Historic Structures

Hat Point Fire Lookout Tower, Imnaha Oregon

Date added: June 10, 2021 Categories: Oregon Fire Watchtower

The Hat Point Fire Watchtower is an 82' high tapered trestle tower (seven segments), supporting an 7' x 7' lookout cabin with a 2'0" wide catwalk surrounding the cabin. There are seven flights of stairs to the catwalk trap door entry. The 8" x 8" tower legs are in a square, 16'8" on center at the foundation blocks. The trestle tapers to a square, 7'2" on center at the top of the tower where it supports the 12' 4" square catwalk/cabin floor structure.

The National Forest system was created March 3, 1891 with the establishment of the Forest Reserves. Congress was receiving increasing public pressure for conservation of the natural resources of the Nation. Many forest areas, owned by the Federal government, had been destroyed by inappropriate logging techniques employed by private corporations. These companies ignored conservation practices in favor of increased profits. Then, when clear cutting had taken place, no reforestation was done, making the raw lands susceptible to wind and water erosion. In addition, fire was taking a dreadful toll. The Peshtigo (Wisconsin) fire had raged across the upper Midwest, killing 1200 people, and burning 2400 square miles of forest land.

Conservationists had been lobbying for establishment of Federal Forest Reserves since before the Civil War. However positive action was not taken until 1876, when Dr. Franklin B. Hough was appointed by Congress as the first Federal Forestry Agent. His multi-volume Report on Forestry, (1878 - 1884) called for management of Federal timber lands. In 1881, he was named as Chief of the Division of Forestry, a division of the Department of Agriculture. ยท

Subsequently, Gifford Pinchot, a professional forester and friend of future President Theodore Roosevelt, was appointed to head the Division of Forestry. However the Department of Interior continued to maintain control over the forest reserves. Frustrated by this bureaucratic system, Pinchot streamlined the administration of the forests by giving more autonomy to the districts. Forest supervisors were instructed to give more responsibility to the local ranger. Pinchot believed in most cases the "man on the ground" was the best judge of what was appropriate action for most situations. About this same time Pinchot issued the Use Book. This 142 page volume contained regulations as to how forest lands were to be regulated. Policies concerning timber sales, grazing, mineral leases and forest fires were set in this pocket sized book. Many of these regulations are still in effect today.

When Theodore Roosevelt became president after the assassination of William McKinley, he immediately took up the cause of forest conservation on public lands. In 1905, with the president's full support, The Forest Transfer Act became law, transferring Federal Forest Reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. On March 3rd, the Bureau of Forestry became the U. S. Forest Service, and the Reserves were subsequently renamed National Forests. By 1908, The United States Forest Service had 1500 employees, and 150 million acres of National Forest resources under its jurisdiction and management. This began the period known as the Custodial Era, (1905 - 1942). Since 1942 through the present, the Forest Service has been in the Commodity and Production Era. The Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960 set the basic guidelines for management practices in use today.

After the disastrous fires of 1910, when there were major forest fires throughout the western United States, the need for a fire warning system in the fledgling Forest Service was readily apparent. The initial response was to build small cabins on mountain peaks and station a lookout there during the three month fire season. In addition, a telephone communication network was installed throughout the forest to keep the lookouts in contact with the Ranger Stations. The lookouts equipment usually consisted of binoculars and the telephone. Lookouts would direct fire crews to areas by the topographic features. Much of the forest land had not yet been mapped, and Forest Service crews were at work doing surveys and naming the topographic features.

There have been three lookout towers at Hat Point. The first, a fifty foot log tower was built between 1910 and 1920, as a response to the need for a Forest Service wide, fire warning system.

The second lookout tower at Hat Point, a ninety foot log structure, was built around 1931. Lawrence Potter was employed by the Forest Service doing trail maintenance and telephone line repair. Lawrence and the Wilson brothers, Buck and Jimmy were directed to cut the logs for a new tower at Hat Point. The logs were to be ninety feet long with a minimum six inch diameter at the top end. Lawrence and Buck cruised the area for trees that were sound and long enough to meet the specification. They selected four mature Lodgepole Pines, which they fell and bucked. They then skidded the logs to the top of Hat Point, using Bucks mule team, Bones and Goldie. Jimmy Wilson and a supervisor by the name of Ed. (last name unknown) assisted Lawrence and Buck in building the tower and the lookout's cabin.

The tower was assembled on the ground, cross bars and diagonals attached to the four legs by bolts. Then a system of pulleys, block and tackle were hung from the top of the fifty foot tower. The mule team, (Bones and Goldie) were hitched to the ropes and they pulled the new trestle structure upright into it's place around the old fifty foot tower where cross pieces were attached. The new tower was set on a rock foundation, and built over the top of the old one. After the tower structure was completed, the old tower was disassembled from inside the new tower. Steps and the tower cabin were built then to complete the structure.

Lawrence Potter was assigned as the first lookout at Hat Point in 1931. Mr. and Mrs. Potter and their two young sons Dale and Jay lived at the tower site in the cabin that had also been built by their father. Potter had a saddle horse and two pack horses which he used to bring in his family and supplies for the three month stay during the fire season. There was no road into Hat Point in those days. The Potter family had a wood stove for a combination of heating and cooking. There was no water source at Hat Point, which required the Potters to haul water by pack horse about one and one-half miles from the nearest potable spring. The only person to person contact they ever had with other people was a pack train operator who came by the station once a month.

Lawrence Potter described the events of a lightning strike on the tower:
We had cables with frayed ends for lightning rods going down each leg of the tower. The ground was faulty on one of the cables when lightning struck the tower. The lightening turned everything blue, and burned the cable and the telephone lines up all the way into the cabin. The telephone was blown apart, and the rain drops on the cabin windows (tower cabin) glowed like electric light bulbs.

There is a conflict in the oral history al this point: It could be that the second cabin was built at this time (1934) by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and that the Potter family lived there the following three seasons.

Seventeen year old Jimmy Wilson was hired as the first Fire Guard, and he remained there through 1934. Jimmy and Murrielle Wilson were married in 1932, and their first child was born while he was assigned to Hat Point. Murrielle and the new baby missed the summer the child was born, but were back on the station the following year. The road into Hat Point was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ca. 1934. It is believed that the second living quarters cabin was built at that time.

After the road was built by the CCC various tourist lodges began to bring bus loads of visitors to Hat Point. The guest book was a lesson in geography, they came from around the world to see Hells Canyon, which at Hat Point is 1000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. While Jimmy worked in the tower, Murrielle became hostess to the tourists.