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Historic Fire Warning Tower In Harlem Reopens On Saturday

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - In a time before smoke detectors and fire hydrants, an extensive reservoir system and watchtowers kept fires in the city under control.

At one point, there were 11 towers across New York City, but today only one remains, reports CBS2's Natalie Duddridge.

A 47-foot cast-iron tower in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park is the last of its kind in New York City.

It was built in the 1850s and after years of extensive restoration work, it's ready to re-open on Saturday.

In the late 1800s, men used to sit atop the towers scanning their surroundings for flames or smoke.

"It's really what saved our city and kept it safe," said John Krawchuk of the Historic House Trust of New York City.

"All of the homes and buildings would've been made of wood at the time," said Connie Lee of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance.

They would let firefighters know where to go using the bell. The number of rings corresponded to the location and severity.

The towers eventually phased out of use in the 1870s. As fire departments began installing alarms on street corners and in high-rises.

But at the request of neighbors, the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower bell would ring twice a day for timekeeping and church-going purposes until the early 1990s.

After that, the tower sat vacant on the property.

Despite some talk of dismantling and removing the structure back in 2015, Harlem residents fought tooth and nail to save it, eventually winning.

"The entire tower had to be very carefully dismantled and stored," said Krawchuk. "What you're seeing today is about 80% replacement parts and 20% original pieces."

Restorations began shortly after, and on Saturday, the bell will ring again for the first time in years.

The project started in 2015 and cost $8 million in grants.

"The structure itself is almost like a monument and the place is a place where everyone has memories," said Lee.

The watchtower was designated a New York City landmark in the late 1960s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places almost a decade later.

The public is not allowed to tour the tower yet, but the Marcus Garvey Parks Alliance hope to organize visits in the future.

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