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Want to get away from it all? Rent a fire tower

Chris Dorst
Using a rope-and-pulley system, Paul Goehner hoists boards to co-workers replacing planks along the catwalk on the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in Seneca State Forest.

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.

More than 80 towers were built on peaks across the state on both state and federally managed land, but only about a dozen of them still stand, according to Beanblossom.

"The cost of staffing and maintaining them was a factor, and by the 1980s, telephone service was available everywhere in the state, and people getting good about reporting fires as they saw them," he said. Observers taking part in airborne fire patrols began replacing observers in towers in the 1970s, and now fill the primary observation role in detecting and combating forest fires in West Virginia.

Observers at the Thorny Mountain Tower slept in cots, got heat from a wood stove, and used a rope-and-pulley system to bring food, firewood and water into the cab.

A wood stove may return to the cabin once renovation work is complete, but it will be used for decorative and historic purposes. Beds, water and firewood will be provided, along with a picnic table, grill, fire ring and pit toilet at the base of the tower. A solar lighting and battery charging system will be installed.  Guests will be able to drive to the base of the tower.

"We'll tell guests that it will be like rustic camping, only the tent will have really hard walls and a great view," said Rob Sovine, superintendent of both Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and Seneca State Forest. "The idea of coming up here and sitting on the deck and reading a book really appeals to me."

A Seneca State Forest maintenance crew consisting of Sandy Weik, Forrest Mullenax and Paul Goehner has replaced the wooden stair steps leading up to the cab, the catwalk surrounding it, and is working on the cab's windows and window frames.

After use of the fire tower was discontinued, trees continued to mature in its vicinity, eventually blocking the view from the tower. "It got to the point that all you could see was pine needles," said Sovine. A small timber auction was held to clear trees from the area immediately around the tower, re-opening the view.

Beanblossom said the tower cab will be available to rent for $50 per night through the Seneca State Forest office at Dunmore. Seneca State Forest also rents eight off-the-grid "pioneer" cabins, with hand-pumped water, gas refrigerators, gaslights and wood-burning cook stoves. Five are located along the shore of four-acre Seneca Lake, and come equipped with canoes, while the others overlook the Greenbrier River.

Seneca is West Virginia's first state forest, created in 1924 to ensure timber and wildlife resources for the future in an era of heavy industrial logging. The state began operating a tree nursery at the forest in 1928. During the 1930s, Seneca State Forest was home to the largest and most varied populations of wildlife to be found anywhere in West Virginia, according to Sovine.

For information, visit www.senecastateforest.com or call 304-799-6213.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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