Fire towers in the Catskill Mountains have always been destination points, built to capture some of the region’s best views. These sentinel stations served an important role for the earliest possible sightings of forest fires in the remote mountain ranges. But the fire towers and those who manned them fulfilled a multitude of other roles as well.
To fully appreciate the importance of fire towers, a step back in time is needed. The earliest towers were erected before 1910 and paved the way for others to be constructed. This was an era of big timber operations, a flourishing tourism industry, multitudes of expansive rural farms, railroad transportation and few well-developed roads. Those were some of the factors that called for the establishment of an early-warning system when fires raged. The government stepped in with funding to construct fire observation posts and provide for the necessary manpower to service them.
The telephone service was in its infancy in the early 1900s and the Catskill Mountain terrain, distances between homes and communities, along with weather challenges, made phone contact unreliable at times. Maintaining a communication line from a fire tower station was one of the main duties of the fire tower ranger. Their job of reporting a fire and estimating its path held the responsibility of saving potentially thousands of lives.
Imagine, for example, the town of Stamford in late July around 1905 when more than 30 hotels would have been filled with thousands of visitors, along with hundreds of local and seasonal residents. A rapidly moving forest fire had the potential of closing off all but a few exit routes. A perspective on the best way to escape would have only been possible through the reports from the Col. Rulif W. Rulifson observation tower on Mount Utsayantha.
Rulifson built several towers, replacing each as strong winds would take them down, but he rightfully established the mountain as a perfect vantage point for spectacular views. In 1934, it become an official fire tower site.
This was an era where great fires were a constant fear, especially in the cities, but also in heavily populated summer resort communities. The massive wooden structures and wood furnishings of the day could rarely be saved, even with the time’s best fire fighting equipment, and the timber provided fuel for hungry flames. Fire meant loss of human lives, livestock, homes, barns and businesses in a time when insurance policies were rare and large bank loans inconceivable. Prior knowledge of fire not only made the difference in lives for people and animals, but enabled firefighters to cut fire lines and set up water lines to keep the worst damage away from populated areas.
The danger of fire was omnipresent from a variety of threats. Early electrical wiring and generators often malfunctioned, and the candles and oil lanterns they replaced were just as hazardous. Thick vegetation and dry weather in the summer laid a dangerous groundwork that could be set off by a spark from one of the many trains passing through the area, and fires set by hikers or campers sometimes burned out of control. Fire towers provided one of the best defenses the region had against this devastating and all-too-common threat.
Today, the fire towers in the Catskill mountains offer a less utilitarian and more romantic appeal. These fantastic destination points lure visitors with spectacular views and a sense of history.
When visiting fire towers, pack a picnic lunch, bring binoculars and a camera, along with windbreaker apparel so you can enjoy your time on the site. Climbing fire towers is often risky or even prohibited; be sure to follow the laws and use good judgment, heeding all warnings. Whether the tower itself is accessible or if it even remains can be irrelevant, since the views that once gave them purpose will still remain.
Local fire towers are well documented in several books, the best known of which is “Fire Towers of the Catskills Their History and Lore” by Martin Podskoch. Published in 2000 by Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns, the book includes historical and more-recent photos along with a data and wealth of recorded oral history of the 23 original fire towers of the Catskill Mountain region.
The personal stories Podskoch collected give insight in to the great service that fire tower rangers provided, not only with fire alerts but helping lost hikers, educating visitors on conservation and fire suppression as well as providing welcomed orientation information about views from the tower. The rangers supplied a wealth of statistical information about weather, number of visitors, vegetation and wildlife.
Information about fire towers is also collected by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and can be found online www.dec.ny.gov, or by calling (845) 256-3000 to request a free brochure.
The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development also provides information on fire towers on its website, www.catskillcenter.org/towers, or by calling 652-7365. Together the DEC and CCCD helped establish the Catskill Fire Tower Project in 1997 that provides fire tower volunteer programs to rehabilitate and preserve the historical towers.
Beyond New York state, The Forest Fire Lookout Association gives information on fire towers throughout the country on its website, www.ffla.org.