(SLSE Railroad)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition, where 450 of 700 stories originate
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

(Click to send email)
Site founded Sept. 1, 2000. We passed 5 million page views on June 6, 2011
The home pages remain free of any charge. We need donations or subscriptions to continue.
Please pass on this website link to your family, relatives, friends and clients.

Fire Watchers and their
Towers in the North Cascades

(Mount Pilchuck tower)
Mount Pilchuck Fire Lookout 1940s. Gaze at this scene of a lookout tower amid the crags around Mount Pilchuck. Forester Harry Osborne lived here all summer and part of the fall. Imagine how much he must have loved that feeling of solitude far away from any noise except that of nature. The tower was built near Granite Falls in the Verlot district in 1918, overlooking the north fork of Stillaguamish river on one side and Pilchuck river on the other. The building crew had to employ a hand winch to pull construction material up rocky cliffs. At elevation 5,324 feet, the structure is hip-roofed D-6 style, and is now maintained by Everett branch of The Mountaineers, with an interpretive center, which features photographs and artifacts. Lookouts book: As late as 1950, the trail was ten miles long from the Mountain Loop highway below;. Later a ski development brought a road up to 3,200 feet, so the trail from there is now two miles long. The trail was rebuilt in 1995 and now attracts thousands of hikers in the area so they can see the whole Cascade range from Mount Baker to Mount Rainier. Subject of a book written in 1949: Pilchuck, the life of a mountain, by Harry Higman and Earl Larrison.

      We featured the firewatching towers of the Cascades as one of the first stories on this site two years ago, with the help of Skagit River Journal subscribers Cecil and Betty Hittson. We also interviewed Maxine Meyers about her firewatching days and then Journal subscriber and Sedro-Woolley High School graduate Dr. Quentin Belles shared his own memories of firefighting in the good old days, which we incorporated in the first update. The photos with the article are from a scrapbook of Harry Osborne, who was a forester for 43 years until he retired on May 10, 1963. Like Howard Miller of Sedro-Woolley, he had such an impact on the area that a special natural resource was named after him: the Harry Osborne State Forest. Betty is Harry's daughter.
      Two years later, we are updating the story to feature a book that we urge you to read if you want to learn more about these structures that were so important a half century and more ago, and the unique individuals who manned them. Lookouts, firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics, written by brothers-in-law Ira Spring and the late Byron Fish, has been released in a second edition, updating their original wonderful research of the early 1980s. By the time they started tramping through the briars and blackberries to find the towers still standing, new technology like mobile air surveillance was fully taking hold
      By the 1970s, the function of the towers was largely supplemented by new technology, and the threat of attractive-nuisance suits helped convince the Feds to tear down many of the old towers after they were decommissioned. Both federal and state governments largely stopped funding maintenance, so volunteer organizations have formed over the last decade to restore and protect the few remaining towers and some were actually carted downhill to museums. Hikers literally tripped over the remains of some towers, which were covered by the rigorous undergrowth in their remote locations for a decade or more. Spring and Fish, who had a large following in the Seattle Times, counted 466 tower sites on that first survey.

In June 2003, we updated this whole section after reading John Suiter's book, Poets on the Peaks, which rapidly ascended to the highest tier of our reference library. He wrote a beautiful narrative of the fire lookout towers and the Dharma beat poets who manned them from 1952-56: Gary Snyder and the late Philip Whelan and the late Jack Kerouac. We plan to expand on that story within the next year and we hope that readers will provide copies or scans of photos, or copies of articles about the subject.

      They told many unusual stories of the watchers, who were prepared to be alone on a mountain ridge in a tower measuring less than 200 square feet. Towers were sometimes built on nearby ridges so that two watchers could combine their observations of a section of forest, which enabled them to triangulate and more accurately call in resources to fight fires. A broad spectrum of watchers developed, from college students to housewives to hermits and those who loved to be surrounded by wilderness and mountains. The authors discovered one watcher who was so frightened during a lightning storm that he ran all the way down the mountain. Our favorite story was the one about Nels Bruseth, who later became a famous forestry supervisor in Snohomish county and compiled and saved many of the most important early records of the mountains:
      Nels Bruseth, the lookout on Pugh Mountain [Monte Cristo area], who ran down the 6-mile trail every Saturday evening to take his girlfriend to the weekly dance in Darrington. After the dance he would climb up the 6,000 feet to be back on his job by daybreak.
Another watcher created a major problem:
    Any time, any amount, please help build our travel and research fund for what promises to be a very busy 2011, traveling to mine resources from California to Washington and maybe beyond. Depth of research determined by the level of aid from readers. Because of our recent illness, our research fund is completely bare. See many examples of how you can aid our project and help us continue for another ten years. And subscriptions to our optional Subscribers Online Magazine (launched 2000) by donation too. Thank you.

We recently visited our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, which is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down comforters, pillows, featherbeds and duvet covers and bed linens. Order directly from their website and learn more about this intriguing local business.

      One of Byron's Saturday Evening Post articles tells of a less than happy young man who kept watch at the Three Fingers Lookout in the 1930s. The structure on the 6,854-foot peak is surrounded on three sides by 1,000-foot drop-offs and on the fourth by the Queest-Aib Glacier. A forest Service rescue party had to be dispatched to Three Fingers one foggy day because the firewatcher had developed such a bad case of acrophobia he couldn't get off the cabin floor. All those stories, with their spectacular mountain settings and cast of heroic, eccentric, and ascetic characters, are what Byron loved about lookouts.
Others emulated the very early pioneers by living for weeks on only the allocation of supplies that were packed in with them. They were on their own if they ran out of anything, just like those who braved the mountains a century before.

Jack Kerouac and Desolation Peak

Mist before the peak
— the dream
goes on
The sound of silence
      is all the instruction
You'll get — Haiku by Jack Kerouac

      The most famous firewatcher was Jack Kerouac, who spent part of the summer of 1956 in the tower at Desolation Peak near Mount Hozomeen and the U.S.-Canada border. Like some other watchers of the day, he anticipated his time there as a period of reflection and meditation and cleansing in the solitude. His friend, poet Gary Snyder, signed on as a fire lookout earlier — at Crater in 1952 and Sourdough in 1953, but was blacklisted by the Feds and did not return for 1954, the "high summer of the great fear," as historian David Caute described it. Snyder's Reed College friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen manned Sauk Mountain in 1953, then Sourdough in 1954 and 1955. Snyder was the one who alerted Kerouac to the joys and solitude of the mountains. All those sites north of the Skagit are part of the Mount Baker National Forest that was originally patrolled by the legendary ranger Tommy Thompson.
      Whatever Kerouac thought he was seeking, he found what many others did: monotony and boredom after the initial excitement. We learn from the Ann Charters biography, Kerouac, a Biography, that Jack came up from California in mid-June 1956, attended a fire-watching school for a week and then spent eight weeks on the mountain after being packed in on muleback. On the climb upwards he saw the charred snags that stood witness to the flash fire of 1919 that led to name of Desolation, part of the Starvation Ridge area. Nary a fire threatened his assigned area that summer so he spent much of his time on the routine chores of chopping wood, collecting bucketsful of snow for washing and cooking, communicating on the two-way radio, pacing about on the narrow trails, chewing Beech Nut gum and smoking his roll-yer-owns.

      He slept on a wooden bunk with a rope mattress in the sleeping bag Snyder helped him pick out in Oakland. To amuse himself he baked rye muffins, played a baseball game with a pack of cards that he'd invented when he was a boy in Lowell, and picked a few sprigs of alpine fire and a wild flower every day to put in a coffee cup on his desk. Jack wrote at the desk facing away from looming Mount Hozomeen on his north, the dark, naked rock of Hozomeen coming to symbolize for him 'the Void,' with its clouds and thunderstorms, the two sharp peaks of Hozomeen looming in his window as he lay in bed, 'the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world.' During the long afternoons he sat in his canvas chair facing 'Void Hozomeen,' listening to the silence of his cabin and making up haikus.
      His experience that summer is the kernel of his later book, Desolation Angels, the companions he imagined dancing out of the fog along the ridge. The North Cascades Institute in Sedro-Woolley offers a course based on the experience of Jack Kerouac and his writing.

Birth of the U.S. Forest Service
      In Lookouts, we learn that the American Forestry Association was formed in 1875 soon after a terrible fire wiped out more than 1.3 million acres of forest near Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and took 1,300 lives in 1871. In 1891 the U.S. Congress gave President Benjamin Harrison authority to withdraw public lands and establish forest preserves. He and his successor, Grover Cleveland, set aside 34 million acres including the Pacific Forest Reserve, including huge parcels in Washington state. Aside from thwarting the "paper homesteaders" who were hired by land and timber developers to squat on wild land and then sell it, the Department of the Interior and the General Land Office were more successful with establishing empire than they were in addressing forest fires and prevention. The latter would become a prime goal only when Gifford Pinchot was appointed as director of the Forest Division at age 33 in 1898. The timing was superb because Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901 after the death of William McKinley and demonstrated his genuine love for the wild and largely undeveloped West. He soon added 132 million acres to the reserves, which were transferred to the department of Agriculture in 1905. The U.S. Forest Service was formed in 1907 and Pinchot continued as its head until 1910.
(Mrs. Buchanan retired)
A Mrs. Buchanan retired from her lookout work for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources in 1959 after 17 years service. You can read more about her in the story below. Click on her picture for a photo of the Entwistle tower. Note the flattop design, the lightning rod, flag pole, guy wires to stabilize it and communications wires. Photos courtesy Betty (Osborne) Hittson from the Harry Osborne collection.

      Soon, the first watchers camped in tents called "rag houses". Then sighting instruments were perfected — including the "Osborne Firefinder" and the signaling heliofinder, leading to construction of cabins and towers in more remote and strategic sites. Before mountain roads were built of a size to accomodate trucks, the materials were largely packed in on backs or on mules, and then another team had to slog through the brush, stringing telephone wire before the use of two-way radios. The climax of construction was in the period of 1929-35 during the Depression. Costs were kept to a minimum by incorporating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which President Franklin D. Roosevelt built up to 250,000 young men, then 500,000. These men from all over the country, especially urban areas, learned to adapt to the wilderness as they built 60,000 miles of trail and 600 lookouts. World War II diverted funds and then after the war, airplanes and helicopters began taking over many of the firewatching duties and brave men parachuted into areas impossible to reach by roads. In addition, by the 1990s thousands of hikers and visitors and became a fire-watching network of their own. We wonder if Pinchot ever even dreamed of the use of cell phones to report flare-ups. The authors point out that even though firewatchers have dwindled in numbers, their human abilities may be appreciated again when the cost of more advanced technology becomes prohibitive.
      The book is jam-packed photos and tables that supply data about individual sites, along with descriptions of the four kinds of towers and the area around them. The authors emphasize that they did not write Lookouts as a guide book because some site are truly dangerous and because many have been plundered by souvenir seekers. Ira notes that he began hiking to the peaks in 1937; his initial assignment was to photograph the towers and their remains or ruins. Byron died in 1996, around the time that the second edition of their book was published.

Click on these thumbnails for full-sized photos of firewatch towers:
(Nooksack Lookout)
(Mount Josephine Tower)

(Cedar Mountain lookout)
(Mrs. Buchanan retired)
Upper left: Nooksack Fire Station 1940s. This is the flattop style of small observation tower on top of a tall tower. Guy lines keep the tower stable against gusting windstorms. The 14x14-feet-square tower was at 3,350 feet elevation, with a separate sleeping building. Lookout book: this tower was built in 1957 about six miles southeast of Deming in the Van Zandt area.
Upper right: Mount Josephine Fire Station 1940s. This picture was taken in 1960 from the Mount Josephine fire station. Harry Osborne is pointing and that is possibly Dale Thompson beside him. They are looking over the Harry Osborne State Forest. Lookout book: the tower was located four miles north of Hamilton. Originally a 7x7-feet-square structure, it was converted to 14x14-feet on a 40-foot tower in 1958.

Lower left: Cedar Mountain Fire Station 1940s. This is a lookout that was built on Cedar Mountain in King County, near Maple Valley, constructed by Fred Fraser, and was used until about 1950. Two trees were cut off about 50 feet high. Two adjoining trees where placed for use as a ladder. A platform was constructed on top of these two trees for use by the lookout person. A tent at the base of the tower housed the lookout person when he was not in the crows next tower.
Lower right: The arrow in this thumbnail points to the Sauk Mountain lookout was, which was especially hard to reach originally when pack teams carried all the construction materials up this rocky ridge in. Click on the thumbnail for the photograph from 1946 that shows the original tower, a D-5 design with a viewing cupola at the top. That was replaced in 1957 by a pre-fab building and tower that flown up in pieces via helicopter. A volunteer maintenance-organization could not be found, so the tower was torn down. The original trail started at river level, but logging roads were cut up the slope starting in 1950 and a 1957 road left just 1.5 miles of trail to climb to the summit, revealing a spectacular view of the Skagit and Sauk rivers and the Illabot peaks to the southeast.

Women firewatchers and resources for researchers
      After we posted the original draft of this story, we received a series of emails from Ray Pruiett, of Mount Vernon, who has a unique perspective on the fire towers and the Cascades. He and his first wife, now Mrs. Laurel N. Clairmont, of Montana, were the instigators and founders of the Skagit Hiking and Mountain Club in 1959. The club was later incorporated as the Skagit Alpine Club. She was also active with Ray in founding the Skagit Mountain Rescue Unit and she once led the search for the US forest Service when a goat hunter fell and needed assistance near Baker Lake, the first time they coordinated a search by helicopter. Mrs. Claimont was an active mountain climber with the Mazamas of Portland and with the Oregon State University Mountain Club in the 1940s and 1950s.
      Ray pointed out after our feature on the late Maxine Meyers and her season at the Mount Josephine lookout tower that women lookouts were very common in the Pacific Northwest: "There were dozens of women lookouts all over the Northwest after 1941, during wartime especially." Many also served as air defense lookouts, and several were decorated for their service. Mrs. Clairmont served as a fire watcher in 1951-1955 and received a commendation.
      A Mrs. Buchanan (pictured above) retired from her lookout work for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources in 1959 after 17 years service, part of it with her late husband. They began working at the Entwistle lookout tower when it was dedicated in 1954. She lived at 837 State street in Sedro-Woolley. Harry Osborne, the Northwest Field Supervisor, praised her for her alertness and her work around the clock, relaying messages to and from the fire lines. "Sometimes we raised orphaned [deer] fawns for the Game Department," she recalled. "Let's see, there was Bambi, Penny and Petunia." From the Lookout book: the Entwistle tower was built in 1954 between Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish, southeast of Bellingham, at elevation 2,676 feet. The tower was named for William Entwistle, whose family homesteaded in the Cascades. He began logging in Washington Territory in 1876 at the age of 12 and later became a key early figure in firefighting.
      In 2005, we heard from Steve Sichau, who is a U.S. Forest Service Regional Electrical Engineer and has worked in the Facilities Engineering Group at the Portland Regional Office for more than 35 years: "This group has designed these Lookout Towers in the past 70 years and I have been involved with digital conversion of drawings for engineering upgrades of older manually drawn engineering drawings. The original drawings are very fragile and we have scanned high quality image available for reference at our websites, here and here.
      We also received a question from a reader named Darlene: "What is a smokerchaser cabin at the base of a fire tower used for? Why is it called that?" We hope a reader can answer.

      Journal ed. note: For more articles like this use the search option below to search related topics. One of our sponsors also provides links to printable pdf documents for you to use as well. If for some reason you need to convert a pdf to word this resource may be of use to you as well. We hope you can find and enjoy everything you are looking for on this site.

Links, background reading and sources
Firewatching towers features completely updated from our original domain
Shared from the archives of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

Other resources

Story posted on Aug. 12, 2002, last updated June 15, 2010
Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine, completely updated Issue 45

Getting lost trying to navigate or find stories on our site?
Read how to sort through our 700-plus stories.
Return to the new-domain home page
Links for portals to subjects and towns
Newest photo features
Search entire site
Our monthly column, Puget Sound Mail (but don't call it a blog)
debuted on Aug. 9, 2009. Check it out.
(bullet) See this Journal Timeline website of local, state, national, international events for years of the pioneer period.
(bullet) Did you enjoy this story? Remember, as with all our features, this story is a draft and will evolve as we discover more information and photos. This process continues until we eventually compile a book about Northwest history. Can you help?
(bullet) Remember; we welcome correction & criticism.
(bullet) Please report any broken links or files that do not open and we will send you the correct link. With more than 700 features, we depend on your report. Thank you.
(bullet) Read about how you can order CDs that include our photo features from the first five years of our Subscribers Edition. Perfect for gifts.

You can click the donation button to contribute to the rising costs of this site. See many examples of how you can aid our project and help us continue for another ten years. You can also subscribe to our optional Subscribers-Paid Journal magazine online, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in September 2010, with exclusive stories, in-depth research and photos that are shared with our subscribers first. You can go here to read the preview edition to see examples of our in-depth research or read how and why to subscribe.

You can read the history websites about our prime sponsors
Would you like information about how to join them in advertising?

(bullet) Our newest sponsor, Plumeria Bay, is based in Birdsview, just a short walk away from the Royal family's famous Stumpranch, and is your source for the finest down comforters, pillows, featherbeds andduvet covers and bed linens. Order directly from their website and learn more about this intriguing local business.
(bullet) Oliver-Hammer Clothes Shop at 817 Metcalf Street in downtown Sedro-Woolley, 90 years continually in business.
(bullet) Peace and quiet at the Alpine RV Park, just north of Marblemount on Hwy 20, day, week or month, perfect for hunting or fishing. Park your RV or pitch a tent — for as little as $5 per night — by the Skagit River, just a short drive from Winthrop or Sedro-Woolley. Alpine is doubling in capacity for RVs and camping in 2011.
(bullet) Joy's Sedro-Woolley Bakery-Cafe at 823 Metcalf Street in downtown Sedro-Woolley.
(bullet) Check out Sedro-Woolley First section for links to all stories and reasons to shop here first
or make this your destination on your visit or vacation.
(bullet) Are you looking to buy or sell a historic property, business or residence?
We may be able to assist. Email us for details.

Looking for something special on our site? Enter name, town or subject, then press "Find" Search this site powered by FreeFind
    Did you find what you were seeking? We have helped many people find individual names or places, so email if you have any difficulty.
    Tip: Put quotation marks around a specific name or item of two words or more, and then experiment with different combinations of the words without quote marks. We are currently researching some of the names most recently searched for — check the list here. Maybe you have searched for one of them?
Please sign our guestbook so our readers will know where you found out about us, or share something you know about the Skagit River or your memories or those of your family. Share your reactions or suggestions or comment on our Journal. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to visit our site.

View My Guestbook
Sign My Guestbook
Email us at: skagitriverjournal@gmail.com
(Click to send email)
Mail copies/documents to Street address: Skagit River Journal, 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, WA, 98284.