In the early 1900’s, nearly one million acres of the Adirondack Forest burned in uncontrollable wildfires. In an effort to save our forests, New York established fire districts around the state, and an early warning system was born.
In 1909 the first fire tower was built on Mount Morris. Other towers were constructed throughout the state and by 1912 observation stations constructed atop of the towers the first of which was on Poke-O-Moonshine. The average fire tower is forty to seventy feet tall and in addition to the new enclosure, each comes with a circular map of the area and a pointer tool that helped the observer to better identify where the smoke was coming from.
Are you impressed with my knowledge of ‘fire tower history’? It’s amazing what you can find on Google. There is some great information on the NYS DEC website and also www.adirondack.net. You are probably wondering why I have this sudden new interest in fire tower history.
Last week I had the privilege of attending a ribbon cutting ceremony of the Berry Hill fire tower, located just outside the McDonough State Forest. I have never been to a fire tower before and while I understand the general premise about what they were used for, I didn’t truly understand how amazing they were until I visited my first one.
When we pulled up to the entrance, we could see atop the hill a cabin and a very tall steel structure. Hiking up the driveway was a bit of a workout, and I recall thinking that I was glad that I wore flat shoes, but that I probably could have skipped the gym that morning!
When we reached the top and I gazed up at this massive structure and I was in awe. I couldn’t help but think about the people who were charged with the responsibility of being the observers, and how many homes, lives and acres were saved in the 1900’s.
This tower has been completely restored, reinforced, and revitalized for the public to use – for the first time! With advances in technology, the practical use of fire towers began losing their usefulness by 1970, and by 1990 were all but obsolete.
Thanks to a dedicated group of individuals, after nearly 30 years of upgrades and work the Berry Hill fire tower is now open to the public to visit and climb (if you are brave enough).
I was so excited to climb this thing! It was very tall … lots and lots of narrow stairs! After the speeches, and the ribbon cutting ceremony, I handed back my scissors and beelined to the foot of the tower. I looked up, took a deep breathe (once again wishing I had skipped the gym) and began the slow climb to the top.
I don’t know how many stairs it was, or how many flights. It was a lot and more than once I paused on a landing to catch my breath, and also to take in the view. Finally, with a sudden burst of “I’m almost there” energy I climbed into the observation deck of the tower. Wow.
The view was simply magnificent! There are no words to describe what it felt like to be that high up, overlooking the area. In the center of the observation deck was that circular map with the pointy tool attached. I asked the DEC rep who was with us to explain how it worked, and he showed me. It was a quick lesson, but I am pretty confident that if I saw smoke coming out of the forest, I could have been able to pinpoint where it was coming from (sort of)! Thankfully we have technology in place to do this for us, but it was pretty cool to be up there and imagine what it was like for the observers who were responsible for this.
I left Berry Hill that day feeling not only mighty that I climbed it but intrigued about the other fire towers in the state. I had no idea that this was a “thing” and that hiking to and up them (when possible) was so popular!
So, I went down a rabbit hole in my pursuit of fire tower knowledge, and I wanted to see what other ones I could visit and possibly climb. I was all to thrilled to find out that there is a fire tower challenge! It’s called the ADK Fire Tower Challenge and to successfully complete, you need to visit 23 fire towers (18 of the 25 in the Adirondacks and all 5 in the Catskills), keep track of the date, any wildlife you may see, and the weather. Once you have completed this you send in your list, and in return you get a patch. You also get the pride that you achieved this.
In the words of Barney Stinson, “Challenge Accepted!”
I am all over this! I have already sent away for a map of fire towers in the state and have convinced my husband to go along for the ride. He is more than happy to escort me to these places, but he has a thing with heights, so will not climb any of the towers! I should note that it’s not required that you actually climb the structures (in fact many are in poor condition and are not safe), all that we need to do is visit them. But if I can climb up any of them, I will. I don’t know what it is about this that is so exciting to me, but I am now a tower fire groupie and can’t wait to start my challenge. I’ll have to let you know once I finish this – I am sure it will take a while, but this is added to my bucket list.
Fall here is gorgeous and it’s a great time to go and visit the Berry Hill fire tower. If you have never been there, I highly recommend you go and if you’ve been there before it’s time to go again.
Happy climbing, Chenango.