Almanac: Forest fire lookout towers

Almanac: Forest fire lookout towers

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: June 10, 1905, 113 years ago today – the day America's first forest fire lookout tower went into operation on top of Squaw Mountain in Maine, with 19-year-old William Hilton as its watchman.

On June 10, 1905, America's first forest fire lookout tower went into operation on top of Squaw Mountain in Maine. CBS News

The first tower, but hardly the last.

In the years that followed, their numbers multiplied on America's mountaintops, peaking (as it were) at more than 4,000 during the 1940s, when they also served as enemy aircraft lookouts during World War II.

A United States Forest Service film from the 1950s about ranger life shows the fire lookout towers in action: 

"From our lookout on Eagle Mountain comes a report of a smoke at 210 degrees," says the narrator of a fire at Tumbling River National Forest. "Our lookout on Echo Bluff radios the position of a smoke at 305 degrees from her tower. This can be a bad one!"

The Story of a Forest Ranger 1954 USDA-US Forest Service by Jeff Quitney on YouTube

Of course, the job of forest fire lookout has long appealed to people seeking solitude. Believe it or not, back in the summer of 1956, Beat author Jack Kerouac worked as a lookout on a tower, one year before he published his classic "On The Road."

These days, new technologies, including air patrols and computerized lightning detection systems, are taking their toll on the traditional lookout tower. Of the original 4,000 towers, only about 900 remain. 

But all is not lost. Volunteers are preserving many of the decommissioned towers. And some can even be BOOKED by the adventurous for an overnight stay.

The ultimate no-frills room-with-a-view!

A 360-degree view. CBS News

For more info:

Story produced by Juliana Kracov.

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