A History of the Architecture of the USDA Forest Service

Chapter 2
Building Types (continued)


The Lookout

"Way above the forests, that are in my care.
Watching for the curling smoke—looking everywhere,
Tied onto the world below by a telephone,
High, and sometimes lonesome—living here alone,
Snow peaks on the skyline, woods and rocky ground,
The green of Alpine meadows circle me around,
Waves of mountain ranges like billows of the sea—
Seems like in the whole wide world there's not a soul but me.
Peering thru the drift of smoke, sighting thru the haze.
Blinking at the lightning on the stormy days,
Here to guard the forests from the Red Wolf's tongue
I stay until they take me down, when the fall snows come.

— Robin Adair
California District Newsletter, April 1927 [1]

The detection and control of fires in remote wildlands has posed a special problem to the Forest Service throughout its history. Federal Involvement in fire control began with the National Park Service and was later introduced into the forest reserves. The need for fire detection and prevention increased as more land was set aside by the Federal Government and as destructive fires increased.

During the early 1900's, the General Land Office carried out extensive surveys to properly place monuments to mark forest boundaries. Mapping was done on each forest, and it was probably during this time that specific mountaintops were considered for detection locations.

The greatest single motivator for fire protection within the Forest Service was its Chief, Gifford Pinchot. Part of Pinchot's plan was to convince the public that the Forest Service mission included fire detection and prevention. Pinchot and many of his followers believed that wildland fires should be prevented whenever possible or, if that failed, that fires be suppressed. Pinchot's vision would shape the future Forest Service, but lack of funding restricted the development of fire control until the second and third decades of the 20th century. [2]

In a paper written in 1910, Henry Graves stated:

The mere fact that a tract is carefully watched makes it safer, because campers, hunters, and others crossing it are less careless on that account. By an efficient supervision most of the unnecessary fires can be prevented, such as those arising from carelessness in clearing land, leaving campfires, and smoking; from improperly equipped sawmills, locomotives, donkey engines; etc.

One of the fundamental principles in fire protection is to detect and attack fires in their incipiency. In an unwatched forest a fire may burn for a long time and gain great headway before being discovered. In a forest under proper protection there is some one man or corps of men responsible for detecting fires and for attacking them before they have time to do much damage or to develop beyond control.

The earliest lookouts were high peaks with an unobstructed view, with tents as shelters and short mapboard stands for pinpointing the smoke on maps. After 1905, tall trees, crude observation-only towers (figure 2-64), platforms, and small log cabins began to be used. [3]

Figure 2-64. Lookout tree on Bull Hill, Lassen National Forest, California (1912)

By 1911, cabins and cupolas (figure 2-65) were being constructed on mountaintops. In 1914, Aeromotor Company observation-only towers with 7- x 7-foot wood or metal cabs were approved in several Regions. A commonly built lookout tower design was the timber tower, which was used as early as 1914. Its design borrowed from similar designs used for years by the oil industry.

Figure 2-65. Signal Peak Lookout, Sierra National Forest, Region 5 (1910)

In 1914, Coert DuBois in Systematic Fire Protection in the California Forests wrote:

The lookout man's dwelling, office and workroom should be centered in one house, on one floor, and in one room. The room can not be less than 12 feet square, and must be so constructed that at any moment of the day, with the turn of the head, he can see his whole field. He must be fixed so that while he is cooking, eating, reading, writing, dressing, washing his clothes, walking about, or sitting down, he can not help but be in the best position to see. [4]

Forests in Region 1 began to experiment with lookout construction as early as 1915. The first lookout tower in Region 1 was erected in 1916. It comprised a small cab mounted on a windmill tower. Two of the earliest lookouts in the Region were built according to the standard District 6 design. The so-called D-6 lookout was a 12- x 12-foot frame structure with an observation cupola centrally located on the gable roof. A third lookout of this vintage was the Cedar Mountain Lookout on the St. Joe National Forest. This two-story frame structure followed an improvised plan and is apparently unique. [5]

Some lookout points required a tower to obtain a view over the treetops. This type of structure had to be durable against extreme weather conditions, high winds, and lightning strikes. In the late 1920's, Clyde Fickes designed a prefabricated lookout cab that was used extensively throughout Region 1. It was said that the cab did not become rigid until the windows were installed. [6] Lookout construction in Region 1 received high priority in the 1920's; between 1921 and 1925, 61 structures were completed. Between 1926 and 1930, an additional 130 were built. By the end of the decade, the total number of occupied points reached approximately 800. [7]

In the Rocky Mountain Region, despite the acknowledged need for fire detection facilities, no official funding was allocated for construction of fire cabins or towers until the early 1910's. As a result, cabins and towers built during this era were typically constructed by rangers using scrap materials or materials that could be found on site. Even this, however, was a step up from the tents that had been previously used to shelter lookouts. There were few standardized designs in Region 2 through the 1950's. [8]

The Leon Peak Lookout on the Grand Mesa National Forest in Region 2 (figure 2-66) is believed to have been constructed in 1911 and 1912 by Clay Withersteen with the help of Rosco Bloss, a local seasonal Forest Service employee who was an accomplished carpenter. Bloss was lookout guard in the summers of 1914 and 1915. All materials were carried up by backpack. The cupola cabin topology of this lookout consisted principally of a square log room with a glass observation cupola centered on its pyramidal roof. [9]

Figure 2-66. Leon Peak Lookout (photo taken August 1993)

In California, the 14- x 14-foot duBois design of 1917 established the basic floor plan for all live-in cabs built since. The duBois plans indicate that the cab could be placed on timber towers, but no height specifications are given. The tower design was of a nonbattered type similar to railroad water-tank towers. Since then, the live-in observatory has been the preferred design for California, no doubt a result of duBois's insistence that the operator should be kept in direct sight of the seen area at all times; in effect, maximizing the potential to spot and locate fires—day or night.

In the early 1930's, California Regional Forester S.B. Show formed an investigative group at the California Forest Range and Experiment Station to scrutinize every aspect of fire detection. The group, headed by Edward Kotok, provided a report of its findings in 1933, just prior to the inception of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Region immediately took advantage of the CCC workforce and initiated a massive program of construction projects, including 250 lookout towers and cabs built between 1933 and 1942. [10]

The 1937 circular "Planning, Constructing, and Operating Forest-Fire Lookout system in California" noted:

The lookout house is probably the most distinctive structure used in forest-fire control. It now represents the product of 20 years of evolution and reflects many features that have become standard through long experience by the Forest Service. The details of design vary and are still in process of change, but the main features now conform closely to the essentials of a common design [11]

During World War II, the Aircraft Warning Service was established, operating in 1942 and 1943. Aircraft Warning Service volunteers staffed selected lookouts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

After the war, the increase in air pollution limited visibility around large urban areas. Use of the forests grew, road systems expanded, and citizen reports of fire began to equal reports by lookouts. Coupled with the increased aerial surveillance and later satellite surveillance, the use of the lookout tower correspondingly diminished.

Just after the end of World War II, Keplar Johnson in Region 5 designed an "experimental lookout" for La Cumbre Peak on the Los Padres National Forest (figure 2-67). The lookout was innovative, with a steel frame cab, columns, roof beams, ties, and girders. It also had sloped windows similar to those on airport control towers. The project was funded jointly by the Washington Office and Region 5. Compared with other lookouts, La Cumbre Peak was somewhat expensive, costing $6,500. With the loss of the CCC and lean budgets after the war, funding for similar projects was rare.

Figure 2-67. LaCumbre Peak Lookout, Los Padres National Forest, Region 5 (1945)

The last new lookout in California was the Antelope Peak Lookout on the Lassen National Forest (figure 2-68). Built in 1977 with cooperative funding from NASA, the project tested solar energy technology. A 1979 Sunset magazine included an article on this structure: "Sun powers lookout":

"A neat twist to kerosene lamps." That is how one forest ranger described the new solar system that provides light and power for the Antelope Peak lookout tower in the Lassen National Forest. The nation's first to be powered by solar cells has a panoramic view from the top of timberland and meadows, Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen and cool blue Eagle Lake. Atop the 7,684-foot peak, the hexagonal tower sits poised like a rustic spaceship. On its south-facing side are eight panels that can generate 300 watts at high noon. When sunlight strikes the silicon wafer cells, they produce enough electricity (stored in 18 batteries) to operate the stations lights, radio, waterpump and appliances that include a refrigerator and a small television—"all the comforts of home," as fire lookout Virginia McAllister says.

Figure 2-68. Antelope Peak Lookout, Plumas National Forest (1974). This was the last lookout designed in Region 5, a wood tower and cab built in cooperation with NASA to test solar electric panels. Bob Sandusky was the designer.

The lookouts who spent their time in these remote, isolated forest environments had to be self-contained people with a sense of humor. A lookout at the Timber Mountain Lookout on the Colville National Forest in Region 6, wrote the following poem in 1948:

I like FS biscuits;
think they're mighty fine.
One rolled off the table
and killed a pal of mine.

I like FS coffee;
think it's mighty fine.
Good for cuts and bruises
just like iodine.

I like FS corned beef;
it really is okay.
I fed it to the squirrels;
funerals are today.

Figures 2-69 through 2-74 show additional examples of lookout design styles in several Regions.

Figure 2-69. Bald Mountain Lookout. Sierra National Forest, Region 5 (1910)

Figure 2-70. Blue Mountain Lookout, Modoc National Forest, Region 5 (1930)

Figure 2-71. Hayes Lookout, Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina, a low wooden enclosed structure with a 6- x 6-foot cabin built by the CCC in 1939.

Figure 2-72. Blue Point Lookout, Cascade Ranger District, Boise National Forest, Region 4 (1920)

Figure 2-73. Sketch of an early Region 6 lookout.

Figure 2-74. Wayah Bald Observation Tower, North Carolina (1938)


1. Mark Thorton, Fixed Point Fire Detection: The Lookouts, p. 4

2. Ibid., pp. 23-24

3. Ibid., p. 6

4. Ibid., p. 8

5. Historical Research Associates, p. 38.

6. Ibid., p. 8

7. Ibid., p. 38

8. Schneck and Hartley, p. 96

9. Ibid., p. 97

10. Thorton, p. 16

11. Thorton, p. 42

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Last Updated: 08-Jun-2008