Efforts are under way to create a committee to preserve the Lyon Mountain fire tower as a historical asset and recreational draw for the small town.
The peak here, where summertime staffers would daily climb the still-standing fire tower to stand vigilant against wildfires, remains a popular climb, in part because of the history of that now-disheveled structure.
With the building only partly restored after the New York Department of Environmental Conservation acquired it in 2008. Steps and landings were replaced and the tower was painted. It could use a few more friends to ensure it remains a draw, said Adirondack Fire Tower Association Director David Thomas-Train.
“Towers are rather magnetic,” said Thomas-Train. “Hikers, firefighters, engineers, environmentalists, educators all seem to like them. Kids love them.”
Dannemora Town Councilman Ken Brassard Jr. said on a recent holiday climb, he passed three groups of two on his way to the summit. Because the mountain hosted a small ski resort until the '70s, people often carry up skis or snowboards and slide down the old, overgrown glades.
There's no budget or group for tower maintenance right now, though it houses a radio repeater for the forest service. Clear needs at the tower include roof repairs, foundation work, stair fencing and railing installation. Before any of that work can begin, an engineering study has to be completed. DEC forester Dan Levy said he already initiated that process during the Feb. 21 meeting to gauge interest in forming a friends of the fire tower group.
The tower can become an asset to the mountain if preserved, and a destination if enhanced. Thomas-Train first became involved with the five-year-old fire tower association as a friend of the Pok-O-Moonshine tower, which today has brochures describing the building and its history along with interpretive elements to educate visitors.
The same sort of effort at Lyon Mountain would be pursued under and Adopt-A-Natural-Resource Agreement with the DEC. The agreement gives liability and workers' compensation insurance to volunteers working on a tower. It also makes the adopting group eligible for matching funds from the DEC that can cover costs like printing brochures and materials for tower repairs.
“It allows us to stretch our limited resources that much further,” said DEC spokesman David Winchell.
He added that while restoring the historic structures is important, the biggest benefit is the public education encouraged by restoration efforts.
Five tower projects have begun since the association formed, and other projects joined the Adirondack Fire Tower Association umbrella at its beginning. Thomas-Train said there's no strict life cycle for tower revitalization. Some towers have done it in as little as two years, others can take nearly a decade.
“There’s no blueprint,” he said.
To support the project, they do fundraising, often selling patches, posters and t-shirts, though no fundraising is allowed on-site. There are state constitutional clauses forbidding that. It’s possible to get around that if there are adjoining private properties.
The friends groups provide a mechanism for local people who know and are particularly attached to a place, said Thomas-Train, those who have emotional ownership.
The towers are deeply rooted in Adirondack history. With a high level of logging and extended droughts at the dawn of the 20th century, steam locomotives hauling lumber spewed sparks from their smokestacks, igniting dry trees. The worst years were 1903 and 1908, which combined saw nearly one million acres of forest burned, about a sixth of the total land area of the larger-than-Vermont state park. This extensive burning sent smoke as thick as fog to New York City and blanketed nearby cities like Utica with ash.
Responding to public outcry, Governor Charles Evans Hughes launched the fire tower program. Fifty-seven of the towers were built in the Adirondack Park, where they were staffed daily during the forest fire season. The first Lyon Mountain tower was built in 1910.
The tower sighters worked April to October, and some even lived at the fire tower cabins with their families. To make the summit cabins more homey, they'd add outbuildings for firewood and perishables, grow apple trees and dig vegetable cellars.
When the Disney film “Bambi” helped raise public awareness on forest conservation, the fire tower watchers provided education to visitors, though it wasn't in their job description. They'd even hand out signed cards as tokens of proof for completing a tower hike. When the Smokey Bear campaign started, they gave out silver coins with the fire-preventing bear's likeness on them.
The towers started to fall into disrepair during World War II, when the men staffing them were called away to fight. By the '70s, cheap planes began replacing the tower's fire-spotting function. Once the '80s came to a close, the DEC found that members of the public were most effective at spotting fires. They closed the remaining towers and ended most spotting flights.
To get involved in the committee to preserve the Lyon Mountain fire tower, email David Thomas-Train at firstname.lastname@example.org.