FIRE LOOKOUT TOWERS

The following appeared as the June 2008 installment of Lake Stories With Michael Gillespie in the Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal.

Those who keep track of such things say that the Lake area attracts a lot of folks from the adjacent prairie states - Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Many of those visitors come because their states don't have extensive forested areas. Those good people who travel several hours to get here are likely to say that the seemingly endless forest canopy is as beautiful as the Lake itself.

With all these forested acres comes, also, a very real threat from wildfires. Think of all the leafy material and the deadfall that accumulates on the forest floor. During periods of low humidity the entire Ozark region can be a tinderbox waiting for a spark to ignite it. The year 2000 was one of the worse for wild fires. In the several counties of west central Missouri that constitute the Camdenton zone, there were 467 fires that year. Over 79,000 acres burned. The fires consumed anything in their way - houses, barns, businesses, and the forest. The total damage came to over $1.1 million.

Since much of the area is remote and inaccessible, a fire can get a pretty good start before it is ever noticed. This always has been a problem in the Ozarks. The solution is to spot a fire while it's small. As far back as 1927, the state of Missouri began building fire towers on ridges and hilltops where an observer could see lines of smoke miles away. Those first towers were built in state parks. They were constructed of wood and there weren't many of them. Then during the Depression years of the 1930s, the federal government got involved and the put the Civilian Conservation Corps to work building more than 50 steel fire towers in Missouri's national forests. But that still left a lot of wooded acres unprotected in state forests and on private lands.

In 1939 federal money became available to the states for fire protection outside of national forests. Over the next seven years, the Missouri Department of Conservation used the money to purchase land and erect 31 state fire towers. They were spread out here and there - wherever MDC deemed them necessary, but the idea was to build them in overlapping lines of sight so that two or more towers could get a fix on the same smoke. Most of those original towers were made of wood because the demands of World War Two had placed restrictions on the availability of steel.

Some of them were in the Lake area, and more would come. The first two were Hurricane Deck, an 80-foot steel tower along Highway 5 at Sunrise Beach - and Camdenton, 100 feet tall, built west of Highway 5 above Bridal Cave. Both were finished by early 1942. Proctor, a wooden structure went up in 1944 alongside Highway 135. After the war, Kaiser and Branch were built - both prior to 1948. Kaiser was in the state park while Branch was along Highway 73 at the south Camden County line. Climax Springs, a wooden tower, was built in 1948; it was the last of the wooden towers. Then came Rocky Mount, off C Road west of Eldon, constructed in 1949. Eugene, was put up in late 1949 or early 1950 along Highway 54 at the Miller-Cole County line. Next was Ulman in 1950; it was located near the junction of Highway 17 and C Road in Miller County, south of Tuscumbia. The last tower in the area was Ganter, near Decaturville, built in 1952.

At the top of each tower was a "cabin," usually seven feet square. There wasn't much in the way of comforts up there. Since the primary fire season was during the dry winter months, the cabins had a small electric or coal-fired heater. Other than that there was just enough room for a stool and an Osbourne Fire Finder. If the tower man sited a line of smoke, he would point the crosshairs of the Osbourne device at it and record the azimuth. A contour map mounted under the swivel helped him estimate the distance to the smoke. The information was then phoned to a dispatcher. (As often as not, the phone was in the tower man's house, which meant he had to climb down to make the report.) Other towers would call in their bearings and the readings were plotted on a map. The plot lines would cross at the location of the fire.

Jim Huffman, of Camdenton, now retired from MDC, occasionally worked in Proctor tower. "You just sat there," he said. "At Proctor we normally would sit in the northwest corner, that way you were looking toward the area where you had the most trouble." It could get a little boring after a while, but Huffman, who normally worked for the Department as a heavy equipment operator, enjoyed his time up there. "You got to see a lot of country," he remarked.

And then there were the windy days to keep things interesting a hundred feet up in the air. "They'd move a little bit, the old towers - the big wooden towers," said Hoffman. "The bolts would get loose. They would sway three or four inches sometimes if it was blowing real hard. The metal ones don't do much more than just quiver."

As Huffman recalls, the tower men themselves, and other MDC employees in the area were the ones who were called to fight the fires: "Back when I went to work [in 1964], we didn't have any fire department help. It used to be bad. Back then you'd have most of your fires from Stover to Laurie to Climax Springs to Macks Creek - down in that country - that's what we used to call the Horrible Strip. There were some areas where we would let it burn because it was blocked in by roads or the lake. I could sit on Proctor tower and watch a fire in the Coffman Bend country - watch it for three days. And then the fourth day it would be clear. They had everything in that bend burnt out.

"If the fires were in areas south of Camdenton, down the D Road country, we never did anything with them. They wanted it to burn - the landowners did. A lot of that land they didn't even own, but they were using it. You'd put it out and before you got back to headquarters it would be set again. So a lot of those areas we just kind of blocked off. We didn't fight anything south of 54 and west of 5 Highway because it was landowners purposely burning the land."

Over time the wooden towers were replaced by steel. The new steel towers were fabricated by the Aermotor Company out of Chicago. The firm was best known then, and now, for manufacturing windmills. The towers would arrive on site as kits, to be bolted together and mounted on concrete footings. Hoffman helped build the steel version of the Proctor tower in 1974. It had actually been disassembled from another location in the Gasconade district and moved to Proctor. It still stands today. The Climax Springs replacement steel tower was new at the time of its erection in June of 1958. It cost $3700. The tower men who helped put it together were making one dollar an hour.

The tower sites always included a few acres of land. MDC would build a cottage and a few outbuildings on the property for the tower man and his family. They would usually plant a garden and raise a few head of livestock. There was plenty of time for that. The fire season lasted from November to April and the towers normally were not manned during the summer unless the weather turned very dry. But the tower men were not without duties in the summer; they were assigned to grounds maintenance on MDC properties in the area. The tower men were nearly always married. A 1951 MDC memo stated that it was nigh impossible to get a single man to stay put at a tower site.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the towers began to outlive their usefulness. None of them in the Lake area are routinely manned anymore. They fell victim to the airplane. One plane can patrol a large area, and if smoke is sited that plane will quickly be over the fire. If it is a wildfire, the pilot uses his GPS system to pinpoint the site for the firefighters on the ground. Of course, there are days when the planes can't fly, or aren't available, and on those days a few towers, like Camdenton still come in handy. Not many of the towers still stand.

Nevertheless, two of the towers have risen again, or soon will do so. Rocky Mount tower was taken down in 2000 and moved to Jefferson City. The top half was reassembled as a permanent display at MDCs Runge Conservation Education Center. Hurricane Deck tower was sold at bid to area business man Rick Duncan with the understanding the he had to move it from the site. That was exactly what Rick had in mind.

"I've taken it down and I moved it up to the farm where my wife and I live between Tuscumbia and Eldon," says Duncan, enthusiastically. "I'm going to put it back up the same way it was at Hurricane Deck."

Duncan, who manages the Edward Jones Investment office in Osage Beach, explains his passion: "It's more nostalgia than anything else. When I was a kid we used to drive around the country and see fire towers. There's no telling how many of those I've climbed. And now when we drive around we see cellular towers in the place where the fire towers used to be. I think we're losing part of our history, and that's disappointing. I hate to see them torn down for scrap; that's the reason I bought it. I also thought it would be neat to have one on the farm. I can climb up there on a sunny day and see the whole farm and the Osage River bottoms.

"We took it down around January 4, 2008. We dismantled it and hauled it off in a week's time. I had a crane come in; we took the top portion off and laid it on the ground, went up and had another 30-foot section taken off and laid it on the ground, and the same with the bottom portion. The top portion was small enough to put on a trailer and haul home. We used impact wrenches to disassemble the lower sections and haul them off with a trailer. When I put it back together I'll do the same thing and work my way up. It's just an erector set. We'll be able to use a wrench to put the nuts and bolts back together.

"All my neighbors say I've got the biggest deer stand in the country."


Photos courtesy Camdenton District Office, Missouri Department of Conservation.

Text © 2009 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.

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