Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Fire Lookouts of Acadia National Park
A familiar summit sight and a popular hiking destination in Acadia National Park is the Beech Mountain fire lookout tower. While no longer functioning as such, it was once an important node in the Park's fire warning communications network.
Beech lookout today
                                           Acadia NP photo
Beech lookout then

The Beech Mountain fire lookout was established in 1937 about 250' southeast of the summit. Built of wood by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the structure lasted through the 1950s. A helicopter-borne prefabricated steel tower replaced it in 1960 and is still there today. It became operational by 1962 and was initially manned morning to evening, then later only during times of fire danger. It was last staffed in 1976. Acadia NP rarely opens the lookout to the public, but the tower's first landing is accessible to visitors to provide southerly and easterly views.

Sargent lookout today
                                                                        Acadia NP photo
Sargent lookout then
There was a second fire lookout, a CCC-built cabin, on top of Sargent Mountain. Little is known of this lookout, but from today's scattered remains it was constructed of wood on a stone base. Established in 1941, it was sited about 1,000' due north of the summit and provided northerly views from west to east. Manning the lookout was problematic. Unlike the Beech lookout, where staff could take a daily short hike from the parking lot, the Sargent lookout would have required prolonged, overnight manning and provisioning due to the difficulty of getting to and from the remote site. The lookout still existed in 1949, but its operations might have ended the following year.*1

Why the Sargent lookout was not replaced or even modernized, like the Beech lookout, falls to speculation. Unavailable funding and difficult manning could have been the cause.
The two lookouts' geographic locations did not provide full 360-degree views of the Park, but their fire warning function was folded into the Maine Forestry Service's network of fire lookouts. Two of the complementary MFS lookouts were on Blue Hill Mountain, 10 miles to the northwest of Mount Desert Island, and Schoodic Mountain, 11 miles to the northeast. Blue Hill ceased operations in 1991 and was torn down in 2005. Schoodic had already been razed by 1996.

                                            Acadia NP photo
Bernard lookout

A third CCC-built fire lookout reportedly existed on Bernard Mountain summit in the mid-1930s.*2  This location appears to be a misjudgment and is most likely the remnants of the Kaighn pavilion.*3  Further, collateral sources indicate the Park had just the two fire lookouts -- Beech and Sargent. Yet, other Park installations, such as this one, could have served as auxiliary fire lookouts due to their advantageous locations. For example, there once was a ranger station on top of Cadillac Mountain. It was built in 1932 in conjunction with the opening of the new summit road that year. Along with attending to visitors and handling traffic, fire warning was an assigned duty.*4

Insulators, pins and support cables

Communications at the Beech and Sargent lookouts was by telephone. A telephone wire was strung from the lookouts on a support cable and wrapped around Whitall Tatum clear-glass insulators secured to wooden crossarm pins attached to tree poles and live trees.*5  These telephone lines ran easterly from both lookouts.

One of many coils left along the lines

Maintenance of the lines, which passed over granite ledges and through dense woods, was a headache. Severe weather and falling trees clearly took a toll. Ostensibly to minimize the repair work, linemen left coils of wire along the telephone lines' routes. In the 1940s the radio began to replace the telephone in Maine's fire lookouts, which obviated telephone line maintenance issues and enhanced communications reliability.*6

In 1936 the Maine Forestry Service deconstructed the USN Radio Station communications towers at Otter Cliffs to use the material to build new fire lookouts elsewhere in the state.*7  The naval station, established in 1917 and decommissioned in 1935, is now the site of Acadia NP's Fabbri Picnic Area and Alessandro Fabbri memorial.

Postscript: I wish to thank Burt Barker, Paul Crowley, Gary Stellpflug and Roger Thompson for their recollections and expertise. I am also grateful to a team of intrepid explorers who provided the extra eyes to help me find the telephone lines.

Explorers making a discovery

1 Bar Harbor Times, April 14, 1949, p. 10.
2 Pathmakers, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service, Boston, MA, 2006, p. 136-137.
3 Philadelphian Robert Kaighn had property on Bernard Mountain, where he built a "pavilion" in 1911 about 75' south of the summit. A 1934 Coast and Geodetic Survey described it as being chained to the rock. Support pins and an eyebolt still remain.
4 Bar Harbor Times, June 15, 1932, p. 2.
5 Armstrong Cork Corp. bought The Whitall Tatum Co. in 1938. The insulators available for inspection by me had the added Armstrong logo "A", thus confirming post 1937 telephone lines.
6 For information about Maine's fire lookouts, see From York to the Allagash - Forest Fire Lookouts of Maine 1905-1991 by David N. Hilton, Moosehead Communications, Greenville, ME. 1997.
7 Bar Harbor Times, October 16, 1936, p.1.

GPS coordinates:
Beech Mountain lookout - N44° 18.650'  W068° 20.709'
Blue Hill Mountain lookout - N44° 26.044'  W068° 35.452'
Fabbri Memorial - N44° 18.851'  W068° 11.760'
Kaighn pavilion - N44° 18.138'  W068° 22.328'
Sargent Mountain lookout - N44° 20.763'  W068° 16.386'
Schoodic Mountain lookout - N44° 34.402'  W068° 08.814'