs former longtime lookout observers Hugh and Jeanne Joudry as summit caretakers at the Stratton Mountain fire tower. In Maine, the Forest Fire Lookout Association has a strong presence in York County, and volunteers still man lookout towers during dry weather.

Fire tower proponents argue that the view from the top of a tower offers more than a scenic vista – that it gives both hikers and schoolchildren a unique perspective on the forest and on the history of forest conservation.

“The educational piece is what grabs my imagination,” said David Thomas-Train, a former teacher who heads the Adirondack Fire Tower Association. “The fire towers were really the first organized effort by the state to protect its forests. There is an environmental stewardship message here.”

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island continue to maintain the states’ towers for fire observation, but they employ observers only as needed. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are more vulnerable to forest fires than other New England states because of the prevalence of pitch pine, sandy soil, and dry, coastal winds. Fire risk is rated on a scale of 1 to 5, based on a variety of factors, including the number of trees down in the forest and the number of days without rain. The fire lookouts come to work only on days when the fire risk is level 3 or higher.

The situation in New Hampshire is different. There, the Division of Forests and Lands is part of the Department of Resources and Economic Development. Bud Nelson, chief of the fire protection bureau between 1985 and 2004, explained that his department valued the towers as tourist destinations as well as tools for fire suppression.

Forest landowners are a powerful political group in New Hampshire and they support the towers, said Keith Argow, chairman of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. “Small land-owners can only afford small fires,” Argow said. “We like early detection and we like peoples’ eyes on the forest.”

In Maine, John Heseltine, a retired Marine whose father and grandfather fought the great 1947 fire, has volunteered as a fire observer in York County for the past 14 years. He was a small child when he took a bus tour of the torched Goose Rock section of Kennebunkport with his father, but the images stuck with him.

“I’m not suggesting we are going to have another 1947-style fire,” said Heseltine. “But you never know.”

On dry days when the local fire warden tells him that the fire danger is high, Heseltine climbs the tower, turns on the computer, which displays a map of the area, and reports to the emergency dispatcher on duty that Mt. Hope is manned.

“I bring out the coffee and the Cheetos and stare out the window,” Heseltine said. “I’ve always said the view is terrific, but the catering is terrible.” Then, like fire observers for over a century, he spends the day with eyes peeled for smoke.

Kristen Fountain is a freelance writer in Stowe, Vermont. She has enjoyed the view from fire towers in Vermont and New Hampshire.

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  1. Fred Knauf → in New York
    Nov 03, 2012

    A very well written article.  What each of these states did not realize in their decisions is that for the vast most part, the savings they might have achieved in their fire protection / forestry budgets was shifted and moved to their social programs.  Most observers in those area where fire towers were located & needed left their jobs and could not find work. The State added to the needy payrolls of welfare, the towers became derelict, and we all lost out in this transition. Today, I would be much happier knowing that I’m paying $20,000 a year for an observer on Mt. Adams in the Adirondacks than an unemployed individual in Newcomb NY. who can not find work.  That IS a problem all over America….but what looks good on paper for some is not really good for others.

  2. Carol Nilges → in Townshend, Vermomt
    Jun 21, 2013

    Today my friend hiked up to the fire watchtower on Hogback Mt. My mother says that the tower was moved there from Bald Mt, in Townshend, Vt.. she remembers climbing up the fire tower in Townshend when she was a little girl in about third grade. She is now 87 years old. I’m not sure how to research this bit of trivia. Thank you.

  3. Don Copeland → in Island Falls, Maine
    Aug 17, 2013

    I did this type of work for 7 years 1963-1970.

  4. Bob Spear → in Palm Coast,Florida
    Sep 27, 2013

    I always enjoy reading stories of Lookouts; aka, fire towers, etc. anywhere in the world and asa FFLA Historian try to include all in my on-going “Lookout Library”

  5. S. Cross → in Garland, Pennsylvania
    Dec 29, 2013

    I used to climb the fire tower on Saint Regis Mountain in the Adirondaks when I was attending Paul Smiths’ College in the mid- 1990’s. I don’t know if it’s still there, but I sure took some great pictures from it.

  6. Richard Marble → in Farmington, Maine
    Mar 09, 2015

    Worked for the Maine Forest Service in the 70’s and was on Bigalow in 73.(the highest mountain in Maine with a fire tower)  Spotted the last forest fire from that tower before it closed and trained last three watchmen that followed me.

  7. Charles Marchant → in Townshend, VT
    Mar 27, 2016

    I was recently given some 1920’s photos that I believe are of the Townshend fire tower.  They don’ look quite like the Marlboro one.  Are there any photos of the original Townsend tower?  Carol N. lives just up the street from me.

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