Fire Lookout Towers

This gallery presents a collection of fire lookout towers located throughout the United States.







Table Of Contents

History

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. Some still remain in active service with a combination of paid staff and volunteers while others have been turned into observation decks or cabins.

Maryland

In 1915, Maryland built its inaugural lookout tower on Meadow Mountain. 19 Initially, the Department of Forestry projected the need for 30 to 35 towers across the state. By 1927, 11 towers were established. This number grew to 30 by 1937 and reached 32 by 1940.

The earliest towers were wooden structures supported by thin metal legs and stabilized with guy wires. 19 Aermotor of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, later produced a second-generation design that could be shipped and assembled on-site. Apart from the initial 15-foot-high Dan’s Rock Tower, these lookout towers typically ranged from 50 to 120 feet in height.

During World War II, these towers played a role as aircraft spotter posts. 19 By the late 1950s, regular manning of the towers had ceased. Some were repurposed as platforms for communication equipment, with companies like AT&T and Western Union having partial ownership. Others have been transformed into Maryland Forest Service Regional Offices, field offices, or storage facilities. For certain towers, deeds specified that if the property ceased to serve forestry management functions, ownership would revert to the heirs or assignees of the original proprietors.

Ohio

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 near Portsmouth, the Forestry Bureau established Shawnee State Forest in 1922 and erected its first fire tower there on Copperhead Hill in 1924. 1 Similarly, the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station began acquiring land in Hocking County in 1924 with the intent to demonstrate the practical value of forestry. The lands at the time were in poor condition because of extensive logging, with the remaining forest stands in poor condition.

A total of 39 fire towers were erected in the state. 1 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.

West Virginia

The developnment of fire towers in West Virginia were the result of massive fires following the cutting of the original virgin forest. 22 The first towers were erected by the state in 1916 and featured two floors: the first floor was the living quarters of the observer while the second floor served as an observation room.

From its establishment in 1920 to the 1970s, the Monongahela National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, utilized a combination of fire lookout towers, fire patrol officers, and civilian cooperation to manage wildfires for five decades. 14 There were two main types of fire towers:

  1. A smaller version with a 7’×7′ metal cab positioned on a metal support. Living accommodations for the observers were provided in separate cabins on the ground nearby.
  2. A larger design, typically 12’×12′ or 14’×14′, made of either metal or wood. This structure doubled as both an observation point and living quarters for the personnel.

In 1922, the first fire lookout structure in the Monongahela National Forest was completed—the Backbone Tower on Backbone Mountain. 13 Initially built by the state, it was later taken over by the U.S. Forest Service and subsequently replaced by a new structure. The U.S. Forest Service built its first lookout structure atop Canaan Mountain, and was a simple cabin lookout atop a large rock. However, it was abandoned in 1943 in favor of the newly built Bearden Knob Lookout Tower, located two miles away.

In 1928, the U.S. Forest Service erected two more lookout structures: the Mozark Mountain Lookout in the Cheat District and the Smoke Camp Lookout in the Greenbrier District. 13 14 These remained in use until 1950. 1931 saw the construction of a tower on Dolly Sods. Over the subsequent years, several towers were built in quick succession: Bickle Knob Tower (1933), Red Oak and Paddy Knob Tower (1934), North Mountain and Hopkins Mountain Tower (1935), and Sharp Knob and Gaudineer Knob Tower (1936). The Red Spruce Lookout was added in 1940, and Mikes Knob Tower came up in 1941.

During the period when the U.S. Army was training soldiers in the West Virginia Maneuver Area, four more fire towers were set up in the Cheat and Potomac Ranger Districts between 1943 and 1944 to enhance wildfire protection. 13 14 Among these was the Bearden Knob Tower, built in 1943 as a replacement for the Canaan Mountain Lookout, which was later dismantled in 1946. In 1943, the U.S. Army’s 13th Corps moved the Dolly Sods tower to Bell Knob. Additionally, the Army funded the creation of two temporary towers: the Niges Cliff Lookout and the Pigeons Roost Lookout, which were subsequently transferred to the state in 1944 and 1948, respectively.

The U.S. Forest Service acquired the Beaver Lick Tower from the state on November 15, 1948. 13 14 Olson Tower was established in 1963, replacing the original Backbone Tower. The construction of Red Oak Tower was completed in 1964.

Fire tower lookouts used telephone lines to communicate with district offices. Many of these lines were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s, connecting the towers to district ranger stations and the homes of fire wardens. 14 By 1941, the U.S. Forest Service oversaw more than 728 miles of these government-owned lines. As technology advanced, portable short-wave radios became more common which not only decreased the dependency on telephone lines but also enhanced communication between the towers, wildfire response crews, spotter aircraft, and tankers.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service started to reduce staff at its fire towers, shifting to aerial reconnaissance. 14 During the wildfire season, teams of pilots and spotters flew specific routes over the forest, relaying wildfire locations to crews on the ground. It discontinued staffing of the fire towers by the end of the decade. The last fire tower operated by the state’s Division of Forestry closed in 1990. 22


Listings

StateLocationOpenedClosedStatus
KentuckyArgillite Lookout TowerAbandoned
OhioAsh Cave Fire Tower1934Repurposed
West VirginiaBarton Knob Tower1926Abandoned
West VirginiaBell Knob Tower1931Abandoned
West VirginiaBickle Knob Fire Tower1933Repurposed
KentuckyBlack Mountain Lookout TowerAbandoned
OhioCopperhead Fire Tower1924Closed
MarylandElder Hill Towerc. 1934c. 1984Closed
West VirginiaMann Mountain1935Abandoned
West VirginiaNathaniel Mountain Tower/Hampshire Tower1939Abandoned
West VirginiaBackbone/Olson Tower1922Closed
West VirginiaPilot Knob Lookout TowerClosed
West VirginiaPinnacle Knob Lookout TowerDemolished
TennesseePinnacle Mountain Fire Tower19301989Repurposed
PennsylvaniaPondfield Tower1935-37Closed
KentuckyPutney Knob (Beschman)Abandoned
West VirginiaRed Oak Tower1934Closed
OhioScioto Trail Fire Tower1925Closed
OhioShawnee Lookout Tower19391970sAbandoned
KentuckyTater Knob Lookout Tower1934Abandoned
West VirginiaThorny Mountain Fire Tower19351988Repurposed
KentuckyTriangle Lookout TowerClosed

Argillite Lookout Tower

The Argillite Lookout Tower is located in Greenup County, Kentucky.

Ash Cave Fire Tower

Ash Cave Fire Tower, built in 1934, stands at 80 feet tall and features a 7-foot by 7-foot metal cab built by the Aermotor Company. 1

Barton Knob Tower

In 1926, the Barton Knob Tower was built by the state on Barton Knob in Randolph County, West Virginia. 16 In 1942, the Mower Lumber Company purchased the Cheat Mountain Tract from the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company and logged the area until 1960. 17 The same region underwent coal mining in the late 1970s and 1980s, employing strip mining techniques, and was selectively timbered.

Senator Robert C. Byrd announced in 1988 that the Mower lands would be sold to the U.S. Forest Service, integrating them into the Monongahela National Forest. 17 A few decades later, in June 2010, there was a proposal by the U.S. Forest Service to dismantle the Barton Knob Tower to accommodate a radio repeater. 16 Even though the radio repeater was set up near the tower in May 2012, the tower itself was left standing.

Bell Knob Tower

Bell Knob Tower was originally built in 1931 on Dolly Sods in West Virginia. 13 14 During World War II, the Dolly Sods area was part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area where the U.S. Army trained its soldiers. 14 The U.S. Army’s 13th Corps funded the relocation of the Dolly Sods Tower in 1943, moving it several miles south to Bell Knob. Once relocated, the Bell Knob Tower played a crucial role in detecting wildfires within the army’s live-fire range, which is now known as the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

The 40′-high galvanized steel structure featured a wood frame cab on top. A below-ground garbage pit and outhouse were located 50 yards northeast.

Bickle Knob Tower

The Bickle Knob Fire Tower, situated on Bickle Knob northeast of Elkins, West Virginia, was constructed by the CCC in 1933. 12 13 It offered fire observers panoramic views of the Tygart River and Shavers Fork watersheds. Subsequently, the cab of the tower was removed, and the U.S. Forest Service converted the top into an observation platform. 11

Black Mountain Lookout Tower

Black Mountain Lookout Tower was constructed atop Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak.

Copperhead Tower

Copperhead Fire Tower was constructed in 1924 atop Copperhead Hill in the Shawnee State Forest near Portsmouth, Ohio. 1 The 60′ 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 CCC camps were located in the forest, constructing many of its roads and facilities.

Elder Hill Tower

Elder Hill Tower stands at 110 feet and is situated on Elder Hill near Friendsville in Garrett County, Maryland. 19 It was constructed sometime after 1934. When the tower was no longer in use, the property ownership went back to a private individual, and vehicle access was cut off around 1984.

Mann Mountain Tower

Mann Mountain Tower was constructed in 1935 by the CCC atop Mann Mountain West Virginia. The 45′ high Blaw-Knox structure features a 7’×7′ cab.

Nathaniel Mountain Tower / Hampshire Tower

The Nathaniel Mountain Tower, standing 90′ tall, 18 was built in 1939 19 on Nathaniel Mountain in Hampshire County, West Virginia. By 1948, it had been renamed to Hampshire Tower. 18

Olson Tower

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 U.S. Forest Service 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 Tower

Pilot Knob Lookout Tower was constructed along Flat Top Mountain on the border of Mercer and Wyoming Counties in West Virginia.

Pinnacle Knob Lookout Tower

The Pinnacle Knob Lookout Tower is located in the Allegheny Wildlife Management Area. It stands on Pinnacle Knob, part of the Allegheny Front, in Mineral County, West Virginia. The foundation of a second fire tower now functions as a scenic viewpoint, situated adjacent to three communication towers.

Pinnacle Mountain Tower

Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower, located within the Cherokee National Forest near Unicoi, Tennessee, and perched atop Buffalo Mountain at 3,520 feet, overlooks “The Valley Beautiful.” From its platform, one can see the region’s tallest mountains, including Roan and Unaka mountains, and North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell.

Constructed in 1931, the tower got its first telephone in 1949. 9 It was closed in 1989.

In 2007, Partners of the Cherokee National Forest, a non-profit championing the forest’s welfare, initiated a fundraising drive. 9 Their goal was to collect part of the $100,000 required to renovate the 40′ high structure, substituting the original 14’×14′ wooden and metal top with an all-metal viewing platform. 7 9 This revamped tower was slated to be the focal point of a planned trail system on Buffalo Mountain connecting Erwin and Johnson City. 9

The transformation of the tower into an observation platform commenced in 2011. 7 10 That summer, a crane replaced the former cabin with a metallic structure, at a total expense of $146,000. 10 One-fourth of this sum was garnered from individual and business contributions, facilitated by the Partners of the Cherokee National Forest and supported by a grant from the Forest Fire Lookout Association. 8

The renovated Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower was dedicated to the public in late October 2011. 10

Pondfield Fire Tower

Pondfield Fire Tower, an 80′ high structure, was built on Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, between 1935 21 and 1937. 20 It was used by the Braddock Division of the Forbes State Forest, allowing fire watchers to detect fires reaching as far as Maryland and West Virginia. A cabin was also constructed on the site for the fire deputy’s accommodation. The tower was manned until the 1960s.

Putney Knob (Beschman)

Red Oak Tower

The Red Oak Tower, an 80-foot fire lookout tower, stands atop Red Oak Knob in Webster County, West Virginia. 23 It was built in 1964, replacing a smaller, 30-foot tower erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. 24 Notably, the Red Oak Tower was the last to be built and the second tallest in the Monongahela National Forest.

In 1976, the tower suffered significant vandalism, including the removal of its electrical service box and wiring. 24 This damage occurred prior to its planned use as a communication post for the National Girl Scout Encampment scheduled for mid-June. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers, which utilized the site as a remote flood control station, reported the theft of equipment valued at $2,500.

For the 2025 season, the 12-foot by 13-foot cabin atop the Red Oak Tower will become available for rental following renovations. 23 At the base of the tower, amenities including an RV pad with hookup, a tent pad, a fire pit, a picnic table, and restrooms will be provided. The renovation work is a collaborative effort involving HistoriCorps, the Appalachian National Forest Heritage Area, the Appalachian National Forest Heritage Area Hands On Team, AmeriCorps, and U.S. Veterans.

Scioto Trail Tower

The Scioto Trail Fire Tower was constructed in 1925 in the Scioto Trail State Forest. 1 The 60′ tall Aermotor structure with a 7’×7′ 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 following the path of the original Scioto Trail. During World War I, the state forest was used as an artillery range for Camp Sherman. 75 mm guns and six” 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.

Shawnee Lookout Tower

Shawnee Lookout Tower was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 25 It stands 100 feet tall and has a 7-foot square cab atop. A cabin or guard station, latrine, and garage were nearby. It was staffed for fire detection until the 1970s. The tower was restored in 1994 but closed to the public following a severe wind storm in 2004. In May 2023, the staircase was severed because of structural deterioration to the foundation blocks. 26

The Shawnee Lookout Tower is the last lookout tower remaining in the Wayne National Forest and is the third tower in the country to be listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. 25 It is also eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tater Knob Lookout Tower

Tater Knob Tower was constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 2 The 35′ 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, the tower was abandoned.

Tater Knob 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 CCC 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 & 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′ 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 that passed through the forest. 5

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 Tower


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