(Editor’s note: This is the sixth part in a series about fire towers in Missouri.)
“Don’t forget the wooden towers” is the cry I have received in several emails.
Although my collected information on the wooden towers is not up to the steel, I have gathered some interesting pictures and ideas over the years.
One paper here has the old wooden tower at Deer Run listed as the first in the state. The steel tower there was the first metal tower.
Deer Run may have a double first. Many present and past steel tower sites were predated by wooden ones. Wooden towers were also popular during the war years as steel was needed for the war effort.
In the enclosed picture at Proctor, you can see the footings for the previous wooden tower in the foreground and the present steel tower in the back. As Jim Parker pointed out to me, notice the different method for attaching the wood to the concrete.
Instead of bolts the wooden tower footings had “straps” set in the concrete and then attached to the legs. The steel tower at Proctor (moved from Swedeborg) replaced the wooden tower which stood there from 1946 to 1974.
These wooden towers could be very sturdy. Consider this news article from the Jefferson City Post-Tribune (October 1972):
“The old sentinel didn’t fall easily. The fire tower was stronger than Conservation Commission personnel had figured. Supporting braces were sawed away, bolts were driven out with sledges, power saws partially cut through three of the massive legs. Still it resisted.
“The cold Tuesday afternoon dragged on. Time after time, ropes were attached to a small bulldozer and tension applied. Time after time the ropes snapped. Half a dozen times the structure defied the crew, setting back on its concrete base with creaks and groans.
“Built in 1947, the fire tower near the Reform Community, in southeastern Calloway County, had served its purpose. A 120-foot steel tower south of Gutherie has replaced the 60-foot wooden tower which was rotting and unsafe.
“The Reform Tower, a familiar landmark in the area, had been scheduled for destruction last Friday. Transportation difficulties gave it four days of grace. It was a cold, damp, windy day to go. Its time, however, had run out.
“Nestled in its dark-green, 20-acre grove of surrounding pine trees, the roar of the dozer and shouts of the crew disturbed the forest stillness as they tried to pull the tower over. The tower stood starkly against the slate-gray sky, a belligerent, frustrating reminder of a time when things were built to last.
“The dozer won in the end. The leg in the direction of fall was sawed almost through about four feet from the base. A chain was attached to the dozer and tied directly around the base. Revving up the machine, the bulldozer yanked on this four foot “plug” at a right angle.
“Slowly at first, with a loud snapping of timbers and the collapsing of the topmost portion of the structure, the fall began. Then the tilt, inharmonious, chillingly incongruent, with agonizing slowness. Finally the crash, cushioned by the pines, comrades for years performing one last favor.
“Eugene McCormick, of Reform, had been the towerman at Reform since its construction and is now assigned to the Gutherie Tower. He was among the workman at the site.”
It seems getting a wood tower down could be hard at times. Getting one up could also. Steel towers went up in pieces and levels. The leg of a wooden tower was often one long pine tree trunk or squared timber for shorter towers.
This led to innovative “tower up” techniques. The tower might be laid out on the ground, even using chalk lines. It was then assembled flat on the ground with the needed holes drilled. Then some pieces would be removed and braces added.
With the footings set, two of the leg bottoms would be attached with a “rocker log.” Then, using A-frames, ginpoles, or Bebee Hoists, the tower would be pulled vertical as the “rocker logs” allowed the structure to pivot and set down on the footings (see diagram).
The belts and braces would then be attached in the already-drilled holes. Steps would be attached, a cab built, and electricity and lightning protection run.
Smaller “patrol towers” often only had walkways. A variety of cable stringings were used depending on the tower size with the tension on these set to exact standards. These were attached to separate cable footings a distance from the tower.
A well set up wooden tower would often be much sturdier than one might expect.
It seems this method was used for smaller wooden towers. Jerry Presley noted that some wooden tower legs were bolted to the footings and simply allowed to sit, however precariously.
After the first set of braces and belts were attached, more security was achieved which increased as each subsequent sets were added above.
With wood, water and rotting was always a concern. The answer here was big and small items. The footings were, for example, beveled so water ran off. The pine itself, as Max Gorman pointed out, was very much piney and full of sap in the center and tended to resist water.
The answer beyond that was creosote. I can still remember the power poles in front of my home with that particular smell. Because of environmental and health concerns, you don’t find it anymore.
However, if applied to a well-dried piece of wood, it could offer years of weather protection. The key was getting the wood well dried so the creosote worked well.
Some of the creosote tended to run down the pole and form a protective barrier at the bottom. Shortcuts were tried from time to time but few worked out. Even the holes for the bolts were creosoted and the outside recoated periodically.
Looks could be deceiving with the creosoted wooden towers. The area between the outside coating and the center of resin could degrade without notice at times.
You will note above the Reform Tower was well set up it seems, and not ready to go. However, several of my tower friends commented that on occasion when a wooden tower came down, it could be very surprising how much of the inner wooden part was gone.
Wooden forest lookout towers were an interesting chapter in Missouri’s tower history. Next month, we finish up with what’s in a name.
(Part seven of this series on Missouri fire towers will appear in the Aug. 17 issue of The News-Dispatch. Questions or comments? Bob Frakes can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 618-244-1642.)