Fire lookouts offer a view of Sierra history
By Gordon RichardsSo far this summer, with the exception of two fires near Floriston, forest fires in the Truckee area have not been a major problem. Part of the reason is a system of fire lookouts that keep a constant eye trained on the Sierra forests. The lookouts allow for a quick response by fire suppression crews. The historical nature of these lookouts is one of the subjects of the Forest Fire Lookout Association that is having its Western Regional Conference in Truckee this weekend.The first fire lookout in the area was actually built by the Central Pacific Railroad in the summer of 1877. The original wooden structure was located on Red Mountain, near Cisco. In 1909 a stone building was constructed. The Signal Peak Lookout had a view of the railroad snowsheds and tracks from Donner Pass to Blue Canyon. It also looked out on thousands of acres of forest. A telephone line was connected to Cisco to report snowshed and forest fires. Fire trains and crews responded to railroad and forest fires alike. The lookout was abandoned in 1934. The ruins of this lookout are still visible on Signal Peak.The first Tahoe National Forest lookout was built on Banner Mountain, above Nevada City in 1911. It was quickly followed by Columbia Hill and Pike County Peak. The west slope had more devastating fires than the Truckee area, so the first efforts were in that area.
Many miles of telephone lines were strung to connect the lookouts to guard stations where fire crews were located. The acreage destroyed by fires was dramatically reduced with the advent of the lookout and telephone system. Before telephone lines were strung, heliograph mirrors were used to flash signals to base stations when fires were spotted.To accurately locate the sighted smoke, circular metal discs with maps printed on them were nailed in the middle of a firefinder that gave the exact coordinates of the smoke. Later models of the Osbourne Firefinder could pinpoint smoke sightings to within one eighth of a mile.Martis Peak LookoutThe first east slope lookout was built in 1914. The Martis Peak Lookout location was picked because of the views from Lake Tahoe to the Sierra Valley. One unique feature of this lookout over others was its dimensions. Rather than being square, it is actually 12 feet by 14 feet. The cabin was built by Robert Watson, a Tahoe City resident and contractor, for $309.55. Most lookouts built after 1917 were 14 feet square.The longest tenure of a lookout spotter on Martis Peak was held by Frank “Waddles” Maher. He was stationed there during the summers from 1917 to 1943. Maher named the lookout cabin “Hotel de Chipmunk” in honor of the dozens of chipmunks that swarmed the place. He named the chipmunks for the celebrities and famous people who traveled to the peak, many of whom came to see Waddles. Visitors are reported to have included Frank Sinatra, Henry Kaiser, Theodore Roosevelt and Jack Dempsey.In the off season, Maher worked as a cigar roller and circus tumbler, living in Carson City most of the time. Maher’s favorite foods were peanuts, rice Spanish and a home cooked bread. The California Conservation Corps remodeled the lookout in 1934, but was prevented from making major changes by Maher, because he liked things just the way they were.
When the lookout was first built, the only way up from the Brockway Road was by trail, but the auto road was finally constructed in 1929. Salaries for the lookout spotter in the early days were $80 for three months with an expense account of $25.Secondary lookout points were established, with telephone service, at Mt. Pluto, above the Truckee River, and Lakeview. To report the fires, telephone lines were strung from the lookouts down the mountains to guard stations and district ranger stations. The phone lines connected to Tahoe Tavern, Squaw Valley, Brockway Guard Station, the fish hatchery at Carnelian Bay, Hobart Mills, Truckee, Schaffers Camp, Bear Trap, and cabins belonging to the Floriston Paper Mill. From 1952 to 1977, Fred Scott was the Martis Peak lookout fire spotter, and since then various spotters have been stationed there. The lookout was out of service from the early 1980s until it was refurbished in 1996 and returned to service in 1997. It is on the National Historic Lookout Register.The first fire lookout to be built in the Tahoe Basin was Angorra Lookout, which was constructed in 1914. It has a view from the south end of Tahoe that mirrors Martis Peak. A second one, Zephyr Point was constructed in 1923 looking over the east shore.Sardine Peak LookoutThe second Truckee area lookout to be built was Sardine Peak. It was built by the Sierraville district in 1915. The first operator was Mrs. H.P. Kelley. She was the second woman in the state to hold a lookout position.
Like other early lookouts there was only a trail to the top. Autos could only get as close as Bear Valley. One of the reasons for the construction at that time was that logging operations had just started to the west by the Verdi Lumber Company, increasing the threat of fire. Supplies were brought up monthly by pack horse. The current Sardine Peak cabin was built in 1935 by California Conservation Corps crews.Further north the Sierra Buttes Lookout was built in 1915. West of Truckee, Grouse Ridge Lookout was built in 1923. It has been out of service since 1978. Babbitt Peak, on the Bald Mountain Range northeast of Stampede Reservoir, is one of the few constantly manned lookouts with a fantastic view of both Nevada and the Sierra Nevada. It was constructed in 1937. Both Grouse Ridge and Babbitt are on the National Historic Lookout Register.Verdi Peak, northeast of Boca Reservoir, was originally built in the early 1930s. Prior to 1940, the lookout was shown on maps as Crystal Peak Lookout. In 1983 a new lookout cabin was built.At one time, there were up to 5,000 forest fire lookouts in the United States, now there are less than 2,000. Modern technology, such as cell phones, have decreased the need for most lookouts. Computerized lightning detectors are much more accurate than manual spotting when large lightning events pass over the mountains.The history and the future of Forest Fire Lookouts are the focus of the Forest Fire Lookout Association.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 582-0893.
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