Pinnacle Fire Tower
Many now make the ascent up the nearly 5-mile Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail in Unicoi to reach the tower atop Buffalo Mountain to take in the scenic views of the surrounding area. But for Erwin resident Fred Hardin and others like him, taking in the view was all part of the job.
For nearly a decade, Hardin, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years, was assigned to fire lookout duties in the tower when it was still actively used for fire detection. The tower was part of a network of national forest and state-operated sites used for fire detection.
For around eight years, beginning in the early 1980s, the tower was a home away from home during the fire seasons of spring and fall for the now-retired Hardin.
“Whenever they needed you, you had to go up there and you had to stay overnight,” he said. “As long as they had a fire, you had to stay up there.”
Hardin said the towers were equipped with amenities for those stationed to serve in them. He said they included a stove, refrigerator, bed and radios. The wind at Buffalo Mountain’s peak tends to be gusty, but Hardin said the cab of the tower where lookouts spent much of their time was enclosed during his time there to guard against this.
And Hardin said the fire lookout towers maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and the state were indeed effective fire-detection tools. He said wildfires were practically a daily occurrence, and there were times when several fires would break out in the same day.
“You had to constantly be watching,” he said.
Hardin said he kept in close communication with fire towers in surrounding areas, such as the one at Meadow Creek in Cocke County.
“If I could see a fire and the other tower could see it, we’d cross it out and you could tell just exactly where it was,” he said.
If Hardin spotted a fire in the wilderness, he would track the coordinates of the blaze and radio the location to either state or federal officials, who would then send fire crews to extinguish it.
The iconic structure has sat atop Buffalo Mountain more than 3,500 feet above sea level for more than 75 years, but not even U.S. Forest Service officials are exactly sure when it was constructed. However, the date of construction has been narrowed down to the early 1930s. Construction blueprints for the 40-foot tall tower and its 14-foot by 14-foot cab were received in the Unaka National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Bristol, Va., in 1931.
Telephone service would eventually be run to the tower in 1949.
The tower was just one of a number of lookouts utilized by the Forest Service. In the 1960s, 17 such towers were located within the Cherokee National Forest’s proclamation boundaries. The tower was staffed regularly on a seasonal basis for around 50 years, information provided by Cheryl Summers with the U.S. Forest Service said.
Around a half-century after its construction, the aging tower would receive a face-lift. In 1984, the wooden tower was refurbished, but it would not be long before officials moved away from using the tower for fire detection due to technological advancements in the field.
Near the end of Hardin’s tenure in the late 1980s, staffing at the tower and other lookouts in the Cherokee National Forest was discontinued. The tower was retired from fire detection in 1989.
The still standing but no longer manned tower became easy prey for vandals, who damaged its cab and furnishings. In the early 1990s, some of the wooden steps leading up to the cab were removed to prevent further vandalism.
A period of disrepair and dilapidation followed, but the tower has realized a rebirth in recent years. In 2011, the process of bringing an adaptive use to the tower was completed, as it was converted from a fire lookout to a public viewing platform.
The cab is no longer enclosed. The structure remains around 40 feet tall, but its wood was replaced with reinforced steel. The rehabilitation project was completed by the U.S. Forest Service with help from the Partners of the Cherokee National Forest and individuals.
It is now one of three federally managed towers remaining in the northern portion of the Cherokee National Forest, with the other two being the tower at Meadow Creek in Cocke County and one at Camp Creek Bald in Greene County.
The tower is now a destination for those who make the trek up the trail, which was installed only a few years ago. And, like many of the hikers who make it to the tower, Hardin said he took time to appreciate the view from the top of Buffalo Mountain.
“When it was clear, I could see down into Morristown and all over North Carolina, and a little chunk of Virginia,” he said.