This is a gallery of fire lookout towers in the United States.
Fire lookout towers provided housing and protection for individuals whose duty was to search for wildfires. Located on the summit of a mountain or otherwise high vantage point, the spotters could observe for smoke that may develop, determine its location, and call for fire suppression personnel to the fire.
The earliest fire lookout towers in the United States were developed by State Forestry organizations, private lumber companies, and townships. It wasn’t until the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 that the construction of government-funded and managed towers took root. The U.S. Forest Service took advantage of the CCC workforce to construct hundreds of lookout towers across the United States.
During World War II, the Aircraft Warning Service was established, operating between mid-1941 and mid-1944. Fire lookout towers, especially those on the west coast, doubled as spotters for enemy aircraft.
Improvement in radio and cellular technology, the rise of aircraft spotters, and budget cuts have led to the abandonment of many fire lookout towers. Hundreds still remain in active service with a combination of paid staff and volunteers while others have been turned into observation decks or cabins.
In Ohio, the State Forestry Bureau was established by the Ohio General Assembly in 1885. 1 It appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of two forested areas in the southern reaches of the state: Waterloo State Forest in Athens County and Dean State Forest in Lawrence County.
After logging and subsequent fires devastated hills north and west of Portsmouth, the Forestry Bureau established Shawnee State Forest in 1922 and erected its first fire tower there on Copperhead Hill in 1924. 1 A total of 39 fire towers were erected in the state, with the last being built in 1969-70.
To supplement the fire towers, the Division of Forestry began using Civil Air Patrol aircraft for fire detection. 1 In 1969, the last of the fire towers was contracted to be built, and three fire stations were completed. Changes in land use and advances in air detection of forest fires resulted in the discontinuation of fire tower use, with the Green Ridge Tower in Pike State Forest the last to be manned.
|Ohio||Copperhead Fire Tower||1924||Closed|
|West Virginia||Mann Mountain||1935||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Backbone/Olson Tower||1922||Closed|
|West Virginia||Pilot Knob Lookout Tower||Closed|
|Kentucky||Putney Knob (Beschman)||Abandoned|
|Ohio||Scioto Trail Fire Tower||1925||Closed|
|Kentucky||Tater Knob Lookout Tower||1934||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Thorny Mountain Fire Tower||1935||1988||Open|
|Kentucky||Triangle Lookout Tower||Reused|
Copperhead Fire Tower
The Copperhead Fire Tower was constructed in 1924 atop Copperhead Hill in the Shawnee State Forest. 1 The 60-foot-tall structure was the first to be built in the state, and including materials, labor, and transportation, it cost $1,100 to erect.
Shawnee State Forest was formed in 1922 when the state purchased 5,000 acres of land in Scioto County that had been cut for timber and ravaged by fire. 1 In the 1930s, six Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were located in the forest, constructing many of its roads and facilities.
Mann Mountain Tower
Mann Mountain Tower was constructed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The 45-foot-high Blaw-Knox structure features a 7-foot by 7-foot cab. It was the first lookout registered in the state.
Backbone Tower was constructed in 1922 along Backbone Mountain in Tucker County, West Virginia. It was the first fire tower in the state. 6 Its ownership was later transferred to the Monongahela National Forest and was used until 1963, when it was replaced with Olson Tower, named after Ernst B. Olson in recognition of 28 years of fire control and conservation program service to the Monongahela National Forest.
Pilot Knob Lookout Tower
Pilot Knob Lookout Tower was constructed along Flat Top Mountain on the border of Mercer and Wyoming Counties in West Virginia.
Putney Knob (Beschman)
Scioto Trail Fire Tower
The Scioto Trail Fire Tower was constructed in 1925 in the Scioto Trail State Forest. 1 The 60-foot-tall Aermotor structure with a 7-foot by 7-foot cab cost $1,100 to erect.
Scioto Trail State Forest was formed in 1922 when the state purchased 9,008 acres of land in Pike County. 1 It was named after the Native American trail that ran from Chillicothe to Portsmouth along the Scioto River, with modern-day US Route 23 follows the path of the original Scioto Trail. During World War I, the state forest was used as an artillery range for Camp Sherman. Seventy-five millimeter guns and six-inch howitzers were installed at the mouth of Stoney Creek on the Scioto River and fired at targets in the general area of Stewart and Caldwell lakes.
Tater Knob Lookout Tower
Tater Knob Fire Tower was constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 2 The 35-foot-high tower was home to a 200-square-foot cab that contained a wood stove, cabinet, storage box, small table, stool, and two cots. The original wooden cab was reconstructed in 1959 which reduced it to nearly half of its original size as the lookouts no longer needed to live in the tower. By the mid-1970s, aircraft replaced lookouts and the tower was abandoned.
The historic Tater Knob Fire Tower was destroyed in an arson fire on December 3, 2008. 2 The fire burned all of the supporting wood frame of the lookout cab.
Thorny Mountain Fire Tower
In 1933, Camp Seneca was established by the Civilian Conservation Corps to build trails, roads, cabins, picnic areas, and a dam for Seneca Lake within the Seneca State Forest in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. 3
Land for the state forest was acquired by the West Virginia Game and Fish Commission in 1924. 4 At that time, the cutting of virgin timber on the land by the Raine Lumber Company was nearing completion. The last of the logging was completed in 1929.
A fire tower was erected atop Michael Mountain in the state forest in 1924, but it was reconstructed atop Thorny Mountain in 1935 to provide better coverage of the Greenbrier River valley. 3 5 The 53-foot-high tower featured a 12×12 wooden cab.
Within the first two years of operation, observers at the fire tower reported ten forest fires, mostly caused by engines of the logging railroad which passed through the forest. 5 The fires averaged only 8.8 acres each.
The Thorny Mountain Fire Tower remained in use until 1988 3 and was abandoned for years until a state forest official had an idea to refurbish the structure for overnight accommodations. 3 Work included cutting down trees that had grown to surround the tower, adding a new roof, installing new windows, and replacing the exterior staircase. The restored fire tower opened to guests in 2015 who can reserve a night to camp within it.
Triangle Mountain Lookout Tower
- Interpretative signage.
- “Tater Knob Fire Tower.” Daniel Boone National Forest.
- “Thorny Mountain Fire Tower.” Atlas Obscura, 31 Aug. 2021.
- McNeel, William P. “Seneca State Forest.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia, 11 Aug. 2016.
- “Seneca State Forest.” History of Pocahontas County, West Virginia 1981, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, TX, 1981, p. 85.
- “Olson Observation Tower.” U.S. Forest Service.
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[…] Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in the Seneca State Forest in West Virginia is one of many historic fire towers that dot the […]
[…] Tater Knob Lookout Tower was constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps in Rowan County, Kentucky. The 35-foot-high tower was home to a 200-square-foot cab that contained a wood stove, cabinet, storage box, small table, stool, and two cots. By the mid-1970s, aircraft replaced fire lookouts, and the tower was abandoned. Later restored to serve as an overlook in the Daniel Boone National Forest, it was damaged in arson on December 3, 2008. […]