Monday, June 27, 2016

Tater Knob Tower

Tater Knob Fire Tower, after the 1959 renovations.
Atop the highest point in Bath County, there are the gleaming, silver remains of a structure that once played a vital role in the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Sitting 1,388 feet above sea level, Tater Knob is a rock outcropping millions of years old that perches high above the native trees and provides a spectacular view of the entire region.  On a clear day, one can see up to thirty miles in each direction; a place many have found as the calming solace in this busy day to day world.
Fires have always been a danger to heavily forested areas.  The fallen timber, dried leaves and vegetation are a rich catalyst for a conflagration.  A forest fire can be started by lightening, careless campers, or at the hands of an arsonist.  As people began to settle near the natural beauty of the Daniel Boone National Forest, and industries based on the resources began to boom,  a wildfire could be personally and economically devastating to those involved.  One such wildfire burned over three million acres across Washington, Idaho and Montana in August, 1910.  The fire killed 87 people, many whom were firefighters trying to contain the inferno.  This fire is considered the largest wildfire in United States history.  After the fire, a focus was placed on preventing such an incident from happening again.  Public awareness of conservation and new rules incorporated by the newly formed U.S. Forest Service sought to educate and reduce the fire danger, and to provide an early detection of fires in the forested areas of the United States.  Lookout towers were built across the nation to do just that; with men staffing the towers who would be the watchful eye.
Early towers were either built atop the high points in the forests, or built as towering structures high above a metal grid in order to see several miles in each direction.  Other towers were built in a network within the forest's district and communicated via telegraph, visual signals, and later, telephone to pinpoint the location of a fire if smoke was spotted.  It is believed the first lookout towers were built in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire around 1910.  The Civilian Conservation Corps was organized in 1933 as a way to provide much needed jobs during the Great Depression.  The Forest Service utilized Corps laborers to construct lookout towers and access roads through the dense forests, including the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The Tater Knob Lookout Tower was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The area the tower stands was much more rugged back then; no wooden steps or good roads led to the tower.   Built with hand tools, the tower was a 14x14 foot wooden structure with a wood stove, two cots, a cabinet, storage box, small table and stool occupied by two Forest Service men during the fire seasons.  In the middle of the small room was the alidade, or "fire spotter" that the men used to determine an azimuth when smoke was spotted.  One tower would communicate with another and together, with the azimuths they recorded, the smoke's location would be triangulated and the location given to firefighters who would trek into the forest.  
A forestry service worker fire spotting, 1930's

Constructing the Tater Knob Tower was no easy task.  Materials had to be hauled in by mules and an elaborate pulley system was rigged to bring items up to the top of the mountain.  A rough road was cut through the forest and across steep cliffs just south of the tower's site and was the only access at the time.  The finished tower stood 35 feet above the knob's crest; one of around 160 statewide.  During fire seasons, the tower was manned twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  Men worked long, and mostly lonely, shifts scanning the horizon for anything that would raise the alarm.  Until Cave Run Lake was constructed, the Licking River Valley was dotted with homes and businesses.  Licking Union and Yale were the closest towns to Tater Knob and the lumber mills would have been visible from the tower.  In 1959, the tower was remodeled and reduced inside to 10x10 feet.  The wooden parts of the tower was wrapped in an aluminum skin which protected it from the elements and rot.  The conditions hadn't changed much by then; a new road which is now Zilpo Road was cut through the forest along the ridge to the north of Tater Knob sometime later, and the area was incorporated as a campground and tourist attraction after the lake was built.

Tater Knob Tower remained in constant operation until the mid 1970's.  Forest Service personnel resorted to spotter aircraft when locating fires, rendering the lookout towers obsolete.  Many towers were dismantled, but Tater Knob was left to the elements and started deteriorating.  The once busy tower remained abandoned until an interest in restoration began during the early 1990's.  A committee was formed and together with the Kentucky Bicentennial Commission, the Bath County Historical Society and the Frenchburg Jobs Corps, Tater Knob was restored in 1993.  Tourists could trek up to the tower via over 200 steps up the mountainside and see the breathtaking views at the top.  Trail markers and signs along the way tell the story of the lookout tower and how important it was during it's time of service.  Over the years, thousands of people have climbed the metal steps to gaze into the beyond; but sadly, it would come to an abrupt end.  

On December 3, 2008, a call of smoke from atop Tater Knob was dispatched to the Salt Lick Fire Department and U.S. Forestry Service.  Once units arrived, it was discovered that the Tater Knob Tower was on fire.  The wooden structure under the aluminum wrap was burning from the inside, with the aluminum material oozing down in a molten mass.  After some time, the fire was put out, but the tower was forever damaged.  People had vandalized the historic tower over the years, which had been placed on the National Registry of Historic Lookout Towers after the 1993 restoration, by spray painting names and slogans on the metal frame.  It was discovered that the fire was no accident; someone had used spray paint as an accelerate and lit it on fire.  The Forest Service closed Tater Knob Tower due to unsafe conditions, and a piece of local and National history was lost.  After an investigation and tips from the public, a man and woman were arrested and charged with arson.  Salt Lick native Landon Dickerson, along with Morehead native Danny Blevins, organized a music festival and fundraiser at the Morehead Conference Center in 2009, raising over 2,500 dollars to help restore the tower.  Other fundraising events have been held and private donations have been made toward the tower's reconstruction, but to date, the tower is still as it was that December day; a scorched remnant of the past.
The Bath County Tourism Council, in conjunction with the Forest Service's Cumberland Ranger District, is actively looking at ways to reopen the Tater Knob Tower, restoring it possibly to its original state as a functional tower.  Tourism Chairman Brent Frizzell hopes to have this project under way very soon, as funds become available.  Until then, the tower atop Tater Knob remains closed to visitors; the last fire tower that hopefully will stand again soon.

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