Not long ago, observers watched for signs of forest fires from towers in the mountains.
More than 100 fire towers stood in the forests of New York before newer methods of fire-spotting displaced their role. A few remain and draw hikers year-round. The tower at the highest elevation of any in New York is on Hunter Mountain, 4,040 feet above sea level.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of New York’s forests, forcing local residents to evacuate and darkening the skies near Albany. One of the state’s responses was an improved fire observation program.
The first of New York’s fire towers were constructed in 1909. Among them was the original Hunter Mountain tower, a 40-foot tall structure built from logs. The wooden tower was replaced with a steel 60-foot tower in 1917. The steel tower was originally placed a third of a mile from the summit of Hunter, but was moved to its current location at the true summit in 1953.
Observers were on station from April until the first snows, usually in October or November. During this time they usually stayed in a cabin near the tower.
There seems to be a route to the tower on Hunter from a lift at the Hunter Mountain Ski Area, about 2 miles of trail from the summit. But if you went that way, then you haven’t really climbed Hunter, and you’ve missed out on gaining a physical understanding of the mountain.
As you gain altitude, snow gets deeper and more is frozen onto trees. Trees get smaller near the summit, and at the top of Hunter conifers dominate.
The relatively flat walk along the ridge to the summit had a concentrated winter setting.
The fire tower stands above the treetops.
Climbing the stairs of the tower is not discouraged in any way, but do hold the handrails and prepare for windy conditions.
The cab at the top of the tower was locked, though it might be open and staffed by volunteers on weekends in more temperate seasons. Either way there are excellent views from the stairs. Looking out, you can understand how the tower played an essential role in protecting New York’s forests and the people who lived there from uncontrolled fire.
In the 1980s, New York’s fire towers were phased out of service as airborne observation took a greater role. The state officially closed the Hunter tower in 1989.
Most of New York’s fire towers were dismantled. A campaign to restore the remaining towers managed to save five of those in the Catskills. Preserving over a hundred towers might be excessive and detract from the wilderness experience, but there is no question that we can learn much about the mountains looking out from the towers that used to protect the forests and towns between the ridges.
Catskills Trails: Northeastern, Trail Map 141. 9th ed. New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 2010.
“Fire Towers of the Catskills: A Guide for Hikers and History Buffs.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/catskillsfiretower.pdf
“Hunter Mountain Fire Tower,” Catskill Fire Tower Project, The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. http://catskillcenter.org/towers
Podskoch, Marty. “Standing Tall.” New York State Conservationist, October 2009. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/1009standtall.pdf