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.