“Do You Smell Smoke?” Fire Houses, Fire Lookouts, and Fire Observation Towers

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (NAID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service. 

Friendship Engine Station in Alexandria Virginia (NAID 135805057; Local ID: 30-N-36686-A).

August, the Dog Days of Summer, usually the hottest month of the year. If it’s hot, and also dry, that can lead to fire. Luckily there are a number of structures around the country that are there to help us out. If you’re in the cities, you can stroll over to a local firehouse and pet the dalmatians or try out the fire pole. If you’re headed to the mountains, climb to the top of one of the many fire observation towers and lookouts that dot the landscape.

Make sure your water bottle is full, start up the firetruck and let’s go search for fire houses, lookouts, and observation towers in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places (NAID 20812721).  

We can start our tour in the Holland, Michigan Old City Hall and Fire Station (NAID 25340362), “a dark red-painted yellow-buff brick, two-story structure built in 1883-1884 . . . The narrow and deep structure contained the engine house downstairs and the common council meeting room upstairs. The structure’s principal decorative feature is its seemingly Dutch Revival, pointed, gable-roof, hose-drying tower, located at one of the front corners.” It is the “oldest public building now standing in Holland.” It “served as the first city-owned, city hall building and also served as a fire station for nearly one hundred years.”

Maybe you’re in the nation’s capital and you’d like to start at one tip of the diamond and tour all of the Firehouses in Washington, DC (NAID 117691587). There are “thirty pre-World War II firefighting buildings remaining in Washington, D.C. Two of these buildings – the firehouse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and the one at the Navy Yard – were projects of the federal government. A third firehouse, the Vigilant in Georgetown, was a private endeavor, built during the era of volunteer fire fighting. The twenty-seven remaining buildings were constructed under the auspices of the municipal government. Each building is unique, of superior design and quality materials, and a landmark of its neighborhood. Most are domestic in image and all are constructed of red brick, the principal material for residential buildings in the city.”

“The primary significance of the firehouses is their relationship to the development of the city during four distinct periods of construction. During the first two periods (pre-Civil War and the years between 1865-1897), the buildings were constructed in already established neighborhoods. During the third and fourth periods (1897-1916 and 1925-1945), their location was more calculated. Often firehouses were constructed in anticipation of development or to attract residents to new neighborhoods.”

Maybe you’re still hoping for that beach vacation – so if you’re in Puerto Rico be sure to visit the Parque de Bombas de Ponce (Ponce Firehouse, NAID 131518608) at Plaza Las Delicias. “In 1820, two great fires affected the city of Ponce; one destroyed a great part of the center of the city; and the other gutted 80% of Ponce’s port zone, paralyzing all commercial trade to the southern section of Puerto Rico. Because of this problem and public concern, in 1853, an official voluntary firemen service for the central urban area of Ponce; the Municipal Firemen Service Force, was created; its main commitment was to fight and prevent fires.”

If you’re a fan of Groundhog Day, you’ll remember that Gobbler’s Knob is the home of Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. But there is also a Gobbler’s Knob Fire Lookout (NAID 75611430), in Ashford, Washington, within the confines of Mount Rainier National Park. “Constructed from plans drawn by the NPS Branch of Plans and Design under the supervision of Acting Chief Architect Edwin A. Nickel, this lookout was one of the four fire lookouts of similar design constructed in the park between 1932 and 1934 . . . The lookout is presently manned on weekends during the sunnier season for visitor assistance and interpretation.”

“Gobbler’s Knob is one of the four remaining fire lookouts at Mount Rainier . . . These lookouts have played a significant role in the protection of natural resources in the park and in the surrounding national forest lands. Although aerial fire detection has somewhat reduced the importance of lookouts in recent years, they still play a significant role in visitor interpretation and assistance, as a backcountry patrol base, and during extreme fire danger periods.

Gobbler’s Knob Fire Lookout (from NAID 75611430).

You can find more records about fire lookouts in the National Archives Catalog.

Photograph of Sign Board Near Demond Hill Fire Lookout Tower (NAID 2127777).

If you’re done climbing up fire lookouts, you can also get your share of fire observation stations around the country. Within the New York State Forest Preserve, there are more than 100 fire observation towers around the state, ten of which are described in the New York MPS Fire Observation Stations of New York State Forest Preserve MPS (NAID 75315316).  “The Fire Observation Stations of the NYS Forest Preserve are closely associated with the development of the state’s forest preserve, the first public preserve in the United States that predates the federal system, and the development of the state Forest Ranger service. While the primary purpose of the stations was to provide early warning of forest fires, the observation towers in the forest preserve were also instrumental in stimulating and managing recreational use in the early twentieth century, and cultivating within the public a modern conservation ethic. As such, they also represent the first public recreational structures in the nation’s first forest preserve.”

Many of the fire lookouts and observation towers were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), like the Arkansas MPS Tall Peak Fire Tower (NAID 26140200), which was “constructed circa 1938 by members of the 742nd Company of the Arkansas CCC District stationed at the Mena Camp that was located approximately eight miles to the northwest, near the small town of Shady. It was constructed to function as a fire and observation tower to help prevent the forest fires that heretofore had ravaged the forest with devastating effect. As such, the Tall Peak Fire Tower remains significant through its associations with the contributions to American social history made by the Civilian Conservation Corps, its associations with the emphasis upon conservation of our natural resources that was the original mandate of the CCC, and its status as an excellent example of the more functional CCC architecture in a remarkable state of preservation.”

Photograph of Fire Warden Station Sign (NAID 2128278).

Finally, while not a fire observation tower, there is a unique structure that is the “Lillian Coit Memorial Tower (Coit Tower) located atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California. It was constructed between 1932 and 1933 as a memorial to the volunteer firemen who died in the five major fires in San Francisco’s history. Designed in the Art Deco style by architect Arthur Brown, Jr., assisted by Henry Howard, the tower rises 180 feet from its base with a public observation deck thirty-two feet below the top. It is constructed in three cylinders, one inside the other. The interior is adorned with twenty-five frescoes painted by various artists as part of the Public Works Art Project between 1933 and 1934. Coit Tower retains a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.  Despite its exterior appearance, “the tower was not designed to resemble a fire hose.” – California SP Coit Memorial Tower (NAID 123861079).

Coit Tower from (NAID 123861079).

So, make sure that your campfires are out before you head out on that hike – as Smokey the Bear says, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

Billy the Kid Trail – Smokey the Bear State Park (NAID: 7717353, Local ID: 406-NSB-011).