At one time, New York state had more than 100 active fire towers, the purpose of which was to help lookouts –– you guessed it –– spot fires. These days, some of the remaining towers have been repurposed for recreational use. At Bramley Mountain, in the western Catskills, the fire tower was dismantled in the 1970s, but a local family has been keeping it safe in a nearby barn. Now that Bramley has an official hiking trail, that tower is destined, once again, for the summit. Laurie Rankin tells us more, on our Bramley Mountain hike.
To learn more about the Bramley fire tower project, head on over to bramleymountainfiretower.org.
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You're listening to cats cast, the BI weekly podcast featuring history interviews, arts and culture and sustainability in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. We have a loop option here for our trail. This way is the Corey. This way is the main trail. This one kind of follows an old road. There's some excellent news along the way. We hiked with Laurie Rankin, New York State chapter director of the forest fire lookout Association, and a board member of the Friends of Bramley mountain wear and historic fire tower is to be reconstructed at the top of Bramley Mountain Trail, a popular four mile loop in the western Catskills. I'm actually the daughter of forest fire observer. My dad was the observer at the balsam Lake fire tower over near Margaretville for a number of years. So I kind of grew up on a tower. And I did a lot of hiking. So as an adult, I got involved in volunteering. And this trail that we're walking on was made by volunteers with the Catskill Mountain Club, and it went to the site of a former fire tower, and eventually, the owners of the former fire tower stepped forward after the trail was made. And they said, Would you like to have the fire tower back there? And so the Friends of Bramley mountain fire tower was formed. And I was asked to be on the board of directors for that. The trail was designed and built by the Catskill Mountain Club on a parcel owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in the towns of bovina. And Dell. Hi, I think it's a wonderful partnership. And, you know, let's face it, here in the Catskills, we need to have partnerships, because it's too hard to do it by yourself. It creates layers, which create complications, but they also create more partnerships. One of the things here for example, is I have heard that the local Delaware otsego Audubon chapter is very excited about the fire tower, because they will give them a high point along the Delaware River, where they can look at Raptor migration. Who would have thought right? But you've got a whole wealth of supporters of this project. I need to develop those partnerships. And I'm really glad that the DP and CMC were able to do all that they have an hour of climbing from the Bramley mountain parking area, and we found ourselves at the site of the fire tower, where we continued our conversation with Laurie Rankin, the way that we came from the parking lot up to this intersection just below the summit here, I believe was actually an old agricultural road may have also been used secondarily, for logging purposes, the fire tower observer did not use that road. When we came to the junction here just below the summit a bit that was the way that the observer came. And they came from Bramley mountain road here to the summit. And generally they use the Jeep, although some of the roads were in good enough condition, they actually would use a pickup truck. The timeframe for when this tower was here was 1950. So automobile use was pretty common by then, prior to 1950, a lot of the fire tower trails actually were ascended on foot, or perhaps on horseback. In the early 1900s. When they first started putting fire towers on mountaintops, they didn't have any cabins. And so when bad weather would come like lightning storms, and you couldn't be in the tower, or just cold and windy weather, the observers didn't have any place to get out of the weather. So they started building little shacks. Some of them might have been made of stone, some of them may have been made of brush, and so in the 1920s, the Conservation Department so that you had to have livable quarters for your fire tower observer. And so that was when the first observers cabins came. And there was a fire tower cabin here, the fire tower observer would go there during inclement weather, the fire tower observer might also stay there when there was high fire danger, and they needed to be on duty 24 seven, and that did happen. Usually your day would end at five or 6pm. But if there was a fire someplace, and you could see it well from this fire tower, you might be expected to stay on duty through the night and actually see the flames traveling and report on that. They also sometimes had their family members with them. And that was perfectly acceptable, especially in the more remote fire tower locations that you didn't drive back and forth every day and your family would come and stay with you. Fire towers today are mainly recreational, but historically speaking, their purpose was indeed related to the real threat of Fire. Fire towers started in the early 1900s when We lived in a different time period, our transportation was mostly by train, train tracks created sparks. There was also sparks that came out of the stack on the train. We had logging practices, which were very different than they are now. And logging was a huge industry. In New York State. We also personally did things differently. We did not have a telephone to speak to someone else, we had to walk or ride a horse to go see someone. So our communication methods were completely different. So in the early 1900s, they started having some really large fires, because nature came into play with all those other things, and we had a drought. And those large fires had to be communicated through, like I said, the method of either walking or on horseback. And then you had to get people to the fire to fight it. And they often came by train and the trains were speeding, so there were more sparks and more fires followed the trains. And so you can see that you would get really massive fires. So they started putting up these fire towers as an early detection system. And it was an entire system, so they put them up all around New York State. My dad was on the balsam Lake fire tower from 1959 to 1972, which was when they decommissioned that tower, the observers job was to go up to the mountain every day. At the time when he went on the mountain in 1959. The telephone was their form of communication, so on on the way up, who usually followed the telephone line up to make sure that the line was all in a state of repair because instead of punching a time clock, you would pick up the telephone and you would call your Ranger and you would say balsam lake is in service. That way you knew your phone worked, your communication worked and the Ranger knew if you were on time for work or not. So the same process would have happened here at Bramley mountain, then you literally did watch for smoke, people think, oh, there's a fire, but actually what you usually see first is smoke. And so you look for smoke. In the middle of your fire tower cab, you would have a round circular map, which had zero to 360 degrees, just like a compass on it, and then it had a pointer called an alidade. And if you saw smoke, you would swing the alidade so that it was pointing directly at the smoke, you would use binoculars, which was the second tool that you had in the cab, and you would try to pinpoint the location of the fire. It would pick up the telephone, you would call the next nearest tower. And then you would say I believe I see fire. I believe it's in Dell. Hi, I have it 35 degrees, what do you have, that fire tower observer would try to see the smoke, and they too would come up with a degree. And after contacting to others, which was the most ideal, the original person who'd spotted the smoke would call the forest ranger give all of those numbers, the forest ranger would actually have a string map and he would move strings out and we're all three strings crossed. That's exactly where the fire was. And much like today's GPS coordinates, he would be able to send Fire Department resources out there to take care of that fire very quickly. We asked Laurie about the transition from utilitarian to recreational firetower use in the state over time logging practices changed, transportation changed, communication changed, and even our recreation changed over time. So by the time you got here to Bramley mountain in 1950, you'd had quite a recovery in the New York State Forest, and they were actually looking pretty good again. And they had a lot of green leaves, which means a lot of moisture and less chance of them burning. You also had a much better communication system. In 1950. When they put this up, they created an area that matched up with at Santa mountain and rock rift fire towers, so that they cover this area completely all up and down. The Delaware River basically, they had the tower here for 20 years, it was very effective. There were few fires in the area. And by 1970, New York State said, I don't think we need the fire towers anymore. We just don't have the numbers of fires being reported. And by then we had this other thing going on called the plane and planes had communication and they could cover a really large area really quickly. So they decided to go to planes to monitor fires and they started closing the fire towers. And so that's why this particular tower was decommissioned. There were still a couple of others in the area. And slowly they stopped using all of them, I think all the way up till 1980 before they closed them all in the Catskills. Then the state had to figure out what to do with them once they decommission them. And so they said well, we'll take them down. They also said we'll sell them we'll auction them off. And so that's exactly what they did. They auctioned this one off in a local farmer Clark farm. They actually bought the tower for $50 and along with that, Purchase, it was their requirement to take the tower down. And so the Clark family has very good memories of that. And they came up here and they spent four days taking the tower apart. And they had a tractor and they had a wagon. And they very carefully took everything down, numbered it so that they could put it back together. And they took it to their farm, and they put it under cover. And their plan was to put it back up on their property that didn't pan out. So after they heard about these trails being built in 2016, they got talking about the fire tower, and they said, I wonder if we could offer it to the Catskill Mountain Club. And if they could see it go back to where it once was. And so they very graciously have given the tower to the group to do that. There were just over 100 towers, I've heard the number of 102 and 106. In New York State, there are 72 standing towers now. And jority of those are on public land and available to the public, they cannot all be climbed. But they are still standing. There are five as part of the Catskill fire tower project now. But then since then, we've had the upper surface fire tower added on samsa. And Stanford is like just on the edge of the park line, rock refire Tower is still standing. And that's in Delaware County. And they're working on restoring that as well. So the numbers are variable. And soon that variable number will increase by one. We asked Laurie, why this project is important. And it turns out, it's not just for the views, I think there's several reasons to rebuild it. The first, quite frankly, is that possibility of fire danger, it's not gone away. And And finally, we can explain that to people by just watching the evening news, which is kind of a terrible thing to say. But we are seeing these awful fires out west. And that could certainly happen here in the Catskills. We do have invasive species which are threatening our ash population and even our hemlock population. And so if we have a lot of standing dead trees, and then we add to that drought, we could have some serious fires here still. So there's certainly still, I think, a very good need for the fire spotting purposes of the fire tower. But additionally, the one thing that went away when they started closing the fire towers, which is so important and was never really considered until they were gone is the public relations piece. The Conservation Department had that a fire tower observer who connected with the public each and every day, and when they came to visit the towers, and they were able to explain to them things like fire prevention, and they were able to explain to them where a trailhead was located where to put their garbage. So it was constant hiker education that was going on, just as part of the job. But it was never in the in the job description, this public relations piece. And I think that that's sorely needed right now with a huge increase in the number of visitors that we have to outdoor recreation. But at the same time, we're not seeing big numbers reflected in terms of Forest Rangers, assistant forest rangers and those types of things. And then the third thing that I think happens is that we are bringing people to these communities. And when people come to these communities to recreate, they're buying maps, they're buying gas, they're buying dinner, they are staying over at a hotel or a b&b or something. And so it's a big thing in terms of tourism. So I think all three of those are really really good reasons why fire towers should be back. The fire tower itself was generously donated by the family that bought it from the state back in 1975. But re erecting it will take time volunteers and money. So the fire tower was donated to the Catskill Mountain Club, which is wonderful. But the fire tower steel also needs to have some things done to it before it's ready to go back up. So the steel is galvanized, so that it can withstand the weather here on the mountaintop. So that will be re galvanized and there's certainly cost to that there will be new nuts and bolts for the fire tower. So there's a cost to that. We're going to put in brand new footings just to make sure that the tower is secured well to the ground. You have to think about too in the process currently of putting up any building is you have to go through the steps of having plans. So we have to have an engineer's drawings. And there's a cost associated with that we have to go through the different permitting processes etc. We also want to make sure that we have proper signage here, we're doing a myriad of things. Aside from grants, different sponsorship levels are available for people who'd like to donate. And quite frankly, it's just as important to us that people are able to put some money into the donation box at the trailhead, or to send a little bit of money through you know electronic donations or something to the effort. We are actively looking for people who will be able to lend a hand with anything We also are working pretty closely with SUNY Dell high outdoor recreation, carpentry students etc there that are going to work with us too. So that's an excellent resource as well. To learn more or to lend a hand visit Bramley mountain fire tower.org Katz cast is supported by wi o x Community Radio Live and local in the Catskills, reflective, responsive and supportive at 91.3 FM MTC, cable channel 20 wi x radio.org. And with any smartphone radio app, Alexa, play w IO x. And by the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the central Catskills for maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations. Visit scenic catskills.com cats cast is a production of silver Hello audio production intern Steven Harris. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. Thanks again to our local sponsors and to you our listeners for your contributions to the show. If you'd like to contribute, just click support at cats cast calm. Until next time, I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening
Transcribed by https://otter.ai