Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places

Article excerpt

Fire Towers

HIDDEN IN THE VAST WOODLANDS OF ARKANSAS, in some of the most remote points among dense trees, are some of the state's most overlooked historic resources-though they were built to overlook the landscape. At one time, there were 121 forest lookout towers looming above the trees, manned by patient workers who watched day in and day out for signs of smoke. Though the towers were once well-known fixtures, they slowly became obsolete. Today, only forty-seven of the Arkansas towers remain in existence, and none of them are used for fire prevention.

The timber industry was an important source of economic growth in post-Civil War Arkansas. Timber companies arrived from the North and ravaged the pristine forests. seeking quick profits, the companies initially displayed little interest in the well-being of the land. Over the course of a few decades, the untapped resources of Arkansas quickly diminished due to lumber harvesting, fire, and widespread expansion of farmland in the eastern part of the state. Even as Arkansas's timber industry reached its peak in the years between 1879 and 1909, the negative effects of deforestation were starting to show.

The problem had not gone unnoticed. Unregulated use of forests became an issue across the country, and it was not long before the federal government stepped in to help monitor and regulate the country's woodlands. The U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905 to help oversee vast timberlands across the country and ensure their sustainability. In Arkansas, the Ouachita National Forest was created by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt in December 1907. The establishment of the Ozark National Forest followed shortly thereafter. Despite being a major timber producer, Arkansas would be much slower to establish its own forestry commission. Act 234 created the Arkansas State Forestry Commission in 1931, extending state resources to maintain timberlands not in the national forest system.

As with the U.S. Forest Service, one of the early and most important goals of the Arkansas State Forestry Commission was fire prevention. For much of the twentieth century, forest officers in lookout towers performed the complex job of detecting forest fires. Lookout towers had been built as early as the 1870s to watch over towns or industrial sites. However, the first known fire tower to be constructed for protecting an expanse of forest was built on private land in Idaho in 1902. The U.S. Forest Service built its first fire lookout in Oregon in 1915. Construction of such towers followed across the country. During the Great Depression, a New Deal agency, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), built some 3,100 of them.

When a watchman saw evidence of a fire, he had to pinpoint its exact location in order to direct fire fighters there. The tower watchman often lived alone in or near the tower and spent the daylight hours scanning the treetops. It was a lonely job in some of the most remote locations in the country, but lookout towers remained the primary method of detecting forest fires until the 1960s, when aerial detection emerged as a more accurate and easier method.

Despite their abandonment, fire lookout towers still stand in Arkansas 's forests as stoic reminders of the early days of forest management. Arkansas has two of these towers listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Crossroads Fire Tower in Ashley County and the Tall Peak Fire Tower in Polk County are recognized for their architectural integrity and their contribution to fire prevention in Arkansas. A third tower, the Bee Mountain Fire Tower in Polk County, was previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places but was removed because a portion of the structure had been dismantled.

These three towers, all built by the CCC, provide excellent examples of the types of towers built across Arkansas and the country. The towers at Tall Peak and Bee Mountain featured low wood-frame cabins on a masonry base situated at high points in hilly landscape. …

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