Tower in the fog on Killington Peak (photo by Mark Malnati)

A Fascination with Fire Towers in New Hampshire and Vermont
By Mike Dickerman for The Littleton Courier

Considering their relative scarcity nowadays, itís hard to comprehend that at one time or another over the last century, more than 80 mountaintops across the Granite State have served as hosts to fire detection observation posts or towers.

Fire tower on Mt. Cardigan (photo by Mark Malnati) Most of these summit fire towers were constructed in the early part of the 20th century in the wake of widespread lumbering activity in New Hampshire. With the threat of forest fires magnified due to the tremendous amount of debris left behind by timber-cutting operations, the state and federal governments, along with the forest products industry, worked in tandem to establish a statewide network of fire detection outposts.

While the bulk of these observation posts were located in the heavily forested lands of the White Mountains, operating fire towers were found in virtually every region of the state. From the Monadnock Region to the Seacoast, and from the Great North Woods down through the Lakes Region, fire towers were a part of the landscape for many years.

Eventually, the role of the fire tower watchmen, who would spend up to six months a year manning these summit facilities, was phased out when aircraft surveillance of New Hampshireís forestlands became the rule rather than the exception. Slowly but surely, a majority of the fire towers were dismantled or destroyed, leaving the state with less than 30 such facilities still standing by the time the new millennium rolled around.

Like many mountain trampers I know, I am fascinated by this era in New Hampshire forestry history and over the past 25 years have been fortunate to visit more than a third of the fire tower sites. Some of these trips, of course, have been to mountaintops that havenít been graced by a fire tower for close to 50 years, while others have been to summits where towers still exist.

In some instances, little evidence remains of the summit structures themselves, save for some concrete abutments. On other summits, like Mount Bemis near Crawford Notch or Cooley Hill in Easton, the toppled wooden frames of the towers lay scattered over their heavily-forested tops, yet are obvious reminders of an era long gone by.

Fire tower on Smart's Mountain (photo by Mark Malnati) I like to think that I owe part of my fascination with fire towers to my early hiking experiences both here in New Hampshire and in Vermontís Northeast Kingdom, where I was fortunate to be brought up. It just so happens that the first White Mountain summit I ever hiked to was Mount Osceola in Waterville Valley, which had been home to a fire tower since 1910. Even though the tower was closed to visitors (and had been for more years prior to this 1982 visit), its mere presence at the summit intrigued me and ultimately compelled me to find out more about its history.

By coincidence, two hikes soon thereafter got me to the tops of Burke Mountain and Bald Mountain in Vermont, both with fire towers of their own. On these tramps, I was able to get at least partway up each structure, and the resulting 360 degree views were awe-inspiring, to say the least. By then I was officially hooked on the fire tower experience.

Over the ensuing 25 years Iíve stood atop about a dozen different fire towers in the Twin States, and paid visits to a like number of mountains where towers or observation posts once stood. The former list includes such favorites as Kearsarge North in North Conway, Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, Mount Carrigain on the edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont. The latter list includes the aforementioned Mount Bemis and Cooley Hill, plus Sugarloaf Mountain in northern New Hampshireís Nash Stream region, Black Mountain in Benton, Carter Dome near Pinkham Notch, Cherry Mountain in Carroll, and Hancock Spur, another outpost on the edge of the Pemi Wilderness.

Again, merely by coincidence, this fall hiking season has resulted in two more visits to standing fire towers. The first took place in October when the route of the annual White Mountain CROPWALK fund-raising hike took me to the top of 3,240-foot Smarts Mountain in the Lyme-Dorchester area, just north of Hanover. The second took place earlier this month when I paid a brief visit to the 35-foot tower atop Great Hill in Tamworth.

The fire tower on Red Hill (photo by Mark Malnati) The steel Smarts Mountain tower was constructed by the state in 1939, a few months after the destructive Hurricane of September 1938 blew its way up the Connecticut River valley, toppling hundreds of thousands of trees along its way. Though no longer an operational fire tower, it is maintained by the Dartmouth Club and is visited by thousands of hikers each year, including many northbound and southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.

The Great Hill tower, though residing nearly 2,000 feet lower than the Smarts Mountain tower, offers an impressive view of its own. From the top of the 1,270-foot summit, there are grand views north to the nearby Sandwich Range, south toward the Ossipee Mountains, and westward toward the peaks towering above the Squam Lakes region. The Great Hill tower lies in the Hemenway State Forest, which was a gift to the state by Augustus Hemenway in 1932. The tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, and during World War Two doubled as an outpost for the Aircraft Warning Service system. The structure was given to the town of Tamworth 30 years ago and is currently maintained jointly by the town Conservation Commission and the Boy Scouts.

All told, there about two dozen towers statewide that are open to public use. Some are still used, as needed, as working fire lookouts, and most are easily accessible by foot (and some by car). Perhaps the best reference guide to the stateís fire towers is the privately published booklet, A Field Guide to New Hampshire Firetowers by Iris Baird of Lancaster and Chris Haartz of Campton. This handy 64-page guide includes a brief history on fire tower operations in New Hampshire, plus short two-page chapters (with photos) of the 24 towers still standing in the state, including directions to each site. For more information about this guide, send me an e-mail.

Mike Dickerman has been writing the column, "The Beaten Path" (for which this article was written), for 21 years. The column appears in The Littleton Courier which is published by Salmon Press. Among other publications, Mr. Dickerman has also co-authored with Steve Smith, the book The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History - a hiker's favorite.

Bondcliff Books, owned and operated by Mr. Dickerman is located at 4 Eames Way in downtown Littleton (across from Nautilus). The store is open by chance or appointment. Mr. Dickerman may be reached at 1.800.859.7581 or 603.444.4880 or via e-mail.

Fire tower on the summit of Mount Prospect at Weeks State Park (photo by Webmaster)

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