From 1910 through the 1950s over 4000 lookouts stood watch over America’s forest land, then faded into history, only to be brought back to life by adventurous hikers and photographers.
The summer of 1910 was a particularly brutal one for the Northwestern United States. Forest fires raged throughout Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon, catching the attention of the entire country when a series of small wildfires joined together to create what would later become known as the Big Blowup. More than 3 million acres of land burned, killing 85 people and consuming 7.5 billion board feet of timber in the process, with smoke literally drifting as far east as the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C.
The tragic event put forest fire issues into public discourse, and brought to light the serious need for the U.S. Forest Service—a then underfunded agency established just five years prior—to adopt more progressive fire prevention policies. Though many efforts were then taken to protect the country’s forest land (which did then, and still today, comprises 33% of the country’s total landmass) nothing captured the country's attention—and romantic imagination—quite like the fire lookout tower.
By 1911 lookout towers were being erected on mountaintops across the country, especially in the western states where 70% of the forest land is publicly owned. Soon enough every national forest—as required by newly formed law—had established their own fire detection system, largely consisting of a lookout tower and single staffer, also known as a lookout.
“In 1933, during the Great Depression, construction of fire lookout towers and access roads took off... Thousands were built during the decade alone.”
In 1933, during the Great Depression, construction of fire lookout towers and access roads took off, fueled by the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps, a government run public work relief program for unemployed, unmarried young men. Thousands were built during the decade alone.
Regardless of era of construction, lookout towers were quite primitive and ranged in design from 14-foot square “cupola” cabins to seven-by-seven-foot cabs on top of 100-foot-tall steel towers. None had running water, electricity, or really any amenities to speak of. Not to mention the locations were remote at best. Communication was rudimentary in the early days, using flags, heliographs, and even carrier pigeons. Later hundreds of miles of telephone wires were strung up to increase response time.
The extreme solitude and daily surveillance duties made for a unique position attractive to few, but loved by those who held it. Schoolteachers and college students on summer break often took the gig—even Beat poet and author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 manning a fire tower on Washington's Desolation Peak, in the northern Cascades Range. But the towers weren’t only staffed by men, in fact as early as 1918 many women began staffing towers, particularly in the Northwest.
“IN RECENT YEARS DECOMMISSIONED LOOKOUTS HAVE DEVELOPED THEIR OWN SUBCULTURE OF SORTS, MAINLY WITHIN CIRCLES OF ADVENTUROUS HIKERS, PHOTOGRAPHERS, AND GENERALLY CURIOUS NATURE LOVERS.”
In the 1940s over 4000 fire lookouts stood in National Forests around the country. But by the 50s lookout towers began to wane in popularity and necessity, as patrol planes, helicopters and much later remote cameras began to take the brunt of the workload in spotting smoke. A decade later the Forest Service, concerned about potential lawsuits stemming from visitors hurting themselves on abandoned towers, began removing lookouts by the thousands. Ironically, the most common removal method was burning them down.
Though the era of the lookout is not entirely over. Some have been preserved, and are available to the public as overnight rentals, while others remain staffed even still. Many more across the country have simply been left to decay, long forgotten by the Forest Service. But not forgotten by everybody.
In recent years decommissioned lookouts have developed their own subculture of sorts, mainly within circles of adventurous hikers, photographers, and generally curious nature lovers. There are a handful of websites, both government and enthusiast run, dedicated to preserving the history. And in some instances, even secret groups of conservationists work diligently to keep these structures standing deep in wilderness areas.
One such is the case of Oregon’s Devil’s Peak, located an hour east of the creative hub of Portland, home to the design team at Icebreaker, among other leading outdoor innovators. Erected in 1952 (replacing previous iterations built in 1924 and 1933) the structure overlooks the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. And though it’s been out of service for over 25 years, it still remains in relatively good shape, thanks to the respect of and upkeep by occasional visitors.
As the lookout stands within what is now National Wilderness, the only way in is on foot, and visitors sure have to work for this one. But it’s not the length of the trail that gets you, it’s the incline. The trail gains some 3200 feet in under four miles, with stretches where hands find their way to the ground far too often. After trudging up the incredibly steep trail, the lookout’s name conjures up zero questions. But the views are well worth it. Sunset at Devil’s Peak will make you forget about your sore legs, and sunrise will have you planning your next visit.
Devil’s Peak is just one of 900 remaining historical lookouts across the U.S. And though several hundred are still staffed during fire season, many more are out there, awaiting a visit, and an opportunity to again be part of the conversation.