Someone once told me that in the early 1900’s Johnson County, Tennessee could hardly lay claim to a decent stand of trees. Almost every piece of ground had been turned into a plowed field or grassland for cattle and horses. Today there are places where I helped my parents and grandparents plant fields and cut hay that are now nothing but forest. With the decline in farming and cattle grazing Mother Nature has taken back her land.
Some of the best views from the road have now disappeared. I wonder sometimes if we might someday have a forest fire here like they have out west. The fire believed to be the largest in recorded U.S. history was the Great Fire of 1910. Also called the Big Blowup or the Big Burn this fire burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana over August 20 and 21st, 1910. It killed 87 people and completely burned entire towns to the ground. The great damage from this fire shocked the nation and brought about both political and physical changes to fire fighting.
After the Great Fire the U.S. Forest Service made a rule that townships, corporations, and States had to bear the cost of contracting fire suppression services. As a result, fire prevention and suppression became a priority across the country. It was after the Great Fire of 1910 that fire towers began to be erected across the country to detect and prevent forest fires. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps to employ young men during the depression. These CCC men had erected about 8,000 fire towers in the U.S. by the late 1930’s.
There was one lookout tower in Iredell County located in the northwest corner at the summit of Fox Mountain. It had one of the more unique fire tower designs being a lookout “cab” which is a small box for the tower watchman to sit and look for smoke. It was attached to the top of an old transformer pole or tower. It was put there by the North Carolina Fire Service due to its height at an elevation of 1,725 feet. Today it no longer exists.
Peter J. Barr is an avid hiker, who has a passion for locating fire towers in N.C. “I climbed my first lookout tower in May, 2003. I was on the first ascent of the first day of a week-long backpacking trip a friend and I were taking to complete a requirement for the Congressional Award Gold Medal. We hiked on the Appalachian Trial from the western end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the eastern end. After climbing from Fontana Dam, the highest dam in the eastern U.S., we reached Shuckstack, a rickety old fire tower. It was in terrible condition, missing railings and rotten stairs. I was so scared to climb it, I ascended the tower stair by stair on my bottom in a seated position, but the views from the top were spectacular.”
Since that first view from the top of Shuckstack fire tower Barr has visited nearly every fire tower in North Carolina and has written a book to encourage and guide others with a passion for hiking and exploration. His book, “Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers” provides driving directions and detailed hiking routes of varying length and difficulty along with descriptions of the view you will find when you find your tower.
He says the CCC built most of the lookout towers in N.C. of varying designs which included tall steel towers, shorter live-in cab lookouts, and lookout houses some of wood and others stone. The United States Forest Service was responsible for staffing them in the national forest and the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. The North Carolina Forest Service manned those on private land. Barr says, “the NCFS and NPS began decommissioning their use for fire detection in the 1960’s and 70’s. The NCFS continued their use through the 1980’s and 90’s, and a few into the 2000’s.
“Two fire lookouts in western N.C. are still manned during fire season during November, January, February, and March. These are Chambers Mountain in Haywood County and Toxaway Mountain in Jackson County. The NCFS still sporadically utilizes the towers during the fire season in eastern N.C.”
Barr says, the nearest lookout tower publicly accessible for residents of Iredell County is Rendezvous Mountain in Wilkes County in the Rendezvous Mountain State Forest. Hanging Rock State Park also has a lookout tower on its highest summit, Moores Knob, north of Winston-Salem.” Peter Barr is now the director of the N.C. Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association. He will be at the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville on Sunday, Oct. 12 at 2:30 p.m. for a book discussion and slideshow. The author will bring copies of his book to sell and autograph after the presentation. For more information call 704-878-3098 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Fire towers make for interesting read” on Oct. 8, 2008