Monday, June 22, 2015


We left Big Bear Lake, California just a week before wildfires began to spark during this hot, dry summer season. I assume that the fires were spotted by some lookout with the Forest Service who mans one of those tall fire towers prevalent in the National Forests of the West. While at Big Bear, I thought about a vacation I've always wanted to take—not in a cabin but in a fire tower hideaway built by the CCC's during the early 1900's.

During the 1940's, 4,000 lookout towers were built in National Forests, but today there are only 900 left (over 500 active and abandoned ones in California), and if you have the camping bug and don't want to invest in tents and camping equipment, you can rent one of these towers for $30-$50 a night. The space is small—12 to 15 sq. feet—but most of them have heat, table, chair, and a bed but no water or electricity. However, the panoramic views from these eagle perches are said to be unforgettable, especially from the Little Guard Lookout in northern Idaho that touts sweeping views of the Bitterroot Mountains.

The Forest Service still uses many lookout towers, using mapping tools to determine the location of fires, and both men and women man them. According to the National Forest Foundation, in 1913, Hallie Daggett became the first female lookout in the Forest Service and spent fifteen years working in the Eddie Gulch fire tower in Klamath National Forest in northern California. My deceased brother Paul drove us through part of this forest near the border of Oregon back in the 90's, and the firs and incense cedars there were breathtaking.

When I returned from California a week ago, with visions of fire towers dancing in my head, I picked up The Messenger, our Sewanee, Tennessee newspaper, and voila! Right on the front page was a story about the Sewanee Fire Lookout Tower, a site that has been added to the National Register of Historic Places by the Tennessee Historical Commission. The site will be listed under the Tennessee Division of Forestry Fire Lookout Towers, 1933-75.

The Sewanee Lookout Tower is described as an Aeromotor MC 39 steel structure built from 1933-34 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is in a complex that has several other buildings constructed in 1934: a crew cabin, a vehicle service platform, and the lookout operator's cabin. In 1940, a new crew building was built, and in 1950, a radio tower was added.

Although I have no intention of asking for a room at this local fire tower, we drove out to the site located on Fire Tower Road and took a look at the historic place this afternoon. It isn't quite high enough to provide the panoramic view that I imagine as part of fire tower charm, but I could envision it as a writer's retreat in a rustic setting. As I'm spooked by lightning, I don't think I'd like any of the western towers because of their susceptibility to lightning strikes. Towers in the West, located high on mountain tops, are natural conductors of lightning and have to be grounded with copper wires. The wires attract lightning strikes and cause the electrical charge to go deep into the ground where it is dispersed. However, I'd still hyperventilate if lightning hit any tower in which I was having a private retreat!

If you're interested in lookout towers in a National Forest, check out the site. Or if you're a Sewaneean, drive out to Fire Tower Road and take a look at a cultural resource that has been deemed worthy of preservation, but I don't think it's available for rental.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

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