DUNMORE, W.Va. -- To call it a room with a view is an understatement as vast as the forested landscape that can be seen from it.
The state park system's newest overnight accommodation was built to take in the most complete panorama possible of the Pocahontas County highlands and Greenbrier River Valley. The Thorny Mountain Fire Tower, built in 1935 on a platform 55 feet above the top of a 3,415-foot peak in Seneca State Forest, is being renovated and refitted for a new life as a backcountry retreat.
"This is the only fire tower in the state that was built in the western style, with a large cab that let the observer live on top of the tower, instead of in a cabin at its base," said Bob Beanblossom, regional administrator for the West Virginia State Park system.
Beanblossom, whose career with the state began as a Division of Forestry firefighter and included time as an observer in a Mingo County fire tower, came up with the idea of converting the tower into a lodging venue.
"Out West, a number of inactive fire towers and their cabins are available to the public" by paying fees to the U.S. Forest Service or other agencies, he said. When work on the Thorny Mountain tower is complete, probably sometime in June, "it will be one of a very few fire towers in the east that people can stay in," he said.
For several years, the fire tower observer's cabin atop Bald Knob in Cass Scenic Railroad State Park has been available to rent for those seeking an off-the-grid, off-the-beaten-path wilderness getaway.
In addition to providing a unique experience for guests, renovation of the Thorny Mountain tower for public use also assures its preservation and serves an educational role for those who visit it.
The tower cab will be equipped with a history of the tower, an account covering the daily routine of the observer, and a description of how the fire observer system worked.
The tower's Osborne Fire Finder alidade, a device used by observers to pinpoint the locations of fires, is being restored in the Seneca State Forest shop and will be returned to the cab. The alidade uses a circular tabletop covered with a correctly centered topographical map and two sighting apertures on opposite ends of the table.
The fire lookout moved the sights along a circular track marked with degree gradients of 0 to 360 until both sights aligned with the smoke plume at the base of a fire, providing the coordinates needed to map the blaze.
West Virginia's first fire towers were erected in 1916, but they were two-story "Jenny Lind" style buildings with living quarters on the lower level and observation space on the top floor. Starting in the 1920s, observer towers perched several stories above the ground atop wooden or steel support beams began to appear on some of the higher peaks across the state.
In 1935, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew built the Thorny Mountain Tower to replace a tower that had been built on nearby Michael Mountain during the 1920s. Beanblossom said he wasn't sure why the unique live-in, western-style tower cab with a 14 x 14-foot living space and surrounding catwalk was chosen for the site. Seasonal observers lived and worked in the Thorny Mountain Tower until 1988, two years before the use of manned observation towers was completely phased out in the state.