Silent Reminders: Memoirs from a Fire Lookout
As I drive down the highway towards Wisdom on US Highway 569, what we all affectionally call Mill Creek Road, I always notice this forlorn looking structure off to the west high up on the hillside. It reminds me of a Native American burial scaffold. As odd as that may sound, it is fitting for this fire lookout and for so many other ones that were in this area, as it sits collapsing under the pressures of the elements, pieces of it scattered about the area, becoming a part of the land it once watched over.
I intended to write an article about Grassy Mountain Lookout, but it turned into a memoir of the fire lookout towers in this area and two young men who manned them. After I posted on a Facebook page called Uniquley Anaconda asking if anyone knew the history of grassy mountain, I recieved a message from Lawrence Smith "Smitty" saying he manned the Blizzard Hill Lookout tower. Then Dan Haffey sent me a message saying he manned the Cable Mountain Lookout. I could not resist asking them about their time as lookouts at each one.
Smitty started his journey in becoming a look out when he was 16 years old and would hike up to the Cable Mountain Lookout tower by use of an old forest service access trail. He said there was something mystique about the old tower sitting on the rocky ridge overlooking the Anaconda Pintler range. Smitty would make several trips to the lookout throughout the summer of 1967. He said he tried for five seasons to get that job as Cable Mountain Lookout and never got it but was instead offered a job to man the Blizzard Hill Lookout for $2.21 an hour. Blizzard Hill lookout is located 14 miles SE of Deer Lodge and 25 miles NW of Butte, along the continental divide at an elevation of 7,658 feet. Smitty recounts that his first summer in 1969; he logged 500 visitors during a 2 1/2 month period. People would ask if he ever got lonely or bored and he said he never did. His constant companion was a 10 week old shepard pup he named Yukon. (Photo below courtesy of L. E. Smith of Yukon)
He said he will always remember one visitor in particular. Newel Furlong from Anaconda. He knew when he was coming to visit because he could see the dust cloud for miles as Newel drove down the dusty road in his International Scout. Newel was retired and a nature photographer. He would always visit when a storm was coming in to get photos of the lightening - then come back later on to show Smitty what he would capture.
In 1970 Smitty manned Blizzard Hill again, and his pay this time was $2.36 per hour. He had a truck for transportation this time around and brought along an AM radio that played a popular song that summer by Creadance Clearwater Revival called "Looking Out My Back Door" that to this day if he hears come over the radio reminds him of manning Blizzard Hill. Not much remains of the lookout but a cinder block and the lower half that holds a forest radio repeater. Smitty retired in 2011 after 40 years working for the Forest Service. He now lives in Libby Montana with his wife in a cabin they built.
(Photo Below Courtesy of L.E. Smith "Smitty" at the Blizzard Hill Lookout)
As far as the Cable Mountain Lookout goes, Dan Haffey shared his time working the lookout in the summer of 1972. He was working for the Philipsburg Ranger Station at the time and they asked him to man it after the other lookout left. "Lightening storms were amazing to see. And the views were awesome. Remember a plane flying by one day and the pilot waved to me. Cable could see lights of Butte and to the Idaho border behind Skalkaho Pass." Recounts Dan. The Cable Mountain Lookout was finished in 1937 and was an L-4 style tower that was 20 feet tall. Dan says he remembers the last fire spotted from the lookout. It was on Labor Day in 1972. The fire was a 1/2 acre near water tower above the dam on Flint Creek Pass. After that fire the lookout was never reopened and was taken down a year later.
Since the summer of 1972 Dan was offered two jobs the same day to help him attend college and he says " I never regretted spending the next 11 yrs working on fire and trail crews."
Former Fire Forman and Trail Cutter for DNRC
(Photos Below Courtesy of Dan Haffey of the Cable Mountain Lookout)
I never could find much information on the Grassy Mountain Lookout. It seems to elude me at every corner. I did learn it was constructed in 1940 and was an emergency lookout. Tbe Billings Gazette on July 5th 1947 stated "A family of three will be among forest fire lookouts who will start a summer-long vigil in towers on lonely western mountain peaks Tuesday. Rudy Forehand of Anaconda, his wife and their 3-month-old baby will take over the Grassy Mountain post in wilderness near Anaconda. Father and mother will take turns watching timber fires and tending the baby." This was the only article I came across that mentioned the lookout at all. Some day I will find out more information about this lookout but for now I will have to use my imagination as a hike by it on my way into the forest. ( Photo below of Grassy Mountain Lookout before the cap fell down.)
After looking through all the photographs Dan and Smitty sent and hearing their stories about manning the lookouts, it is clear to me that the lookouts still hold a special place for them and always will, even though the structures themselves are gone. What remaining lookouts we have we need to hold on to and help preserve for future generations; what ones have been lost we need to write down their history that is lovingly told by the many generations of men and women that watched over the forest and valleys below protecting the wildlife, people and communities.
I can't thank enough Dan Haffey and L.E. Smith for their wonderful knowledge and photos they let me use for this article.