(WGHP) — For people under 40, it can be hard to remember much of life before cellphones took over.
That technology changed so much, including how we detect forest fires and get resources to fight them. Now there are so many people living in the North Carolina mountains, for example, that it’s much easier for someone to simply spot a fire and call it in with their phone while using the GPS technology built into the phone to pinpoint the location.
Folks didn’t have that to work with a century ago.
So in the early part of the 20th century, the US Forest Service was created to deal with maintaining that natural resource. During the Great Depression, they used the Civilian Conservation Corps to build fire lookout towers.
“This one was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps,” said Forest Ranger Michael Crouse, standing under a tower on Rendezvous Mountain in Wilkes County.
He unfurls a series of maps that the rangers used in the towers 50, 70 and even 90 years ago.
“These are box square point maps,” Crouse said as he showed the way they would triangulate between towers using azimuth rings.
There were once as many as 200 lookout towers across the state. There are a handful still standing, but only two dozen or so are still manned, according to Peter Barr, whose book “Exploring North Carolina’s Lookout Towers” not only tells their history and acts as a guidebook to visit all of the towers across the state but also has stunning photography of and from the towers taken by professional photographer Kevin Adams.
“These fire towers represent a big part of our history in North Carolina. And I think it’s important to preserve it,” Barr said. “I think that a lot of folks really enjoy these towers. Both their history and the scenic view that is available from the top.”
People like David McGee saw it firsthand.
“My brother Edwin was the county forester,” said McGee, who turns 86 this year and spent several years in the Rendezvous Mountain tower. “As far as I can recollect, my first year was 1962.”
Vaughan Church worked the tower, too. He’s passed away, but his son Day Church remembers how much his father loved the job.
“He stayed in the tower about 15 years. He loved it up here by himself,” Day said.
Barr was studying to be a physician at UNC-Chapel Hill when a trip to the top of a mountain and the views it provided changed his career path.
“A lot of times in the southern Appalachians if you climb our mountains, you get to the top of a peak, and there’s not always a view because it’s forested,” Barr said.
If you climb a lookout tower, you can see for miles.
“I think that while…these structures are no longer used for the reason they were built, I think they have a…new function of telling the story of the protection of the natural resources in the state,” Barr said.
See the views from the towers and hear more about their history in this edition of the Buckley Report.