Adirondack fire towers now more for education than rescue

Tom Cullen is one of the summit stewards for Mount Arab. (Provided photo — Hannah Finley/NCPR)

PIERCEFIELD — At one time in New York state there were over 100 fire towers. Now only about 40 remain.

Fire towers are not used to spot fires anymore, but summit stewards still staff some of the mountains for educational and safety purposes.

Tom Cullen has been a steward on Arab Mountain for 12 years. For five months out of the year, and about 4 times a week he hikes the mountain to man the cabin at the top.

When the towers were first built fire observers would live on the mountain from May to November. Observers would leave during the winter because of the harsh weather. On top of Mount Arab, observers would live in a log cabin right across from the fire tower.

According to Cullen, the observers would look day and night from the tower for fires in the area. The observers would then report the fires to nearby towns through radio. The fire tower on Mount Arab was constructed in 1912. There was a telephone line built that ran from the Childwold station to the summit of Mount Arab.

Fire tower observers were stationed on Mount Arab in the early 1900s. (Provided photo — Hannah Finley/NCPR)

“Trains were the main culprits back in those early days. They would be coming up the mountains on those train tracks, and they would shoot out sparks and embers which would ignite the forest. And they would have these tremendous fires up here,” said Cullen.

The towers were used to spot fires until the 1980s. New York State started to tear down the towers when observations from airplanes became more popular.

The towers slowly began to rust away and became a danger for people climbing them. The non-profit, Friends of Mount Arab, raises money to preserve the historic cabin, fire tower, and trail. Similar groups help to preserve other fire towers across New York State.

Since the cabins are not used by observers anymore, the cabin on Mount Arab has been turned into a museum. Summit stewards on Mount Arab also use the museum for shelter while they are working on the mountain.

Fire towers are not on any of the Alpine Zones in the High Peaks. Cullen explained that the towers had to be accessible by road. The trails to the towers were normally short, so an observer could get to safety quickly in emergencies.

“So this is a classic example of a perfect tower, Mount Arab is 1.1 miles to the road or ambulance,” said Cullen.

Now the fire towers are used for educational and entertainment purposes. “This is a place where people can come and enjoy the beautiful view. And get a nice beautiful day in the woods away from everybody else,” emphasized Cullen.


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