Three stories high, a steel and wood lookout tower looms over the Tennessee-North Carolina border, reminiscent of a time with little to no technological help in spotting fires.
Now the former fire lookout tower has been remade to enhance hikers’ and sightseers’ enjoyment.
The United States Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Forest Fire Lookout Association and Carolina Mountain Club joined forces to complete restoration of the historic fire lookout tower atop Rich Mountain near Hot Springs, North Carolina, this summer.
During a Monday ceremony to celebrate the restoration of the fire tower, Cleve Fox spoke of his time serving as a fire lookout. Fox is the district fire management officer for the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
Fox became a firefighter in 1991 and explained Monday that during that time, part of his job was to man a fire tower. The lookout would be staffed a week in the fall and two weeks in the spring, Fox explained.
“You would get real creative on how to get the wood up,” Fox joked Monday about how to keep the wood-burning stove stocked in the tower. “Thankfully in ’92 there was a new tool called kerosene that came out.”
Though the tower officially closed in 1994, as technology like cellphones and airplanes grew increasingly preferable to spending days — if not weeks — in structures such as the Rich Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, Fox still admires that the tower was restored for future generations to admire recreationally.
“This really means a lot to me,” Fox said Monday. “In 1994, we did a re-design. We put new windows in and ceiling, to keep it running but on a clear day you could see Mt. Mitchell, you could see the Biltmore house, you could see lots of fire towers.”
Throughout his career, Fox said two of the towers that he once manned have been taken down.
Fox explained how lookouts used maps and geographic coordinates to explain to emergency responders where fires were popping up, when they did.
“You know, it worked like it should have back then,” Fox said.
The restoration of the tower was made possible by funding from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s License Plate Grant Program, according to ATC Southern Regional Director Morgan Sommerville.
Both North Carolina and Tennessee offer motorists ATC specialty license plates, and ATC grant committees from both states award funding from proceeds of plate sales, a news release said. Because the Rich Mountain lookout tower rests half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee, both state’s license plate grant programs contributed to the project.
The ATC’s Tennessee committee awarded $5,000 and North Carolina’s awarded $3,500.
“The Appalachian Trail Conservancy seeks to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail to ensure that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come,” Sommerville said. “Restoring the fire tower at Rich Mountain preserves an important component of the Appalachian Trail’s cultural heritage, while making it safe for hikers to climb also enables an opportunity to enjoy the surrounding natural beauty.”
Sommerville, based in Asheville, North Carolina, added that it was particularly fitting to have the fire tower renovated during the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, which made the Appalachian Trail the first national scenic trail in the United States.
The Forest Fire Lookout Association’s North Carolina chapter was the recipient of both grant awards, and contributed an additional $1,000 to the project.
The FFLA is a national non-profit organization that seeks to preserve, restore and interpret historic fire lookout towers, the release highlighted.
“The FFLA was elated to facilitate this collection of partnerships among agencies and non-profits to achieve success that honors the tower’s past and makes it accessible to so many visitors who will enjoy it in the future,” said Peter Barr, coordinator of the North Carolina chapter for the FFLA. “Fire towers enable an appreciation of important local history as well as breathtaking views.”
Barr is also the author of the history and trail guidebook “Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers,” which he penned to raise awareness of the cultural heritage, outdoor recreation opportunities, and need for rehabilitations of western North Carolina’s remaining fire towers, the release continued.
Barr also spoke of his love of fire towers at the Monday ceremony and how he hopes this will encourage people to visit more towers across the Appalachian region, if not the whole country.
The Rich Mountain fire tower straddles the boundaries of North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest and Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest.
The 31-foot tower was erected by the Forest Service in 1932 and utilized for fire detection for 60 years.
While the majority of fire towers across North Carolina and Tennessee were dismantled following their decommissioning, several — including at Rich Mountain — still remain as historic structures that portray a bygone era of natural resource protection
Many lookout towers are now incorporated into recreational trail networks and open to the public to enable an elevated, scenic vantage point.
Sommerville noted Monday that the Rich Mountain fire tower had been located directly on the route of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail until the 1980s when the trail was rerouted nearby due to the dramatic logging that had occurred in the preceding decades.
Hikers can now reach it by a short side trail from the Appalachian Trail. Visitors can also access it by vehicle from either North Carolina or Tennessee.
The lookout tower at Rich Mountain had fallen into disrepair in recent years, suffering from stresses of weather extremes at its elevation of 3,670 feet, as well as sustained vandalism. The tower last saw significant rehabilitation in 1995.
“There was even a hole in the floor where someone had very obviously made a fire,” Barr said Monday. “I was half-expecting to see somebody in there when we rolled up this morning.”
Suffering from large holes in the floor, decking and roof of its cab and catwalk, the structure was deemed unsafe for climbing and closed to the public in 2017.
A full structural overhaul was concluded this summer, including new roofing, wooden cab walls and deck railings, lightning rods and grounding wiring, fresh paint and installation of durable, vandal-proof metal-grate flooring and stairs.
“Fire towers formerly played an important role in safeguarding our forests and the surrounding communities,” Richard Thornburgh, district ranger of the Pisgah National Forest’s Appalachian Ranger District said. “Now they can serve as outdoor recreation destinations by offering unsurpassed views of those natural lands that they used to protect. The [Forest Service] is proud to have invested in preserving its past while ensuring a memorable experience for everyone who visits our national forests today by restoring the Rich Mountain lookout tower.”
The Forest Service contracted Williams Construction Inc. from Robbinsville, North Carolina, to perform the restoration work. The Carolina Mountain Club — which maintains the 93-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that includes Rich Mountain — also constructed a log staircase leading to the base of the tower and performed tree work around its perimeter to preserve the scenic view, the release says.
From its top, the Rich Mountain lookout tower enables visitors to enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding southern Appalachian mountains.
Ionic summits of Roan Mountain and Max Patch — also crossed by the Appalachian Trail — are visible to the northeast and southeast, respectively. Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains can been seen to the east, the release said.
Barr encouraged visitors to visit the “Cadillac version of a fire lookout tower” which Rich Mountain now is.
Rich Mountain is one of six remaining fire lookout towers on the Appalachian Trail within North Carolina and Tennessee. Others include Camp Creek Bald — also in Madison and Greene counties — as well as Mt. Cammerer and Shuckstack in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Funding from the FFLA and ATC leveraged an additional $101,158 from the US Forest Service to complete the project.