Blazing Heights: Unveiling the Fire Towers of the Mid-Atlantic

Fire lookout towers housed and protected individuals for wildfire search, but many have been decommissioned due to technology advancements, aircraft spotters, and budget constraints.

Individuals tasked with searching for wildfires were housed and protected in fire lookout towers. Spotters on the peak of a mountain or other high viewpoint may watch for smoke, establish its position, and summon fire suppression personnel to the fire.

Many fire lookout towers have been decommissioned due to advancements in radio and cellular technology, the rise of aircraft spotters, and budget constraints. Some are still in use with a mix of paid and volunteer personnel, while others have been converted into observation decks or cottages.

I crossed the Mid-Atlantic for a week to photograph and document some of these fire towers.

On a sunny morning above Bickle Knob near Elkins, West Virginia, I ascended to the skies and captured the Bickle Knob Fire Tower, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. It provided firefighting personnel with panoramic views of the Tygart River and Shavers Fork basins. The tower’s cab was later dismantled, and the top was transformed into an observation platform by the U.S. Forest Service.

The westwardly overlook at the base of the tower offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, allowing visitors to witness stunning sunsets and panoramic vistas. Additionally, a nearby spring provides a refreshing oasis to quench their thirst.

Later, I came to the abandoned Bell Knob Tower, which was constructed in 1931 on Dolly Sods in West Virginia. The Dolly Sods area was part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area, where the United States Army trained its men during WWII. In 1943, the US Army’s 13th Corps funded the relocation of the Dolly Sods Tower to Bell Knob, several miles south. The Bell Knob Tower, once relocated, was critical in identifying wildfires within the army’s live-fire zone, which is today known as the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

The next morning, I awoke near Barton Knob, a high point on Cheat Mountain south of Elkins. I quickly got out of my makeshift sleeping arrangements in my Subaru Outback. As I climbed toward Barton Knob, the fog thickened, making it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. The silence was deafening, broken only by the sound of my own footsteps echoing through the mist. 

The Mower Lumber Company acquired the Cheat Mountain Tract from the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company in 1942 and logged it until 1960. The same area was carefully timbered and mined for coal in the late 1970s and early 1980s using strip mining techniques. In 1988, Senator Robert C. Byrd announced that the Mower lands would be sold to the U.S. Forest Service and incorporated into the Monongahela National Forest.

An abandoned fire tower built by the state in 1926 sits atop Barton Knob. It was supposed to be demolished in 2012 to make way for a radio repeater, however as of 2023, the tower remained standing even after the radio repeater was erected nearby.

After that, I spent some time exploring the Nathaniel Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Hampshire County. The roads within the region were rough gravel and dirt, with some areas requiring high clearance and a bit of technical know-how. At one particular area, I had to break out the MAXTRAX boards so I could ascend a small boulder with the Subaru. The vehicle handled the challenging terrain with ease. The breathtaking views from an abandoned fire tower, visible from a drone, made the adventure even more rewarding, providing a panoramic perspective of the surrounding landscape. 

The Nathaniel Mountain Tower was constructed in 1939 and afterward renamed Hampshire Tower. The caretaker’s hut remains at the tower’s base, but the tower itself has been neglected, with the bottom stairs severed.

Subaru Outback Wilderness
The Subaru Outback Wilderness handles itself well on-road and off-road.

Massive fires followed the clearing of the original virgin forest in West Virginia prompted the building of fire towers. The state built the first towers in 1916, and the US Forest Service built the first in 1922. The US Forest Service began to cut manpower at its fire towers in the early 1970s, resorting to aircraft reconnaissance. Throughout the wildfire season, teams of pilots and spotters flew precise routes over the forest, transmitting wildfire locations to ground troops. By the end of the decade, it had stopped staffing the fire towers. The state’s Division of Forestry closed its last fire tower in 1990.

For the next day, I visited western Maryland where I visited the decommissioned Elder Hill Tower in Garrett County which was built sometime around 1934. When the tower was no longer needed, the site was returned to a private individual, and vehicle access was discontinued around 1984.

Maryland had built its first lookout tower atop Meadow Mountain in 1915. The first towers were made of wood and supported by thin metal legs that were stabilized with guy wires. Later, Aermotor developed a second-generation version that could be supplied and assembled on-site. During WWII, these towers served as aircraft observation positions. The towers were no longer manned on a regular basis by the late 1950s.

Afterward, it was a short drive to the decommissioned Pondfield Fire Tower on Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It was assembled between 1935 and 1937 and utilized by the Forbes State Forest’s Braddock Division to detect fires as far away as Maryland and West Virginia. A cabin was also built on the property to house the fire deputy. Until the 1960s, the tower was manned on a regular basis.

Fire towers played a crucial role in detecting and preventing forest fires for many years. Their elevated vantage points and trained observers have been instrumental in early detection, allowing for prompt response and minimizing the damage caused by wildfires. However, with the advancements in technology and the rise of aerial surveillance systems, the relevance of fire towers has diminished over time. Despite this, fire towers still hold historical significance and serve as a reminder of the tireless efforts made by forest rangers to protect our natural landscape.

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