Christmas and the Catskills
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See the Fall 2021 Hemlock for Scott Koster's article on the Echo House.
A Towering Sense of Place
By Alexandra Prince
Hunter Mountain fire tower. Image from the NYS Archives.
Last Saturday night (Sept. 4), the Catskill Center lit each of the five Catskills fire towers (Balsam Lake, Hunter, Overlook, Red Hill, and Tremper) to commemorate those people who worked to support these amazing structures. The following provides a little information on the history of the Catskills fire towers as a supplement to this annual tradition with a focus on the Hunter Mountain fire tower. (1)
The Catskills fire towers were built in response to forest fires both manmade and natural. Forest fires can start naturally, especially in drought conditions, but in the early part of the 20th century they were often ignited by sparks or live coal from passing railroad locomotives, smokers, and uncontrolled brush fires. Downed trees and brush left behind by loggers provided fuel for the flames. With these incendiary conditions and no systemized response yet in place for reporting or fighting flames, the early part of the 20th century witnessed several destructive forest fires. For instance, a fire in 1903 burned for seven weeks and raged so strongly it reportedly blackened the skies with its smoke. Forest fires not only threatened mountain homes, farms and businesses, but burned acres of trees, plants, and animals. Lye from the smoke ash poisoned fish in local creeks and lakes.
Each year brought hundreds of damaging wildfires until 1908 when the public demanded the state take action. That same year, the Forest, Fish and Game Commission created a new state fire fighting system to expand the existing system of fire wardens into a new professional group of fire patrols. In 1909, two formerly privately-owned observation stations were acquired by the state, the Balsam Lake Mountain tower built in 1887 and a tower on Belleayre Mountain. That same year, the original fire tower on Hunter Mountain was constructed out of wood from three trees. It stood 40 feet high.
The original wooden tower atop Hunter Mountain.
Eventually, the early wooden fire towers were replaced with steel. Hunter’s wooden tower was replaced in 1917 with a 60ft steel tower. The heavy steel was hauled up to the summit by a team of horses working along a dirt road. This new steel tower was located ¼ miles from the old wooden tower. In 1953, the tower was moved again to the true summit of the mountain, which made it 40 feet higher in elevation than its earlier versions. Today the fire tower is 60ft high and sits at 4,040’. Most of the fire towers, including Hunter’s, were outfitted with galvanized iron cabs at the top, which had windows on all sides to allow observers a 360 degree view of the surrounding forests and potential fire threats.
The construction of the steel fire tower on Hunter Mountain. Image from Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore by Martin Podskoch.
Fire observers worked from April to October and lived in tents for many seasons until log cabins were built in 1911. As anyone who has experienced a strong storm on a high peak knows, this must have been a very welcome development. Many observers were naturalists and could identify local trees, plants and wildfire, information they shared with the many hikers who trekked up the mountains. Many were also fondly remembered for their skill at storytelling.
In 1919, the FFGC outfitted fire towers with new tools for the observers to use. These included a range finder, compass, field glasses, and large circular maps whose radius represented fifteen miles. The maps were overlaid with glass and accompanied by an azimuth ring and an alidade, two tools which helped the observer identify the location and distance of the fire. In 1938, the Forest Commission determined that collectively the fire tower observers could see 87% of the forest preserve.
A tower observer utilizes a circular map with alidade to locate a fire. Image from Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore by Martin Podskoch.
Observers communicated fire risks via telephone and radio. Fire wardens and rangers would report to extinguish the fire, although tower observers sometimes assisted. They used Indian tanks, heavy five-gallon metal tanks that strapped onto their backs, as well as hand pumps, fire rakes, fiber brooms and shovels to extinguish flames and control fires.
During the Great Depression, the federal government created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to alleviate joblessness among men. Teams of young men labored in the Catskill forest preserve to create fire roads, fire towers, build trails, plant trees and tame wildfires. During and after the war, labor and resource shortages caused fire towers, cabins, trails and telephone lines to fall into disrepair. At the same time, improvements in radio communication and aerial surveillance were made. After a young girl fell to her death from the Peterburg Fire Tower, near Cobleskill, fencing along the stairways and landings of fire towers was mandated.
In 1970, the Conservation Department, under which the former Forest, Fise, and Game Commission had been previously organized, became the DEC, the Department of Environmental Conservation.
In 1973, Dede Terns-Thorpe, now the Town Historian of Hunter and board member of the Mountain Top Historical Society, served as the tower observer for the Hunter Mountain fire tower. She was twenty-six years old. She remembers feeling very much out of place in an industry dominated by men. For instance, the uniforms issued by the DEC were then sized only for men and even the smallest uniform didn’t fit her frame.
At first, like many novice tower observers, Dede was somewhat frightened of working 60ft off the ground. But within a week she was hanging outside the tower washing the windows. She also worked and worked hard. “I cut brush, cleaned the lean-to areas, cleared the phone lines, stained the buildings (cabin and garage) like I had a boss watching over me.” She also cared for her five year old son, who regularly accompanied her up to the tower for work. She recalls driving a 4-wheel drive vehicle up the dirt road to the fire tower. The distance was only three miles but it took an hour to get up to the top. One day she came upon a porcupine that had been hung in a tree. “It was awful...Cutting it down from the tree was an experience.”
Porcupines are in fact a recurring figure in recollections of fire observers at the Hunter Mountain fire tower. In 1916, Bill Spencer lived in the Hunter Mountain fire tower cabin with his parents who served as the observers. “Mum said that the porcupines were constantly chewing on the logs of the cabin. She was a crack shot, and when she saw the porcupines through the chinks in the logs, she would grab her gun and shoot them while still in bed.”* In the 1930s, tower observer Dan Showers reported that porcupines not only gnawed on the cabin but his axe handle.
Dede was succeeded as the Hunter Mountain fire tower observer by her father Bill Byrne, who served until 1988 when the DEC closed the tower. By then, airplane surveillance and public reporting had effectively displaced the role of the tower observers and the DEC therefore determined the costs of maintaining and funding the observer program were no longer justified. However, this development was met with much chagrin by many who valued the tower observers for the important roles they played beyond fire prevention. Tower observers were environmental stewards of the land and served as the “face of the state” by greeting and educating hikers to the high peaks.
In 1990, the Red Hill fire tower, the last one in operation, was closed. Over time, the towers deteriorated and were vandalized. Eventually, local citizens rallied their efforts to restore five towers to public use. In 1997, a committee of citizens in Hunter raised funds for the restoration of the Hunter Mountain fire tower. The observer’s cabin was reclaimed from menacing porcupines, and a new stove, windows and door were installed. The tower’s stairs were replaced as was the roof, stairs and cab landing. Collectively their efforts ushered in a new phase of the fire tower’s history.
In total, there were 26 fire towers maintained by the state in the Catskill region. Today there are five remaining fire towers in Catskill Park and one new transplant--the 80 foot Upper Esopus Fire Tower, which was relocated from Venice, Florida in 2019 to the Catskill Visitor Center. This new-to-the-Catskills tower allows visitors to the region the experience of climbing a fire tower without having to first climb an arduous high peak.
While the Hunter Mountain fire tower no longer serves people in terms of fire detection and protection, it remains an important monument for the surrounding region. A climb up the fire tower also provides an unparalleled “sense of place” for residents and visitors alike. Gazing out from the fire tower one can sense just how truly incubated our mountain communities are by the vast forests, folds of inspiring mountains and valleys. As Dede Terns-Thorpe put it, “Until you visit the Hunter Mt. Fire Tower and look down onto our mountains, you never truly appreciate where you live.”
(1) This article is largely based on the book Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore by Martin Podskoch.
(2) Quoted in Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore by Martin Podskoch.
Thank you to Dede Terns-Thorpe for providing thoughtful recollections of her time as a tower observer.
List of Fire Towers in the Catskills Region with Date of Construction to Date of Closing, Last Operation by a Tower Observer, or Date of Relocation
Hunter Mountain 1909-1988.
Balsam Lake Mountain, 1909-1998
Belleayre Mountain, 1909-1984
Twadell Point, 1910-1978
High Point Fire Tower, 1912-1971
Slide Mountain 1912-1968
Mount Tremper 1917-1970
Red Hill, 1920-1990
Chapin Hill, 1924-1970
Gallis Hill, 1927-1950
Mount Utsayantha, 1934-1989
Gilbert Lake, 1934-1948
Rock Rift, 1934-1988
Hooker Hill, 1934-1970
Page Pond, 1936-1998
Petersburg Mountain, 1940-1971
Leonard Hill, 1948-1986
Roosa Gap, 1948-1970
Overlook Mountain, 1950-1988
Bramley Mountain, 1950-1970
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