Long before cell phone towers dotted the landscape, another type of tower had become familiar to anyone traveling in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest in the 1930s. Strategically placed throughout the forest, fire towers loomed above the treetops to act as a lifeguard stand in the woods.
Whenever danger from wildfires proved greatest, a towerman acted as lookout while stationed inside the 7-square-foot room, known as a cab, perched on the top of the fire tower. Firefighters relied on these towermen to spot and direct them to areas where flames or smoke signaled the location of a destructive fire.
“Between 1930 and 1950, about 30 lookouts were built in Illinois,” says Bob Frakes, a resident of Bonnie. Since childhood, Frakes has been an avid fan and historian of anything having to do with fire lookouts.
Frakes recalls his interest in the towers began at age 7 when he climbed his first tower, or almost. While common sense and nerves prevented him from making it to the top, he got high enough to feel the breeze over the trees and sample the 360-degree panorama. This sparked a hobby that would remain with him the rest of his life.
Of the towers in Illinois, he was able to visit 17 sites and climb four of them before almost all were taken down or sold in the early 1970s.
Beside climbing the towers, his hobby includes collecting historic tower photos, talking with people who have any association with them, and turning into a “tower sleuth” to locate concrete piers left exposed after towers were removed.
The first towers
“The origin of lookout towers in the United States dates to the early 1900s when an interest in the importance of forest conservation became a necessity,” he says.
At that time, Illinois and the nation were on the edge of a natural disaster in land management. “Massive timber harvests due to a robust economy and a building boom, free-roaming livestock and annual burning had taken a devastating toll on Illinois soils and streams,” Frakes says. “Much of the landscape had been ravaged.”
As an outcome of state and federal initiatives to protect the land and help control forest fires, fire towers were put into use and immediately helped to reduce wildfire destruction.
At first, observation posts were simply a high, bare spot on a hill which offered a commanding view of the countryside, or a lookout platform high in the branches of a tree. The early Melcher Hill tower was only a platform on top of a telephone pole.
The Daily Illini paper in West Frankfort reported an early, unusual lookout in a 1928 article – “The tipple of the New Orient mine at West Frankfort, which is 100 feet or more in height, is being used effectively as a forest fire lookout.”
Soon sturdy wooden towers were being built, and many eventually were replaced by galvanized steel towers that often used the superstructure of a farm windmill.
Early records indicate the permanent wood and steel towers garnered much attention. The public was usually welcome to climb the tower and talk to the person working and a picnic table was often near the base.
Three Illinois fire towers remain, according to Frakes. The Trigg tower near Simpson remains as an observation tower, but the top half has been removed. The 1937-era, 80-foot Trail of Tears tower near Anna remains standing with its cab but is closed for climbing.
Near Keithsburg, the 60-foot Big River State Forest Tower and cab survive and remains open to visitors if they check in at the forestry office. Park superintendent Terry Jones says the tower was built in 1941. “We use it to teach forest management to scout groups and others,” Jones says.
He has plans to light it at night and change the colors of the spotlights in conjunction with holidays such as the Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day.
A fourth 74-foot fire tower and cab, that was never used for fire prevention, stands outside Georgetown at the 1800-acre Forest Glenn Nature Preserve. It remains open. “It was erected in 1969 purely as an observation tower overlooking the Vermilion River Valley,” says Amy Steeples, who has worked at the site for 25 years. “We have families that bring their children and tell us their parents brought them here 50 years ago.”
Some of the disassembled towers have a noteworthy history.
“The Aden fire tower near McLeansboro was manned by Florence Musgrave in the 1950s, the only female lookout in the Department of Conservation,” Frakes says. “The 1940 Massac and Atwood towers were built with a cab large enough so someone could stay overnight.”
Situated on the tallest points overlooking large expanses of forest, the Illinois towers were usually positioned 12 miles apart, offering a 360-degree panorama of 300 square miles of forest.
A June 9, 1949 article in the Daily Independent newspaper in Murphysboro shared the importance of a fire tower. “The Hickory Ridge lookout tower, one of 15 which protects 475,000 acres within the 800,000-acre Shawnee area has made real progress in decreasing loss by fire. In 1935, when the forestry service took over the area, there were 390 fires which burned over 6,000 acres. Last year there were 62 fires with damage covering 1,300 acres.”
In the early 1970s, use of the towers began to decrease for several reasons. Remaining wooden towers were deteriorating rendering them unsafe, and the influx of people moving to rural areas enabled wildfires to be reported more quickly.
Also, quite a bit of southern Illinois forest had been converted to farming, eliminating the need. Frakes says he has visited sites where Illinois towers once stood and now there is hardly a tree in sight.
The main reason for the demise of the fire towers was airplane fire surveillance, which became the norm in the 1970s.
“Today, the cell phone continues to diminish the use of towers where they remain in use,” Frakes reports. “Of the estimated 9,000 towers erected nationwide, about 2,500 remain standing.”
Memories of a lookout daughter
Gordon Tripp manned the 100-foot-tall Crab Orchard Lakes Fire Tower for 20 consecutive years before its removal.
“We lived in a government house at the base of the tower,” says Tripp’s daughter Judy Tonellato of Springfield. “I recall having to take up his lunch when the fire threat was high. He would not come down.
“If he was not in the tower and a fire was reported, he would climb up to pinpoint the location,” Tonellato continues. “Then he would come down and quickly leave to direct the men on the ground fighting the blaze.”
Inside the tower, Tonellato recalls the alidade, a sighting device known as an Osborne Fire Finder, used to pinpoint the fire’s exact location on a circular map of the area. Invented in 1915, it remains in use today where lookouts are still manned.
If smoke or fire appeared, the towerman would point the crosshairs of the circular Fire Finder to record the azimuth, or the angle between the projected object and known reference point, to estimate the distance of the smoke or fire. If possible, a secondary reading from a nearby tower helped the towermen triangulate the fire and pinpoint the exact spot.
“My dad was known in the area as the ‘government man,’” she recalls. “He worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior and had a lot of other jobs on the ground that brought him into contact with local people.”
One unusual aspect of Tripp’s job had nothing to do with fires. “The tower had a good view of the nearby roads. If a prisoner escaped from the penitentiary in Marion, dad would get an alert to climb up and search for a stolen car or men on foot,” Tonellato recalls.
Featured photos: (left) Jack McQueen stands on the Melcher Hill emergency lookout platform in 1938. Photo Courtesy of National Archives (Photo no. 364418). (right) The Atwood Tower was constructed with a live-in cab. Photo Courtesy of National Archives (Photo no. 409799)
The Forest Fire Lookout Association
Bob Frakes is the author of the 255-page book, Remembering Missouri’s Lookout Towers which also presents generic information about lookouts. It is available at wordsmatterpublishing.com