May 15, 2018 - Teenagers growing up in East Texas during the 1940s and 1950s were accustomed to being surrounded by towering pine trees, and sturdy oaks. I was one of those kids being reared in about the deepest part of East Texas. In the pre-television days of the late 1940s, we kids had to invent our own activities to keep our minds occupied. Some of them were good, and some were not so good. Among the latter was climbing the metal fire tower located just west of San Augustine.
The U.S. Forest Service built a fire lookout tower probably during the 1930s just off Highway 21 west on what is now CR280. The tower was located approximately 150 yards back in the woods. Of course it was a dangerous thing to do, but it was great fun and a daring feat to trespass on the property to climb up the tower as high as one’s nerves would allow. I recall a few females trying their climbing ability, but mostly it was the hairy-legged teen boys showing off for their dates.
Another fire tower was located just south of Red Hills Lake in Sabine County on Highway 87. Whenever a group of teens made the trek to “Milam Lake” they usually capped off the swimming trip with a try at climbing that tower as well. I do not recall anyone falling or otherwise injuring themselves during this activity.
A recent drive down CR280 shows no evidence that a fire tower ever existed, having been torn down years ago. That is a shame as these fire towers served a significant service to our country. The same is true of the tower that used to stand south of Red Hills Lake. The towers have an interesting background, having been built out of necessity.
The obvious purpose of a fire tower was for a watchman to scan the forest for any sign of smoke indicating a forest fire. They were constructed of either wood, or steel, with a small 10’ by 10’ building on top of the tower. These towers gained popularity in early 1900s. Fires were originally reported by use of carrier pigeons. Later two-way radios were used, then telephones, or heliographs came into use as technology improved. By 1911 fire towers were being built on the top of mountains.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the “Civilian Conservation Corps” which put the men of our county to work building many things in our communities. The CCC built over 250 lookout towers between 1933 and 1942. So, the golden era of these towers was between 1930 and 1950. In 1942 an additional task was assigned to the watchmen in the towers. That was using trained enemy aircraft spotters, prompted by our entry into WWII.
The use of and need for fire towers began to decrease and decline in the years between 1960 and 1990. Modern technology – aircraft, powerful radios, radar, and even satellites, made the towers outdated and of little use.
Thus, they began to disappear from our forests one by one, unnoticed by most people.
It is interesting to note that Idaho had the most towers, totaling 987. Kansas was the only state that never had a fire tower. The tallest fire tower in the United States was the Woodworth Tower in Alexandria, La. at 175 feet. The highest tower in the world was the Fairview Peak near Gunnison, Colorado at 13,214 feet, which was actually on top of a mountain.
In 1911 a U.S. Forest Service employee by the name of William B. Osborne, Jr. invented the “Osborne Firefinder”. This instrument measured the distance to and location of a fire by use of his invention. Improved versions of this device are still used in certain parts of the country to this day.
So the two fire towers that we used to climb on no longer exist. They are just a memory, enhanced by a couple of snapshots in an album which prove their existence in a bygone era.