A Double Dose of New Fire Towers

Some things are perfect together. Peanut butter and jelly. Rain and a tin roof. Fresh snow and a pair of skis. Pizza and chicken wings. Campfires and warm summer nights. Hamilton County and fire towers.

Don’t believe me on that last one? You won’t have to search hard to find proof! 

In the early 1900s, New York State established a system of forest fire lookouts on mountaintops throughout the Adirondacks and across the entire state. Since the advent of more efficient forest fire detection methods, the fire towers were decommissioned but many remain today as educational outposts in the vast Adirondack landscape, serving as hikeable links to the past. Most of the fire towers accessible to the public today require hikes, sometimes over rugged terrain and through wild lands. But in Hamilton County’s community of Speculator, a fire tower has been given a new life in a new location, creating an attraction not deep in the woods, but right on the main street and right near a pizzeria that was also recently brought back to life. If you’re hungry for adventure, this is the place to be.

A fire tower against a blue sky with a few clouds.

A brief history of everything

Full disclosure: I’m a fire tower nerd. I’ve worked as an interpreter on two different ones in the Adirondacks, many I have visited several times, and a whole shelf of my bookcase is dedicated to fire tower history and fire tower observers. A “brief history” of fire towers from me could turn into an all-day talk, but I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm. (No promises!)

Let’s start in 1900. No, scratch that. Let’s start 10,000 years ago, when glaciers covered the landscape. When the glaciers receded, they left behind a sculpted, sandy soiled landscape that was perfect for softwoods (pine trees). In the early 1900s, logging companies were taking advantage of plentiful opportunities and seemingly unlimited pines. Unfortunately, this (among other things) ultimately led to natural and cultural destruction. In 1903 and 1908, around 700,000 acres of the present-day Adirondacks burned in severe fires, likely a result of the combination of droughts and ill-advised logging practices. To help prevent other serious fires from spreading, New York State began a forest fire prevention program and established a network of fire towers staffed by observers during fire season. 

A black and white image of five people sitting outside an old cabin.
The Makomis Mountain observer Armstrong and others in 1931. Source: New York State Archives, New York (State). Conservation Dept.

In 1911, Makomis Mountain in North Hudson, NY (neighboring Hamilton County in Essex County) was selected as a location for a fire tower. At first, the tower on Makomis Mountain was wooden, but, in 1916, a steel tower replaced the original wood structure. This was one of the first 10 steel fire towers in New York! At the end of the 1970 fire season, the Makomis Mountain fire tower was closed, and the tower was taken apart and removed from the mountain in 1978.

After searching for years, Mike Vilegi, owner of Excelsior Fire Towers, found the disassembled Makomis tower, which had been purchased by George Barber of Plattsburgh, NY. Vilegi purchased the tower from the Barber family in 2019 and began the process of reviving it in Hamilton County with the help of lots of volunteers, DEC grants, community support, and some elbow grease.

A black and white image of a distant mountain view from a mountain summit.
The view from Makomis Mountain in Essex County, NY, maybe 1920s. Source: New York State Archives, New York (State). Conservation Dept.

(Side note: This isn’t the first time Hamilton County preserved a historic fire tower. When the tower on Whiteface Mountain was decommissioned in the 70s, it was relocated to the Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake), where visitors can still climb the tower and learn about this fascinating part of the Adirondack history in interpretive displays.) 

A new home

After 44 years, the Makomis tower once again stands tall in the Adirondacks. In summer 2022, the Makomis tower was erected in Speculator. This time, no hike is necessary to reach the tower. At the Sacandaga River Community Park, the tower is the newest addition to an already accessible, family-friendly outdoor area. The mini Route 66, the Sacandaga Pathway, picnic tables, a ball field, and more create a lovely chance to enjoy the outdoors in the Adirondacks while not traveling outside the small town.

Flowers and greenery in the foreground, with a fire tower and trees in the background.
A summer view of the Makomis Fire Tower's new home.

From the tower, visitors can take in fantastic views that range from the soothing waters of Lake Pleasant to the famous wilderness areas of the Adirondacks. In winter, when leaves are not present, the Sacandaga River will be visible. It truly was an honor to visit this relocated landmark and reflect on the importance of fire towers to Adirondack history. Can you imagine what this landscape would have looked like if forest fires continued unchecked? (For a point of reference, one fire in 1908 destroyed an entire town in Hamilton County - Long Lake West, today known as Sabattis.)

A black and white image for a forest after a forest fire with charred trees.
The view in Long Lake West after a forest fire. Source: New York State Archives, New York (State). Conservation Dept.

Did someone say pizza?

If you’ve got fire tower fever, plan a few days in Hamilton County! You can hike to other towers and refuel with a hearty Adirondack meal. Maybe a meal that fits the fire tower themel? Check out Firetower Pizza, a new restaurant located just down the street from the Makomis tower. Some people may remember The Fire Tower, a restaurant whose claim to fame was having the best pizza. The Fire Tower may be gone (you’ll have to visit The Oxbow Inn for a full history!), but the incredible food lives on at today’s Firetower Pizza. Yes, the recipes are the same! 

Slices of pizza with bacon and chicken against a black background.
The Whiteface Mountain, a speciality pizza from Firetower Pizza. Yum!

There is indoor and outdoor seating, and it’s open for dine-in or take-out. Unfortunately, my stomach is not bottomless or else I would have sampled the entire menu because everything sounded amazing. We decided on a speciality pizza, The Whiteface Mountain, a delicious combo of chicken, bacon, and ranch (pictured above). Order a pizza, relax in the comfortable waiting room, play an arcade game, and let the mouth watering wait begin. (If you need to distract yourself for a minute, there’s free WiFi so you can scroll away while your food is prepared. Whether you use TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, e-mail, whatever, you'll want to share this experience online.)

Plan your visit

Whenever your next trip to Speculator is, you can visit the Makomis fire tower! It will be open from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Firetower Pizza is open Wednesday - Saturday from 12-9 p.m. and Sundays from 12-8 p.m.

A drone image of the new fire tower in a park with a river and a mountain in the background.
A screenshot from Mountain Lake Journal's story on the Makomis Tower.

Need a place to rest before your next adventure? Check into a comfortable motel, and experience all the wonders of the big outdoors over the course of a few days. The Makomis tower and Firetower Pizza are the newest old attractions in the Adirondacks! Experience Adirondack history today by visiting these classics.