Many fire towers in the Adirondacks are 100+ years old now. New ones aren’t being built. But, as the saying goes, old things are better than new because they have more stories to tell.
And fire towers have a lot of stories to tell.
For over 100 years, fire towers have been important characters in the story of Adirondack forests. Their sole purpose has not always been leisure recreation. In the early 1900s, huge forest fires swept through Hamilton County and much of the Adirondacks. In September 1908, a fire near present-day Long Lake destroyed an entire community (Long Lake West, now known as Sabattis) and spurred a handful of new regulations to be passed to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. One measure taken was to establish fire districts with superintendents and observers whose duty was to detect fires as soon as possible and assist with extinguishing them efficiently. The recreation destinations we know today as fire towers were originally built on mountaintops to house observers who could then pinpoint the location of a forest fire and direct ground responses. Throughout New York State, 120+ towers were established; 57 of those stood within the Adirondack boundary.
As time went on and aerial surveillance and communication methods improved, fire towers and the observers who staffed them became more of an educational tool and less of a means of fire detection. These out-of-doors classrooms allowed people to see above the trees and fully take in the Adirondack landscape.
Not all these towers still stand today, and not all of them are accessible to the public. However, a tower was opened to the public for the first time in September 2023. That tower is the one on Buck Mountain. It was built in 1933 on lands owned by the Whitney family (William Collins Whitney, an American American political leader and financier, purchased 68,000 acres in 1897 and some of those acres were sold to New York state in 1997 to create the William C. Whitney Wilderness.) Today, Buck Mountain is still on land privately owned by Cedar Heights Timber LLC, but an easement was granted across the land to create access to this historic tower.
When the tower on Buck Mountain was built in 1933, it was the second tower built on Whitney property. (The first was on Salmon Lake Mountain. It is still standing but in very poor condition and still on inaccessible, private land.) Salmon Lake Mountain only had a ladder climbing the outside of the tower, but Buck Mountain had the full staircase it has today. Can you imagine climbing a fire tower with only a ladder?
The original tower materials for Buck Mountain were hauled to the summit by a dog sled team that had a trip to the South Pole in 1929 on their resume! More information on that can be read at a kiosk at the trailhead.
Bill Touey was the observer at Buck Mountain, and he also worked at Salmon Lake Mountain on the Whitney estate. Touey was known to be somewhat of a hermit, enjoying the quiet solitude life of a fire tower observer.
The tower on Buck Mountain was no longer staffed in 1970 because the area was covered by the state’s aerial surveillance fire detection. From 1970 until 2023, the tower was only visible from certain vantage points off site. Now, you can climb up to the cab!
Since the Buck Mountain tower is on private land, this project was made possible through the generosity of Cedar Heights Timber LLC.
The trail itself was built through collaborative partnership between the Adirondack Mountain Club, the NYS Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, Hamilton County Soil and Water Department, Hamilton County Highway Department, the Hamilton County Board Supervisors, and the Town of Long Lake.
Tower reconstruction was done under the direction of fire tower consultant Mike Vilegi from Excelsior Fire Tower Group. Those projects included: installation of a new sheet metal roof, treads, galvanized steps, and fencing.
You don’t have to climb to the tower to experience some of the history, though. At the trailhead a kiosk was installed to provide hike information and interpretive stories. Support for the trailhead kiosk was from Generous Acts at Adirondack Foundation and from the Adirondack Community Recreation Alliance at the Northern Forest Center.
The hike to the Buck Mountain fire tower is a different experience than many trails in the Adirondacks. It’s brand new construction; the ground is soft largely without the exposed bedrock, rocks, and roots that many other trails see. Light blue trail markers guide the way over the course of this 1.2 mile trek.
In the beginning, several bridges and boards span muddy and wet areas, but after the halfway point, the trail gets slightly steeper. Wooden steps and rock staircases assist during these steep stretches. Hikers should use caution traveling up and down these narrow staircases, especially when conditions are wet. Just after a series of 10 wooden staircases, the trail ends at the fire tower. There are no views from the summit. To see the scenery, you’ll have to climb the 60-foot tall fire tower.
From the cab, outstanding views of the William C. Whitney Wilderness and Round Lake Wilderness stretch out before you, with Little Tupper Lake and Round Lake as the prominent waterbodies. Other fire tower mountains, including Blue Mountain, can be seen from the tower cab. Mount Sabattis in Long Lake can also be viewed. You can even pick out some of the High Peaks on a clear day!
Since this hike is across private land, make sure to follow all posted rules and regulations, and Love Your ADK.
Itching for more fire towers?
Well, then you’re in luck because Hamilton County has no shortage of options - from the challenging Snowy Mountain to the accessible-from-town rehabilitated Makomis tower. If fire towers aren’t totally your thing, that’s fine too, because this place has tons to do year-round. The big outdoors is full of playful opportunities and the small towns within the county are waiting to welcome you.