With the high heat across the country and wildfires fanning the headlines Lookouts, Firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics seemed like an appropriate summer read. Authors Ira Spring and Byron Fish have updated their fascinating book, first released in 1981, that details the history of the remote and far-flung fire towers that once dotted Washington State. When the authors first undertook their task they believed there were roughly two hundred towers. At the end of their exhaustive research they’d uncovered evidence of at least five hundred towers.

Like much public policy, the developments that led to the creation of forest lookouts came in the wake of a catastrophic event. On October 8,1871 the Great Peshtigo fire broke out in Wisconsin. Before it was over the fire laid waste to 1,300,000 acres in Wisconsin and Michigan, killing anywhere from 1,300 to 2,400 people. Ironically, the fire occurred at the same moment, but was unrelated to, the Great Chicago Fire, and as a result the Great Peshtigo fire has been all but forgotten to history. But the Peshtigo fire made it clear to the US Congress and to the President, Benjamin Harris, that that forests, long thought to be an inexhaustible American resource, were in need of protection and in 1891 Congess gave the president authority to withdraw public lands and create forest reserves. In 1893, then President, Grover Cleveland set aside some twenty-one million acres including the Pacific Forest Reserve covering much of Washington State.

Having created these reserves they needed to protect them and thus fire lookouts were built. Originally just tents or “rag houses” perched on high points, they soon evolved into full structures designed to endure the harsh elements of their locations. By 1929 ranger districts were placing watchtowers in earnest. The Forest Service was already doing its best to employ young men when the New Deal administration inquired if the Forest Service could use extra 25,000 men. That number blossomed into 250,000 and the Civilian Conservation Corps was formed. In nine years the CCC built 60,000 miles of trail and 600 lookouts.

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Lookouts covers the history of individual lookouts in Washington State in meticulous detail. Included in the book are photographs of the towers—whose shape, size and situation varied greatly—and colorful stories about the rangers who manned the lookouts, their trials and tribulations. One of the more famous lookouts was Jack Kerouac who spent the summer of 1956 on the not inappropriately named Desolation Peak. His book Desolation Angels describes that summer.

Lookouts is not a trail book, it’s a historical interest book that reveals places you will want to go, but you will need an auxiliary guidebook and maps to get there. I’ve never written a guidebook but I imagine that one of the difficult choices authors face is between wanting to be thorough and historically accurate but also concise and lively. Unfortunately many of the towers covered in this book were torn down after technology made them obsolete. As a result many of the sites covered in this book are no longer standing nor were they historically significant in any real way except that they were there at one point.

I enjoyed this book as a historical record but, like all history, the chance to make it come alive by actually getting to see it myself is what I really crave. To that end, here’s a cheat sheet on the watch towers still standing that I’d most like to visit. There is a similar list at the end of this book. I rather imagine this is a book I’d keep on hand to see if I’m near an old tower when I’m hiking. Or it’s a book I’d use as a reference to plan hikes to spectacular view sights. In either event, I’d like to know up front which towers still exist and can be visited so I’m breaking the list out below. Travel at your own risk, as you might imagine, some of these lookouts are quite precariously positioned.

 

Lookouts still standing (some you can even rent):

Aeneas Lookout

Alpine Lookout

Big Butte Lookout

Buck Mountain Lookout

Burley Mountain Lookout

Cleman Mountain Lookout

Columbia Mountain Lookout

Copper Mountain Lookout

Desolation Peak Lookout

Evergreen Mountain Lookout

Fire Lookout Museum Lookout

First Butte Lookout

Flagstaff Lookout

Flattop Mountain Lookout

Fosback Lookout

Funk Mountain Lookout

Goat Peak Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout

Graves Mountain Lookout

Green Mountain Lookout

Hidden Lake Peak Lookout

High Rock Lookout

Indian Mountain Lookout

Kelly Butte Lookout

Kloshe Nanitch Lookout

Knowlton Knob Lookout

Kresek Fire Tower

Leecher Mountain Lookout

Lookout Mountain Lookout (both of them)

Miners Ridge Lookout

Mount Adams Lookout

Mount Bonaparte Lookout

Mount Constitution Lookout

Mount Fremont Lookout

Mount Pilchuck Lookout

Mount Spokane Vista House Lookout

North Twentymile Peak Lookout

Oregon Butte Lookout

Park Butte Lookout

Puyallup Ridge Lookout

Red Mountain Lookout

Red Top Lookout

Salmo Mountain Lookout

Shriner Peak Lookout

Slate Peak Lookout

Sourdough Mountain Lookout

South Baldy Lookout

Stranger Mountain Lookout

Sugarloaf Mountain Lookout

Suntop Lookout

Thorp Mountain Lookout

Three Fingers Lookout

Timber Mountain Lookout

Tunk Mountain Lookout

Tyee Mountain Lookout

Watch Mountain Lookout

Winchester Mountain Lookout

 

Details

Title: Lookouts: Firewatchers of the Cascades and the Olympics

Author: Ira Spring and Byron Fish

Publisher: Mountaineer Books

Pages: 218

Published: 1996 (second edition)

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