(This column was first published in the June 11, 2001 Buffalo News.)
Is there a youngster alive who, after racing up a steep trail, doesn't want to continue on up the hundred-or-so steps of a mountaintop fire tower? Or at the opposite extreme, is there any out-of-breath parent who has staggered up that same path and now has any interest whatsoever in climbing any further? Most of us oldies are more prepared to lie prostrate for an hour or so before starting back down that bolder-strewn trail.
That may be true but I have great affection for fire towers. I don't claim that they are attractive architecturally. Still, they remain the one man-made structure that doesn't seem to me to detract from the beauty of the surrounding forests.
When I was one of those eager youngsters, fire towers were still active and individually staffed by Forest Service employees. Those observers in their tiny toothpick-like structures represented the front-line of our meager defense against forest fires.
Most are gone now. Airplanes replaced them but they were soon grounded by budget cuts. Today a single individual monitors vast areas by satellite-connected computer. Remarkable efficiency but obtained at the sacrifice of many jobs.
In the 1920s three towers were erected in Allegany State Park — one on South Mountain overlooking Salamanca, a second near the Bradford park entrance and a third on Mount Tuscarora south of the Quaker Run headquarters. The Bradford tower is gone; the others need repair.
One of the early observers was Anastasia Gray, grandmother of Mary Jones, academic dean at Dubois College in Pennsylvania. Professor Jones recently shared some of her memories of her grandmother: "We all adored her. She knew the job was important but she was a social person. Up in the tower all day, down only for lunch, happy, cheerful, laughed at her own expense, always sociable and pretty. And I think that's what made her so good at her job. She loved all those visitors who climbed the tower every year."
"There was a cabin up there behind the tower. In early spring and late fall when it was cold she commuted from Salamanca but most of the summer she lived up there, alone. She never was afraid. My cousins and I used to love to go up there and stay with her. We had to bring water in bottles; there wasn't any electricity, just kerosene lamps."
"Bears used to come around the cabin when they could smell bacon frying or something. Gramma showed us how to beat on a pan to scare them off. I remember once we were playing on the steps of the tower. Gramma was up in the cabin on top and couldn't see. A bear came out of the woods and started up the stairs. We were dodging from platform to platform and encouraging him, 'Here Bear, come here bear.' She got a little upset about that."
Spring and fall are fire seasons but Mary said her grandmother was much busier in the summer when long lines of campers would climb the tower to enjoy the view with her. Anastasia had them sign her books and she'd have 800-1000 signatures a year. "People came from all over the world and she exchanged Christmas cards with many of them."
A group called the Allegany State Park Firetower Committee is working hard to restore Anastasia's Summit tower. Among other things, they will install, at its base, a kiosk that will detail the tower's history. They're selling a souvenir Summit Firetower patch to raise money. To buy one send a check for five dollars or more to: Natural Heritage Trust Fund, 2373 ASP Route 1, Suite 3, Salamanca NY 14779-9756.