In the 1930s, lookout towers were used around Ohio to monitor and identify forest fires. Between 1924 and 1978 more than 30 lookout towers were built and operated in Ohio. By the late 1970s, though, their role was completely replaced by airplanes and now residents with cell phones are the best way to get a handle on spotting forest fires.
New this year at the Ohio State Fair Natural Resources Park is a refurbished fire lookout tower on display right behind Smoky Bear. The original Armintrout 71-foot-tall fire lookout tower was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of an early warning system in spotting forest fires. Originally located in Pike County, the tower was recently taken down and moved to the fairgrounds to reinforce the message of forest fire safety and provide a link to Ohio’s past.
The refurbishing process for the tower included sandblasting, acid dipping, and re-galvanization of the metal legs, as well as replacement of the wooden landing and stairs using wood grown and sawn on Ohio’s “green certified” state forests. The tower was shortened to 60 feet tall in its current location.
The tower (though not open to unassisted public visits) offers a great view of the State Fair.
“You can see as far as downtown Columbus, the Horseshow and of course the midway,” said Jim Zehringer, ODNR director. “We thought it would add to Smoky Bear that helps promote wildfire reduction and that having this here would enhance that opportunity.”
The lookout tower features an Osborne Fire Finder on an alidade, a circular tool with a peep sight and horsehair crosspiece that rotates to look in the direction of the fire. The stationary outer ring is marked with degrees. This was used to determine the location of the fire and its distance from the tower. If a fire could be seen from multiple towers it could more accurately be located through triangulation on a map.
Here are some more fire tower facts from ODNR.
- The first fire tower was built in 1924 — Copperhead Tower in Shawnee State Forest. This tower was recently renovated with help from the Ohio Woodlands Job Corps.
- The tallest towers were 100 feet, three were built, and two remain standing, at Blue Rock and Sugar Grove.
- The total number of fire towers once standing was 40.
- Two towers remain on the Wayne National Forest, one having been relocated next to the U.S. Forest Service Headquarters on US 33 near Nelsonville.
- Most towers, when closed in the late 1970s, were dismantled and sold for scrap metal. Those that were on leased lands reverted to the property owners.
Today, there are 20 towers remaining and seven are in state parks and open for public viewing. They represent technology long ago outdated and still overlook some of Ohio’s more beautiful scenery in the rolling hills of southern and eastern Ohio.
In our conversation, Director Zehringer recalled tales of the days of the region’s earliest white settlements when it was said a squirrel could travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie and never touch the ground. Believe it or not, the state is still is home to beautiful unbroken forests that harken back to Ohio’s earliest days, and a number of them sprawl out beneath the ever-watchful eyes of Ohio’s remaining fire lookout towers.