Outdoors by Rick Brockway: Fire towers are a thing of the past, and maybe future

I just finished reading an interesting book: “Fire Towers of the Catskills: Their History and Lore,” by Martin Podskoch. As you know, I have written about the numerous towers both in the Adirondacks and Catskills, but this book told stories of the towers that disappeared many years ago that I never knew existed. So, I thought I’d share some information on some of the towers in our area.

Over the years, forest fires ravaged the mountains of New York. Thousands and thousands of acres of forests were destroyed. Too many times, the fires were out of control before anyone knew they had even started. Firefighters were scarce, as was the equipment to fight a fire in the steep terrain of the mountains.

To get a hand on the situation, the state decided to build towers on the mountaintops and man them with observers. The structures were built, and the men who watched for fires stayed in tents. By the early 1900s, that started to change when the wooden towers were built on Hunter Mountain and Balsam Lake Mountain in 1909. The first steel tower was constructed on Belleayre Mountain in the same year. As the years followed, numerous towers were constructed at strategic points, and cabins were built for observers.

Through a method called triangulation, a fire could be spotted and pinpointed with accuracy as other fire towers were notified and an exact location was fixed. Firefighters could be dispatched to save the forests.

In the 1970s, the DEC started using aircraft to spot fires and the end of the tower era began, with many towers being dismantled. But these steel structures had a history, as did the people who manned them. Over the years, many of the towers have been saved and are being refurbished as historic sites. They are the destinations of many hikers who want a view of the mountains that surround them. There were several towers here in this area – most gone and forgotten.

Someone told me a few years back about a fire tower on Hooker Mountain above Maryland and Schenevus. What made this tower so important was the D&H Railroad. Numerous fires were started by hot cinders from the coal-driven steam locomotives. The strategic location allowed the tower observers to see all the way to Mt. Utsayantha in Stamford and to the Gilbert Lake tower. Constructed in 1934 by members of the CCC camp, it was closed in 1973 and removed two years later.

The one that interested me most was the one at Gilbert Lake. I’ve lived in this area, just five miles from the state park, and never knew it existed. It was on the location of the baseball field up on the hill. The 80-foot tower was built in 1934 and was moved to Leonard Hill in the Town of Broome in Schoharie County during 1947.

Most of us know about the one on Mt. Utsayantha in Stamford. Its cab is always open, and you can drive right to it. It’s a great place to take the kids.

While hiking the 35 peaks in the Catskills, Laurie Rankin, head of the NYS Fire Tower Association, told me about one about 10 miles south of Walton that still exists. The Rock Rift tower is owned by the DEC, but it is on the city land above Cannonsville Reservoir. It was built in 1934 and put out of service in 1988. Plans are in the works to reconstruct the tower and someday open it to the public.

There was an 80-foot tower on Bramley Mountain a few miles out of Delhi. I hiked up there one day and never knew a tower was ever there.

For our readers to the west, Chenango County had a tower as well, near East Pharsalia overlooking the McDonough State Forest. Later it was used as a radio tower, and reconstruction began in 2009.

Like everything else, changes happen. Modern methods can be summed up by the statement, “out with the old, in with the new.” But because of some very thoughtful people, they will not be forgotten. Well, at least some of them won’t.

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