The Transylvania Times -

By Marcy Thompson
Picturing The Past 

Lookout Towers Played Role In Preserving Forests


October 24, 2016

Rich Mountain lookout tower and watchman's cabin, 1963.

Lookout towers played a vital role in forest history for over a half-century. In 1910 the U.S. Forest Service was devastated by the loss of 85 firefighters, 8 billion board feet of timber, and 5 million acres of forest from fires in Montana and Idaho. Fire prevention and control would become an essential piece of forest management.

Lookout towers in Western North Carolina are normally located on the top of high mountain peaks or balds. The first steel fire towers in the state were built in 1928. During the 1930s the CCC constructed numerous towers in the mountains. Some of the towers they built were made of local stone. By 1940 North Carolina had a network of fire lookout towers.

North Carolina's lookout towers ranged in height from 35 to 120 feet at the base of the cab atop the tower. Cabs varied in size from about 50 to 200 square feet. Fire and communication equipment, along with a bed and stove furnished the small cab. Supplies had to be hauled up a steep staircase that wound up the inside of the steep tower frame.

Towers were typically manned during the fire season, from October through May. Because towers were located on remote, isolated mountaintops, watchmen not only worked in the towers but lived there as well. The location of the lookout towers also meant they were exposed to harsh weather conditions of wind, rain, snow and extreme temperatures during the winter months.

Watchmen stationed in the towers kept a sharp eye out for tell-tale smoke. They could plot the location of the fire using a map and compass. If the smoke was visible from multiple towers they used triangulation to determine the exact location. They could contact each other and ground crews by phone or radio to investigate and dispatch fire fighters as needed.

Transylvania County once had five fire lookout towers, located at Fryingpan Mountain, Pilot Mounain, Rich Mountain, Sassafras Mountain, and Toxaway Mountain. The towers at Pilot and Sassafras mountains have been removed. The Sassafras Mountain tower was constructed in 1932 and stood 35 feet.

In 1935 Company 3448 of CCC Camp Sledge in Brevard constructed a 45-foot, 9-inch steel tower and a one-room cabin on Toxaway Mountain. The cost was $880.19. It is one of just two fire lookout towers in Western North Carolina that is still manned.

The 35-foot high Rich Mountain tower was also built by the Camp Sledge CCC camp. It was completed in February 1939 and remained in operation into the 1990s.

The Fryingpan Mountain lookout tower on the Transylvania and Haywood County line, built in 1941, is accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is 70 feet high, making it the tallest USFS fire tower in Western North Carolina. Like Rich Mountain it was manned into the 1990s.

Fire tower at Toxaway Mountain, 1964.

Today visitors can climb the five flights of stairs and view Cold Mountain across the East Fork of the Pigeon River to the west, Shining Rock Wilderness to the southeast, Looking Glass Rock and John's Rock to the south. Mt. Pisgah is just North of the tower. On a really clear day looking northeast, Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, is visible 38.4 miles away. The Fryingpan Mountain lookout tower is on the National Historic Lookout Register.

(Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. Visit the NC Room during regular library hours (Monday-Friday) to learn more about our history and see additional photographs. For more information, comments or suggestions contact Marcy at or (828) 884-3151 ext. 242.)


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