They started put being paid $60 a month for their half-year, all-weather stints in the fire tower. Overall, there were twenty-one Fire Observers on Poke-O-Moonshine from 1912 through 1988. Most came from nearby Keeseville, and the first three worked in the original wooden tower before the current one was built in 1917.
That makes the fire tower 100 years old. It was part of a crop of standardized steel towers that New York State built in response to the catastrophic forest fires of the early 20th Century. Drought, high winds, lightning, heaps of logging slash, and sparks from lumber-hauling trains had combined to burn almost a million acres of New York forest over two decades.
The Observers worked spring through fall. They spotted fires, reported them by radio telephone, and taught hikers about careful use of the woods. Most fire tower mountains also had an Observer’s Cabin within short hiking distance from the summit. Sometimes spouses or family might come to visit.
Poke-O-Moonshine had two cabins side by side, but by the 1990’s both were ruined, ironically, by fire. An old apple tree stands next to the remnant foundation. The rusted coils of an old refrigerator slump in the back part of the footings.
By the ‘90s, the fire tower at Poke-O was in rough shape. The steel was rusty, the wooden floor and stair risers punky, the concrete footers crumbling. DEC was planning to take it down. The first tower restoration, at Blue Mountain, had just come off successfully, with the fire tower staffed by student interpreters. Some of us from Keeseville and nearby had the same idea.
In 1997, The Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine held its first meeting, hosted by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the Park-wide historic preservation organization. We were off and running, to be joined over the years by local businesses, ADK chapters, summer camps, hundreds from near and far, and DEC. AARCH’s Executive Director, Steven Engelhart, led us in those early years and kindly gave us office space in Keeseville.
Restoration of the tower was Job One. It needed new concrete footers, steel diagonals, flooring and stairs, safety fencing, windows, and paint. DEC oversaw the project and funded much of it, with Ranger Gary Friedrich leading most of the early work parties. Poke-O’s tower had been the first to have an Osborne Fire Finder, the circular table map of the tower’s view-shed, so we installed a replica as the centerpiece of the tower cab.
By 2002, the main work was done, and we were ready to open the doors; we hired our first Fire Tower Steward that summer and began to focus on hiker education and interpretation of the human and natural history of the mountain. ADK helped us put together a teaching brochure geared to 11 stops along the Ranger Trail. AARCH assisted with interpretive panels for the tower’s cab. In 2005, we held our first celebration, with a formal opening of the tower.
The next year, we began cooperating with the SUNY Potsdam Environmental Studies Program, which trained its students for summer-long placements as Fire Tower Stewards. This year, our 20th Steward will be greeting and educating hikers on top and along the two trails.
In 2008, we broadened our mission and worked with the Adirondack Land Trust to protect 200 acres on the south side of Poke-O. This land straddled the old access road to the Observers’ cabin and was threatened with logging. The Conservancy conveyed it to New York State, assuring a second access to the mountain. Named the Observers’ Trail, it’s wider and gentler than the Ranger Trail, and it hosts our ski trips, mammal tracking hikes, and Spring wildflower walks. Soon, we’ll work with DEC to fully connect the two trails into a four-mile loop.
Because of severe erosion on the steep Ranger Trail, in 2011 DEC proposed closing it: But it was a popular route, with great wildflowers, a cool lookout, and unusual geology. We thought long and hard, and began to fundraise to save the trail. Good trail work is expensive, so we set a target of $250,000 for the rehab. Astoundingly, the fund recently surpassed $213,000, with the goal of completion by the end of this Centennial year.
The ADK Pro Trail Crew and Tahawus Trails have partnered with us in the project, which will take four years to complete. So far, their beautiful solid work has built almost 200 stone steps, two major re-routes, ten water-bars, and a bridge. Hiker feedback has been glowing.
Our efforts at Poke-O began with the tower and have grown from it to cover much more, but they all remain rooted in the fire tower and its original mission: to protect the forest and educate hikers in its care. Today, this is called “low-impact use” and ‘environmental education”, but it’s still the same work.
So, now that the tower’s 100 years old, what do we do? Have a party! The weekend of July 28-30, there will be a Poke-O art exhibit, slide show, hike to the summit, songs, speeches and cake, and a music-and-dinner fiesta. Please visit the website for details, to RSVP for the events, and to support 100 more years of stewardship on top of “Old Poke-O”!
Photo courtesy Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine Fire Tower.