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. Some still remain in active service with a combination of paid staff and volunteers while others have been turned into observation decks or cabins.
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.
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
|West Virginia||Barton Knob Tower||1926||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Bell Knob Tower||1931||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Bickle Knob Fire Tower||1933||Repurposed|
|Kentucky||Black Mountain Lookout Tower||Abandoned|
|Ohio||Copperhead Fire Tower||1924||Closed|
|Maryland||Elder Hill Tower||c. 1934||c. 1984||Closed|
|West Virginia||Mann Mountain||1935||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Nathaniel Mountain Tower/Hampshire Tower||1939||Abandoned|
|West Virginia||Backbone/Olson Tower||1922||Closed|
|West Virginia||Pilot Knob Lookout Tower||Closed|
|Tennessee||Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower||1930||1989||Repurposed|
|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||Repurposed|
|Kentucky||Triangle Lookout Tower||Closed|
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 Fire 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
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 Lookout Tower
Pilot Knob Lookout Tower was constructed along Flat Top Mountain on the border of Mercer and Wyoming Counties in West Virginia.
Pinnacle Mountain Fire 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)
Scioto Trail Fire 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.