UNICOI — An iconic structure in Unicoi County proved Thursday that it’s never too late to make a first impression.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony held Thursday afternoon to commemorate the official opening of the recently renovated Pinnacle Mountain Fire Lookout Tower marked the first trip to the tower for town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch and Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch since its facelift. Both couldn’t help but be impressed by the structure itself and the view it offers visitors.
“I’m totally impressed,” Johnny Lynch said. “It’s even nicer than I thought it would be. It’s even bigger than I thought it would be. The view is fantastic. It’s just great.”
For more than 50 years, the Pinnacle Fire Tower, built atop Buffalo Mountain in the 1930s and located more than 3,500 feet above sea level, was used as a sentinel for forest lands in Unicoi and Washington counties and was regularly staffed with fire lookout personnel. However, technological advancement made fire detection easier and the fire lookout towers had become obsolete. The Pinnacle tower was taken out of use in 1989 and fell into disrepair.
The tower’s cab and furnishings were subject to vandalism over the years and, in the early 1990s, the tower’s bottom steps were removed to deter vandals and misuse of the abandoned tower.
Cherokee National Forest Service Supervisor Tom Speaks told the crowd of local and state officials and members of the Forest Service gathered for the ribbon cutting that much of the credit for the tower’s rehabilitation lies with Cherokee District Ranger Terry Bowerman and his vision.
Bowerman said when he arrived in the district in 1999, he met with the then-mayor of Unicoi. The two discussed the possibility of seeing the decommissioned tower become a benefit to the community.
“At the time, we didn’t really have any concrete ideas except we just didn’t want to see it torn down,” Bowerman said.
But keeping the tower standing was no easy task. Bowerman said year after year he had to hold off Forest Service engineers who wanted to see what they referred to as a “liability” taken down. In the meantime, Forest Services officials were forging partnerships with civic and governmental organizations, Bowerman said.
It was around 2007 when the planned rehabilitation of the tower began picking up momentum, Bowerman said. Planning was under way and officials met with an architect at that time.
Steel has now replaced wood, and the rehabilitation of the tower for adaptive use was completed in July when the tower was opened up to public use. Funding for the tower’s $146,000 construction cost came from both private and public monies.
“This is beyond my expectations,” Bowerman said of the tower.
Gary Schneider, president of the Partners of the Cherokee National Forest, said the tower’s rehabilitation is by far the largest project his organization has been involved with.
“To be able to be part of a historic refurbishing of something like this, this is remarkable,” Schneider said.
Earlier this month, officials gathered for a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the official opening of the Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail, a nearly 5-mile hiking/biking trail located at the base of Buffalo Mountain in Unicoi that leads to the base of the tower.
“It’s a trail with a destination, and quite a destination it is,” Greg Lynch said.
With the trail and tower now complete and with future plans for the site, such as the construction of the Tanasi Heritage and Arts Center that will serve as the trailhead for the Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail, officials view the area as a destination for visitors and say that such projects will not only benefit Unicoi County, but the region as a whole.
“Economically it’s going to help the community,” Johnny Lynch said. “All the visitors that we’ve had, they buy gasoline, they go out to restaurants and shop in shops.”
Johnny Lynch remarked to the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting that if the tower could share its stories, it would have plenty to tell.
After years of work, it was able to add another one on Thursday.
“We finally got it done, and I’m so happy and so proud,” Johnny Lynch said. “All these folks in this little town down here are elated. They’re just tickled to death.”