Watchman Don Hicks looks out of the cab of the fire tower on Snow Mountain in Franklin County in 1967. Hicks, who enjoyed spotting in two towers before becoming a forest ranger, said, “In my dreams, the times in the fire towers show up more than the times as a ranger on the ground,” he said. He was a ranger for 30 years. Forest Fire Lookout Association, Maine chapter

Neil Wilson would hike up Streaked Mountain in Buckfield five days a week to sit in a fire tower and scan 5 million acres for smoke.

He sat in the 34-foot tower for nine hours a day, working seven days on and two days off, more if there was an active fire. His stint lasted more than two fire seasons beginning in 1978.

It was his favorite job ever, Wilson says.

“You couldn’t ask for an office with a better view,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Laconia, N.H.

The Streaked tower is one of 55 still standing, from among the 144 once scattered throughout the state, from the town of York to northern Aroostook County. The first was built in 1905 on Squaw Mountain (now called Big Moose Mountain) at the southern end of Moosehead Lake, according to Bill Cobb, director of the Forest Fire Lookout Association Maine chapter.

Towers on Ossipee Hill in Waterboro and Mount Hope in Sanford are still standing and still used to spot fires. Fifteen others, including towers on Allagash, Round Pond and Debouille mountains, are open to visitors, but are not used in fire spotting, according to the association, which is involved in research and restoration of lookout towers in all U.S. states. The remaining towers that are still standing are closed to the public.

Fire tower watchman Neil Wilson, front, third from right in uniform, stands with members of a ranger fire crew based in West Paris in August 1979. Submitted photo

Maine’s lookouts were originally made from logs cut onsite and there was no uniform height or consistency to them, Cobb said. Once steel towers arrived in 1913 — girders were dragged up the mountains by horse and wagon — heights became more consistent, ranging from 12 feet to 75 feet. The tallest, at 100 feet, was built around 1937 on Bald Mountain in the Washington County town of Baring.

Heights and locations depended on topography more than anything else, Cobb said.

“The goal was the best coverage with minimal blind spots, depending on how flat or mountainous the area was,” he said.

Rustic watchman camps were available for spotters, most often near water sources on the side of a mountain or at the bottom near a pond or lake, he said.

In 1954, the Maine Forest Service began building camps at summits, Cobb said, “a new policy to allow better radio communications and to provide weather reports.”

Streaked Mountain had a mobile home on the top for its watchmen, but Wilson lived nearby, so he would drive to the foot of the 1,770-foot peak and hike it each day.

The trail was steep but only about a half-mile long, he said.

His workday began at 9 a.m. He would turn on radios, take weather readings (wind speed, temperature, relative humidity), and relay the fire danger forecast when it came in from Augusta.

This is the view from inside the cab of the fire tower on Ossipee Hill in Waterboro, one of two still-active towers in Maine. Ken Kennedy photo

“We acted sort of as dispatchers,” Wilson said. “We would monitor where rangers were and what they were doing.”

If he spotted smoke, he would radio or phone the Warden Service or the local fire department.

Wilson spent his down time reading, listening to the radio and triangulating the view through binoculars. His calculations showed that he could see out over 5 million acres, he said.

“I could see the crane at Bath Iron Works to the south, the White Mountains to the west, up to Old Speck and Mount Blue to the north and Camden Hills to the east,” he said.

The steel tower on Streaked, built in 1950 and rebuilt in 1987, was one of the first in the area on a mountain of any size, he said.

FIRES, EXPLOSION, BROTHERLY LOVE

Wilson spotted plenty of fires, typically eight to 10 in a spring season, during his time in the tower 42 years ago, but he remembers two in particular.

Someone was burning brush in a nearby town, possibly Hartford, he said. “Smoke came up and I called the fire department.”

This photo shows the old lightning shack on Mount Blue in Weld, used by watchman as temporary shelters during lightning strikes. Although it was used as a lightning shack most of the time, watchman Ezra Noyes periodically lived in it in his last few years as a spotter in the Mount Blue tower. Late in his career, Noyes broke his hip and he could not climb the mountain too well, so he started living in the lighting shack at times, which sat near the tower. Noyes manned Mount Blue tower from 1932 to 1953.

The fire blazed out of control, burning portions of seven houses and the land between them, he said.

He also was in the Streaked tower when a P-3 Orion airplane exploded in midair over Poland. “I saw a big flash in the air and the shock wave hit the tower 10 to 15 seconds later.”

The crash occurred Sept. 22, 1978, over the Tripp Corner intersection on Route 11. A U.S. Navy patrol bomber from the Brunswick Naval Air Station disintegrated in midair because of an over-pressurized fuel tank, killing all eight on board.

Don Hicks, a watchman on Snow, Bigelow and Saddleback mountains, shared his most striking memory — and it wasn’t a fire.

On Saddleback Mountain in 1968, a group of young people hiked up to the tower. Visitors were common and Hicks enjoyed the company.

“They were looking around at the view and one of them would say, ‘Sara would love this,’ and they would all agree,” Hicks said.

He said they were all quiet for a while and he thought maybe Sara had passed away.

A few days later, he saw a group coming across the top of the mountain toward the tower. One of them was carrying someone on his back.

“I thought someone had gotten injured, so I went to the ground to meet them,” Hicks said. “It was the same group, only with Sara. She was paralyzed, so her brother carried her all the way up from Route 4 (south of Rangeley) on the Appalachian Trail.”

The Streaked Mountain fire tower in Buckfield is no longer accessible to hikers. The existing tower was transported from Speckled Mountain in Stoneham in 1987, replacing the original one erected in 1950. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Someone else brought a chair so Sara could sit and take in the view while her brother slept in the shade, Hicks said.

“This is the best demonstration of brotherly love that I have ever seen,” he said.

THEN AND NOW

Hicks began working as a watchman the day after he graduated from high school in 1966. He was 18. His first tower was on Snow Mountain in the Chain of Ponds area in northern Franklin County.

“Those days, the only time I would leave the tower was to answer a ‘call of nature’ or during a thunderstorm,” he said. His shift was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the most likely period for a forest fire because humidity would drop later in the day.

The watchman camp was on Snow Mountain Pond, requiring a 2,000-foot elevation climb to the tower. He usually hiked it once a day, sometimes more.

He said he did not witness any big fires during his two years on Snow Mountain, “a few lightning strikes, camps burning and a few escaped campfires.”

In 1968, he went to Saddleback, above Rangeley. There, the camp was beside the tower. This was much like his time on Snow, but with many more hikers eager to climb the tower and chat with him, he said.

Maine’s tallest fire lookout at around 100 feet was on Bald Mountain in Baring, inside the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge. This is a rare view from it in 1951. Cranberry Lake can be seen in the distance. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Another difference was that the Snow Mountain site had natural cold-water springs where he could keep a box of food. On Saddleback, it was mostly canned and dried food.

In 1969, he became a forest ranger stationed in Eustis, where he filled in on Bigelow Mountain for about a month.

Hicks, now 72, lives in Florida, but his few years on mountaintops are his most memorable.

“In my dreams, the times in the fire towers show up more than the times as a ranger on the ground,” he said. He was a ranger for 30 years.

He often misses his time as a watchman and ranger and he wishes the towers were still open.

“After Maine closed most of their fire towers, I felt that we lost a lot,” Hicks said. “Air patrol was only looking over an area for a short time a few times a day, whereas a watchman was watching that area almost constantly.”

Often, a watchman would spot a fire when it was still too small for air patrol to see, he said.

The Forest Service began taking down fire towers as they became unsafe, according to Matt LaRoche, recently retired superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and a registered Maine guide.

A fire tower on Atherton Hill in Windham in 1991. Forest Fire Lookout Association, Maine chapter

By the 1960s, many towers were abandoned in favor of fire-detection flights, LaRoche said. The last towers were abandoned during a state budget crisis in 1991. Towers on Allagash and Deboullie mountains, in Piscataquis and Aroostook counties, respectively, were among the last to be closed.

The Bureau of Parks and Lands recently installed new “cabs,” the 9-by-9-foot shelters atop towers where watchmen scanned for smoke, on towers on Allagash, Deboullie and Round Pond mountains.

These towers are open to the public, viewed by the bureau as “part of Maine’s history and northern forest landscape.”

Twelve other towers, including those on Kibby and Oquossoc Bald mountains in Franklin County and Old Speck in Oxford County, are also open to the public as observation decks. These towers have no cabs.

TWO TO THREE DAYS TO REACH SOME FIRES

LaRoche described the process used by watchmen in the heyday of lookout towers.

“When smoke was spotted, a sighting device called an alidade (used to sight a distant object and use the line of sight to perform a task) would be aimed at the smoke, the bearing would be read and called in over the telephone in the early days and over the radio in later years.”

Telephone lines were strung throughout the Maine woods, he said.

“Ideally, two of more towers could sight on the smoke. Forest rangers on the ground would plot the bearings on a map. Where the lines crossed on the map was the location of the fire,” LaRoche said.

This photo shows the first watchman’s camp at Saddleback Mountain tower (Sandy River Plantation) in 1913. This one was located on the north side of the mountain but was abandoned in the fall of 1954 when a new camp was built on the summit next to the tower. Maine Forest Service

It took two or three days to reach some fires, he said, before roads were built through the woods.

Nowadays, the Forest Service uses more modern tools such as air patrols, radio repeater networks, remote monitoring equipment, and forest fire detection systems.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps created miles of truck trails that opened up areas of remote backcountry, allowing better access to towers and fire lines, said Cobb, the director of the Maine Forest Fire Lookout Association.

The corps, created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to employ unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25, also created watchmen trails and telephone trails, Cobb said.

The CCC assisted with or directly built some fire towers, including those on Speckled Mountain in Stoneham and Sabattus Mountain in Lovell, he said.

“Back in the day, when most fire towers were built, there were no mechanized tools to assist in getting materials to the summits or erecting towers,” Cobb said. “Horses, mules or oxen would be used to drag tower materials up mountains on sleds or drags.”

In many cases this was not feasible, and materials were hauled up on the backs of men, he said.

Cobb grew up near a fire tower and found each and every visit interesting, he said.

As an adult, he has visited all of the standing towers in Maine and most of the old sites.

“It’s always an inspiring trip going up a mountain where a watchman had spent the whole fire season living a rustic life in the name of timberland fire protection,” he said.

A look down the wooden stairway of the Harris Mountain fire tower in Dixmont around 1990. The steps were steeper than the average staircase. Harris was one of only four federal-style wooden towers in Maine. The tower was removed in 2006. Only footings remain at the summit today. Forest Fire Lookout Association, Maine chapter

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.