For nearly 50 years, from the roomy cab of a fire tower perched atop the 3,704-foot summit of Red Oak Ridge, observers scanned the densely wooded slopes forming the headwaters of the Monongahela National Forest’s Williams and Cranberry rivers for plumes of smoke.
Built in 1934 by a team of workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Red Oak Fire Tower was one of 132 towers once operating in West Virginia before state and federal land managers put fire spotters in airplanes to make observation cheaper and more efficient.
By 1990, the state’s last manned fire tower, Huff Knob next to Winterplace ski area in Mercer County, was vacated. Now, the Red Oak tower is one of only about 20 fire towers still standing in West Virginia.
While the tower remains vacant, a new purpose for it is taking shape, thanks in part to a team of volunteers from HistoriCorps and AmeriCorps, organizations patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps. In July and August, the HistoriCorps team partnered with AmeriCorps members serving with the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area’s Hands-On Preservation Team and the Monongahela National Forest staff to rehab the Depression era structure.
The two groups “helped us execute a structural analysis of the tower and cab in order to initiate a rehabilitation treatment plan,” said Gavin Hale, heritage program manager for the Mon. The team also “made repairs to the tower footings, replaced the cab floor and windows, made repairs to the roof, and painted the cab’s interior and exterior,” Hale said.
Sometime next year, Mon Forest officials hope to make the Red Oak Knob Tower available to the public to rent as a remote vacation getaway.
“There is still a lot of work to complete before the tower will be rental ready,” including minor repairs to the stairs leading to the cab and its railing, Hale said. A fire ring, tent pad, picnic table and grill will be added near the base of the tower, and electricity will be restored to its cab, he said.
Furnishings in the cab will be basic — a bed, table and electric lights, according to Hale.
The specialized preservation work that went into the cab and tower this summer “could not have been completed without HistoriCorps and the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area’s Hands-On Preservation Team,” Hale said, calling their work “essential to the project.”
The Preservation Alliance of West Virginia recently awarded the combination of teams working on renovating and re-purposing the 84-year-old fire tower its 2018 Heritage Tourism Award.
“We are thrilled that they are being recognized for their hard work this summer,” Hale said.
A similar team working with the Mon Forest staff last year renovated the CCC-built Hopkins Mountain fire observer’s cabin, located at the base of a now-removed 80-foot fire tower atop a 3,318-foot promontory near the Blue Bend Recreation Area north of White Sulphur Springs. That cabin will also be available for public rental once exterior improvements are completed.
Hundreds of decommissioned fire towers, ranger quarters and patrol cabins on public lands in the western states have been made available to rent to hunters, anglers, snowmobile riders, back-country skiers, hikers and bikers who favor lodging more substantial than tents.
In the east, a few such accommodations are available, including the popular CCC-built Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in Seneca State Forest, which opened to the public in 2015, and the Mon Forest’s Middle Mountain Cabins, found near the Laurel Creek South Wilderness Area in Randolph County.