Red Hill Fire Observation Station
Fire tower in 2008
|Location||Denning, New York|
|Nearest city||Kingston, New York|
|MPS||Fire Observation Stations of New York State Forest Preserve MPS|
|NRHP Reference #||01001030|
|Added to NRHP||2001|
The Red Hill Fire Observation Station consists of a fire lookout tower, cabin and pit privy located on the summit of Red Hill, a 2,990-foot (910 m) Catskill Mountain peak in Denning, New York, United States. It is the southernmost fire tower in the Catskill Park.
One of the last state towers built, in 1920, it filled a missing link in the Catskills’ forest fire detection network. Except for a few brief periods of closure, observers working for the state conservation agencies manned the tower through 1990, making it the last fire tower closed in the Catskills. The abandoned tower and its views of the region remained a popular destination for local hikers, and it was slated to be torn down in accordance with state policy prohibiting nonessential structures on Forest Preserveland. Preservationists and forest historians campaigned to save and restore it and four other Catskill fire towers, and in the early 21st century they were listed on theNational Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Red Hill’s observer’s cabin, included as part of the listing, is one of the oldest such buildings in New York.
A short trail was constructed to provide access to hikers, since the road used by the observers was later closed by the private landowner. Hikers continue to climb the peak and tower for its views of the Catskill High Peaks to the north
The tower is a 60-foot (18 m) high steel frame Aermotor structure, anchored by bolts into the exposed bedrock, with a glazed steel cab on top reached by an eight-flightstaircase. It is located in a grassy clearing of roughly 500 square feet (46 m2), just east of the mountain’s summit, along a narrow ridge. At the clearing’s west end, the upper end of the trail and the mountain’s true summit, is the rustic one-room cabin where observers lived during their shifts in the tower. Just to its north is a small woodenprivy. Two picnic tables are in the area between the cabin and the tower.
The cabin is a small, one-story, 14-by-24-foot (4.3 by 7.3 m) gable-roofed frame building. It is sided with “brainstorm”, edge board stained reddish-brown. It has a mortaredrubblestone foundation and a covered porch on the south elevation, originally decked in wood but since replaced with concrete. Built in 1931, it is one of the oldest remaining observer’s cabins in New York, a rare intact example of the earlier style used by the then-state Conservation Commission.
The tower and cabin are old enough to be considered contributing resources to the NRHP listing. The privy and picnic tables were added later for the convenience of hikers, and are not contributing.
The biggest challenge to New York following the establishment of the Forest Preserve in 1885 had been fire control and prevention. Illegal logging operations often disposed of their remaining slash by setting it on fire without remaining to make sure it burned out safely and sparks from the steam locomotives of the region’s railroads also caused conflagrations.
In 1889 members of the Balsam Lake Club built the Catskills’ first fire tower on the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain; twenty years later, after the fires two drought-plagued summers had taken a heavy toll on the forests, the state’s Forest, Fish and Game Commission (FFGC) took it over as part of a new strategy, proven successful in Maine. of putting trained observers in strategically placed towers to spot the first traces of fire and report its location via dedicated telephone lines. The state built its first tower on Greene County‘s highest peak, Hunter Mountain later in 1909, and within a decade there were several others throughout the range and in the nearby Shawangunks.
In 1919, the Conservation Commission, which the FFGC had become, found that there was still a large area of the southern Catskills, in Sullivan and Ulster counties, poorly served by the existing towers. Red Hill was chosen as the site for a new tower (supposedly after political pressure forced the state to reconsider Sullivan County’s Denman Mountain to the south), and early in 1920 a forest ranger brought the disassembled tower up to the summit via horse-drawn wagon. A state crew cut a road through the Dibble farm up from nearby Red Hill Road, strung the telephone line along it, and put up the tower and cabin later that year.
The cabin was replaced with the current one in 1931. There were no other changes to the site during its years of use. Former observers spoke fondly of the job, whose only serious risk was lightning strikes on the tower while they were in it, which slightly injured a few of them. Many of them kept busy during idle stretches by maintaining the road and telephone line, and hobbies such as woodcarving. They also entertained hikers and other visitors who came up the road from the Dibble farm. It was sometimes necessary for them to live off the land, harvesting wild plants, particularly leeks, and game in the nearby woods, as the cabin had no electricity. They drew their water from a spring at the base of a small cliff on the mountain’s west slope, about 0.3 mile (0.48 km) from the tower via a short path.
In 1971 the state briefly closed the tower, but it was reopened the next year due to problems with communications in that region. The Dibbles sold their farm in the early 1980s, and the new owner was not as hospitable to hikers, closing it off to all but state access per its easement. Shortly afterward it was closed, as the fire risk to the region had declined since the early 20th century due to the decline of the railroads and logging and the public’s greater vigilance in reporting fires. But a renewed period of heavy fires led the state to reopen it in 1987. This time it remained in use until 1990, the last fire tower in the Catskills to be closed.
Preservation and restoration
George Profous, a forester for what had by then become the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wrote in an early 1990s planning document that the aged, deteriorating tower should be dismantled and removed, not only due to its age but because, out of use, it was no longer permitted on state-owned Forest Preserve land, which New York’s constitution requires be kept forever wild. Worried residents of Denning and the nearby hamlet of Claryville contacted the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, a regional advocacy group, to see what they could do to save it, a development Profous had been hoping for. DEC’s guidelines governing the use of the Forest Preserve do allow the retention of otherwise incompatible structures within it if they enhance the public’s understanding of the Forest Preserve, and many visitors and past observers wrote about how seeing the vastness of the Catskill wildlands at once helped them appreciate the importance of protecting it.
Within a few years, the campaign had gotten all five remaining Catskill fire towers listed on the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Historic Lookout Register and later the NRHP. State grants matched by money raised through local efforts such as bake sales, dances, fundraising drives, raffling of a quilt and T-shirt sales raised enough money to begin restoring the tower and cabin in 1998. Volunteers from the New York–New Jersey Trail Conference extended the path from the tower to the spring into a trail that would remain within state land down the mountain’s never-logged northwestern slope to a new trailhead, avoiding the closed road. When all these efforts were complete, in 2000, the Red Hill tower became the first of the restored Catskill fire towers to be reopened to the public.
The tower today
The tower is located within a discontiguous parcel of the Sundown Wild Forest management unit. The old road still exists, but is now closed even to state use. Access is via the trail, which begins on Dinch Road, an old, rocky dirt road that winds down around the mountain’s northwest slope towards the East Branch of the Neversink River. The trail follows yellow plastic markers 1.5 miles (2.4 km) and vertically 890 feet (271 m) up to the tower. Along the way are 10 numbered wooden signs corresponding to listings in an interpretive brochure created by the Red Hill Fire Tower Committee, available at the trail register. They identify plant species found in the area of the markers, many common to Catskill forests.
At the summit, volunteer guides man the tower on weekends with good weather between late June and early October every year. There are guides available to bring visitors to the cab of the Firetower on holiday weekends, including Columbus Day. The cab is equipped with paper cutouts identifying the mountains and other landmarks visible within the 50-mile (80 km) area of the tower on clear days. This 360-degree panorama is dominated by Peekamoose and Tablemountains, southernmost of the Catskill High Peaks, and other features of the Slide Mountain Wilderness Area to the north. To the southeast the view takes in theShawangunk Ridge and the Hudson Valley beyond. It is possible to see the river itself, as well as New Jersey‘s highest mountain, High Point, when visibility is at its maximum. The southwest horizon is in Northeastern Pennsylvania‘s Poconos, the southern extension of the Catskills. Elk Mountain, the highest in Pennsylvania outside of the Alleghenies, can be seen.
The cabin is also open. It is used as an informal museum of fire protection in the Catskills, with wall displays showing how that was accomplished and artifacts within the cabin showing how observers lived. The porch and picnic tables are available for use. Since the summit is below 3,500 feet (1,067 m) in elevation,camping is permitted year-round.
History of the Red Hill Fire Tower – as of May 2000.
Nested in the Catskill Mountains, built in 1920, the Red Hill Fire Tower sits at 2,990 feet in the hamlet of Claryville, Denning Township, Ulster County, New York. It is an aeromotor type steel tower which stands 60 feet from the ground to the top where a 7 X 7 foot observers cab resides. The steel for the tower was brought up the mountain with a horse and wagon. Leo Sheley drove the wagon and Don Wood’s (past observer from Sundown) great great uncle helped. When it became too steep for the horses, the men hand carried the steel the rest of the way.
Elmer Schultz was the first observer, 1920-1938 and the initial access to the tower was on a foot path from his farm off Red Hill Road. Elmer had cows, pigs, a big chicken coop and a big garden. He plowed with two work horses named “Dick” and “Jane”. He also made wooden scoops on a hand-turned lathe and traded them at the Claryville General Store for flour, sugar and other supplies. His second wife Millie made delicious pancakes every morning on their wood stove. Elmer’s brother John lived on Barnes Road across from the Q&N Club in Ezra Ackerley house. They had a signal system set up from the valley to the tower at the top of the mountain. They would hang different colored sheets of material outside with various meanings like; “Come for support”, “Emergency”, “Yes”, “No”, etc. According to Dot Conklin of Claryville, “He was a nice guy who would do anything for you anytime..”
Ed Lewis was the next observer from 1938-1958. He was an uncle to Harold Van Aken, Supervisor of the Town of Denning from 1959-1988. The following information is from Harold. Ed was very proud of his uniform. He would often take his dog “Jake” to the tower with him, but Jake would not go up the tower stairs. Ed Lewis had an agreement with Mr. Dibble to go up to the tower over his property. Around 1938 or 1940, shale was taken out of Dibble’s bank to make a road. This road went in front of what is now the Switzler house.
Dibble’s property had a history of growing wonderful potatoes. Mr. Dibble would sell potatoes and lamb to those going up to the tower. When visitors came down, their lamb would be butchered and ready to go. The Dibble property was sold to Dopf/Conklin.
Ed Lewis had a farm on Red Hill where he raised sheep. His wife Bertha took care of the farm in the summer when he was on duty at the tower. They eventually sold that property and moved down to Claryville where they had a big garden and took in hunters during hunting season.
Then Mr. Kilby bought some property on Red Hill Road and he also bought the Dopf/Conklin property. Around 1958/59, a new road was established to the tower with access from Red Hill Road. Mr. Kilby would not sell any property to the State, but did allow access to the tower. There was never a right-of-way granted to the State. A trip to the tower was an annual ritual of many local families in the area. They would pick blueberries and have a picnic lunch while enjoying the view and talking to the observer.
Claude DePew, from Sundown, was the next observer from 1958-1966. Claude climbed the tower with a wooden leg. His wooden leg was from a logging accident. He was a great story teller of bear and hunting stories. His wife Susie (still living in Sundown) and their daughter would go up the tower with Claude and stay in the cabin in the summertime. He had an electric generator and a phone. The phone line to the tower was a party line that served the rest of Red Hill.
Claude was not very fond of heights. When he and Ranger Herb Lepke Jr., were putting a new roof on the tower, they unscrewed the old bolts, and with a long pole, lifted up the old roof and “let her fly”. When Claude looked up and saw nothing but blue sky, he said “Get me out of here.” and down they went.
There was another wooden tower built on Red Hill near the present tower, around 1939 or 1940. It was not a fire tower. It was built by Bob Swink, a ham radio operator. A hurricane in the 1950’s took it down.
The next observer was Reeves Sennett, from Liberty, New York, who had the job for three years, 1967-1969. He had very bad diabetes and often his wife went up to the tower with him. She is still living in Liberty. Reeves made a very good “Smokey the Bear” and loved doing it.
Mr. Kilby sold his property in the 1970’s and the new owner closed the tower road to the public.
Don Wood from Sundown was the observer from 1972-1991, and lived in Sundown until his death in 2002. Don’s grandfather Fred Wood was a Forest Ranger, but never served Red Hill. Don told us that at the slightest frost the steps up the tower were like glass and he would have to sand each step as he went up. One day, with the sky showing no warning, he started to get static on his radio. Then a bolt of lightning hit the tower guy wires and traveled in a blue streak to the ground where it hit in a 7 foot ball of blue flame. One time lightning hit the telephone wire while Don was on the phone and it burned his lip and knocked him off his chair.
Red Hill Fire Tower was the last manned tower in the Catskills and Don was on duty until 1991.
The fire tower observers watched for forest fires from this and many other fire towers in the Catskills. They were up in March or April through the summer into October and sometimes November. They would stock 5 days food in the cabin in case they had to stay over night on the job. They were part-time at first, with no compensation for off-time. But in later years they were given unemployment for their months off duty.
If the observers saw smoke, they could triangulate its position (with the use of a map and alidade) with other fire towers. Red Hill was always an excellent spot for communication in the region. The hotest fires are in the spring when the new leaves are budding. There were many fires in the 1960’s. In 1992, 170 acres burned on Denman Mountain just across the valley. (Origionally the tower was suppose to be built on Denman Mountain, but “politics” had it changed to Ulster County and on Red Hill.)
As airplane overflights and local fire departments increased throughout the region, it was felt that the observers and towers were no longer needed. The Red Hill tower was the last to close in 1991. Only five of these towers remain standing today. Five Volunteer Citizen Committees are restoring them under the auspices of NYSDEC and the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.
Helen and George Elias, owning a home on Red Hill, with interest on preserving the tower, formed, lead, and coordinated The Red Hill Fire Tower Restoration Committee, PO Box 24, Grahamsville, New York 12740. The Committee was formed in 1996 and the tower is scheduled to re-open July 15, 2000.
There is no road access. Instead, a new hiking footpath to the tower, entirely on state land, was constructed by the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference and the NYSDEC, in the fall of 1996. The trail starts from Dinch Road in the Denning Township, and is 2.2 miles round trip with an ascent of 890 feet to the tower.
The restoration materials, new steel braces for the tower, nuts and bolts, roofing shingles for the cabin, a picnic table, cement and supplies, and other materials were flown in by helicopter in the fall of 1999.
The Red Hill Fire Tower Restoration Committee Members
(as of October 1999)
~ Priscilla & Emmett Bassett
~ Helen Budrock (Catskill Center)
~ George Dean
~ Helen & George Elias (Helen is the Chairman of the Committee)
~ Robert E. Graham
~ Carl Landon
~ David Porter
~ George Profous (Senior Forester NYSDEC)
~ Steve Selwyn
~ Peggy Smith (Town Board Liaison)
~ Claudia Swain
Rangers who have served the Red Hill Fire Tower
(as of October 1999)
~ J. Bruce Lindsley
~ Bill Morrissey
~ Bernie & Charlie O’Neal (Bernie died of appendicitis attack. Charlie had been observer at Chapin Hill and took over for his brother.)
~ Herb Lepke Jr. (District was split according to town lines and he lost Red Hill.)
~ Pete Fish
~ Jim Kesel
~ Hilda Webb (One of the first female Rangers.)
~ Andy Jacob
~ Steve Ovitt
~ Robert Zurek
~ Steve Preston
The Rangers always worked very hard. It was not an 8 hour day way back. They stayed on the job until the job was done. On top of their other responsibilities, they maintained the tower road, the tower, the cabin, and built anything needed. They re-roofed, painted, and repaired, with the help of the observers, they did it all !
Over the years departments, boundaries, and duties changed, but to this day the Rangers watch over the 5 towers still standing in the Catskills.