Historic Structures

Chelan Butte Lookout - Fire Watchtower, Chelan Washington

Date added: August 18, 2021 Categories: Washington Fire Watchtower

Euro-American settlement of the lower Lake Chelan country gained momentum in the 1890s as transportation and access to the remote area improved. Homesteaders who settled in the vicinity of Chelan Butte turned to raising livestock, grazing their animals on the grasses of the sparsely forested butte. The summit of the butte, 3835' above sea level, provided a dramatic vantage point overlooking Lake Chelan and the forests and mountains of Okanogan and Chelan Counties. It is possible that Chelan Butte was used for fire surveillance purposes prior to any recorded Forest Service use of the site.

The earliest documented use of the butte for fire surveillance is the notation on a 1922 Forest Service map of a triangulation station at the summit accessible by trail. At that time, the geographic location of Chelan Butte was outside the Wenatchee National Forest and within the jurisdiction of the Chelan Ranger District on the old Chelan National Forest. Forest Service employee Simeon (Sim) Beeson, a forty-year veteran of the Chelan Ranger District, confirmed that in the 1920s and early 1930s a tent camp was located at the summit. Another long-time Forest Service employee, Marion McFadden, recalled the existence of a rudimentary gabled lookout cabin in the summer of 1938, his first season on the butte. In his personal possession is a 1938 photograph of himself as a young lookout man standing in front of the grade-level cabin.

During that season, Sim Beeson headed a construction crew that built a fourmile road up to the lookout site. According to Beeson and McFadden, a small crew of CCC enrollees supervised by local carpenter Bill McClean erected the lookout tower later that year. The closest CCC camp was located on the south side of Lake Chelan at Twenty-five Mile Creek and a "side" or "spike" camp was located in the town of Chelan. Typical of other CCC camps, Camp Twenty-five Mile Creek not only provided essential labor crews for forest projects, but also offered technical training and basic educational opportunities to enrollees.

Due to its strategic location, the Chelan Butte Lookout was actively manned for a number of years as a primary station for fire surveillance over both the Chelan and the Wenatchee National Forests. Marion McFadden served as the first lookout in the summers of 1939 and 1940, and Sherry Yanac was the last fulltime lookout in the summer of 1984. After that , the lookout tower was no longer utilized for fire surveillance purposes, and all its furnishings were subsequently removed by the Forest Service.

The Chelan Butte Lookout is situated at the summit of a sparsely-forested mountain a short distance south of the southern tip of Lake Chelan and the town of Chelan in north central Washington State. The lookout is easily accessible via a partially-improved four-mile long county road, which ascends approximately 2700' to the ridgetop site. The county road intersects with US 97 at Lakeside, two miles west of downtown Chelan. The surrounding terrain is characterized by basaltic and granitic rock outcrops, and by sage brush interspersed with clusters of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine. The lookout point is located on a ridgetop at +3835' elevation, and from atop the tower provides a panoramic 360-degree view of Lake Chelan, the Chelan, Entiat and Wenatchee Mountains, Wenatchee National Forest, the Columbia River, and arid eastern Washington plateaus.

Beginning in the 1960s, communication towers and related structures, ranging from 80 to 140' in height, were put up in close proximity to the lookout. Owing to their size, scale, and visual prominence, they now dominate the site. Since the early 1980s, the site has been further utilized by hang gliders. A small launch ramp of scrap lumber now stands 100' east of the lookout.

Additional features at the site included a depression in the rocks marking the remains of a root cellar, an 8 x 8' wood pole fenced enclosure north of the lookout tower which served as a weather station, and an outhouse beyond it. The weather station was removed in 1988, and the outhouse was destroyed in a 1991 wildfire on Chelan Butte.

USDA Forest Service

In 1905, Federal legislation created the USDA Forest Service, an agency dedicated to the protection and management of previously-established forest reserves. Forest Rangers and Supervisors began to develop a comprehensive system for administration of the forests, including the development of trails, roads, and ranger and guard stations. By 1908, five new National Forests were created in Washington State: Chelan NF, Colville NF, Columbia NF (later changed to Gifford Pinchot), Snoqualmie NF, and Wenatchee NF.

In the same year, the Forest Service also began to formally recruit paid fire crews, greatly strengthening the agency's forest fire suppression capability. Previously, fire control had been handled by the combined volunteer efforts of miners, loggers, ranchers, and homesteaders. The establishment of the new agency marked an advance in public support for the conservation of natural resources and for a program of full-scale forest fire protection.

Development of a Fire Surveillance and Protection System

Early in the administration of the National Forests, a specialized detection - communication system utilizing a network of fire lookouts was put in place. The essential feature of this system was the stationing of men on selected mountain peaks during fire season. The sole responsibility of the lookout man was to discover, report and, in some cases, fight forest fires.

The lookout system expanded rapidly between 1911 and 1915, owing in large part to extensive fires in 191 O and subsequent Federal aid. Typically, the lookout man camped in a tent below the peak and hiked daily to and from a tree platform or a pile of rocks. These crude stations were equipped with a compass or firefinder and a means of communication by heliograph or telephone. The prototype "Osborne Fire Finder" came into use in 1914. Readings similar to those taken from an engineer's transit would be used in conjunction with sightings from other lookout stations to provide a "triangulation."

Specialized Lookout Structures

By 1915, the Forest Service had begun to consider the importance of providing a permanent lookout structure which would enhance the working conditions and the performance of the lookout man. The prototype lookout house built on Mt. Hood in 1915 (the basis for the standard D-6 Lookout House) was designed by Lige Coalman of District 6. It was a 12' by 12' pre-cut wood frame house with windows all around the upper portion of the structure, a protective shutter system, and a glazed second-story observatory or cupola. Eventually, a few hundred lookouts based on this design were placed on forests in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. The great majority of these are no longer extant.

Early Fire Surveillance and Detection on the Wenatchee National Forest

Wenatchee National Forest was established in 1908 out of lands previously administered as part of the Washington Forest Reserve. Sheep grazing, orcharding, mining, and trapping were the principal commercial activities on or adjacent to forest lands. Because of these activities, an extensive system of trails and wagon roads existed on the forest by 1908. Access into and out of the Wenatchee Valley was by steamer on the Columbia River, or over the steep and difficult Colockum Pass route from the Kittitas Valley. The forest's fairly intense level of use, the relatively good access to it, and the dry climate east of the Cascade Crest, contributed to the area's extensive fire history.

By 1914, several fire lookout points had been established by the Forest Service on the Wenatchee National Forest. These camps, on selected mountain peaks, included Dirty Face Ridge, Sugarloaf Peak, Icicle Ridge and Tiptop. The placement of these stations and the subsequent construction of D-6 cupola-style lookouts followed a regional trend.

Passable automobile roads through the Cascade Mountains connected eastern and western Washington and extended well into the forest by 1922. A fairly well-developed system of trails provided access to all parts of the forest by foot or pack horse. An official Forest Service map from this period promoted the "beautiful" views from fire lookout stations, which were accessible by trail and included; Tumwater Mt., Dirty Face Peak, Sugarloaf Peak, Tiptop, Red Top, and Jolly Mt. Permanent lookout houses, most often of the D-6 cupola-style plan, had been placed on at least eight lookout points by 1925 and several more triangulation points and/or tent camps were in use.

Plan L-4 Fire Lookout House

The Plan L-4 Lookout House, designed by Fickes and Halm of Region One, was developed as a more efficient and economic alternative to the older D-6 design. At first intended for assembly by the lookout man himself (as Plan L-2), the 1930 Plan L-4 was made for construction by a professional carpenter and his crew. The design was slightly revised in 1932 from a simple gable roof form to a more structurally efficient hipped or pyramidal roof configuration. In 1936, the design was again revised to specify a different window shutter support system. Over one-thousand L-4 plan lookouts were ultimately built throughout the National Forests, primarily on Region One, in Montana and Idaho, and Region Six in Washington and Oregon.

The standard Plan L-4 included several distinctive design features which reflect the functional nature of the property type and the conditions involved in the construction and use of it. The salient features of the plan were: a 14' by 14' structural frame of pre-cut members; indigenous rock foundations; guy anchorage systems; tower structures of pre-drilled, treated timbers; perimeter catwalks; pyramidal roof forms (after 1932); a continous band of windows for 360-degree visibility; window shutters to protect glazing from snow and wind; a lightning protection system; and rudimentary interior furnishings to be constructed on site, including a firefinder stand, a bunk, a table for dining, and other simple stools, benches, shelves, and cabinets.

Fire Lookout Network 1932-1938

The proliferation of the standard Plan L-4 in an expanded fire lookout network in the 1930s was spurred by two important events: the initiation in 1932 of a ten-year National Plan for forest projects, and the establishment in 1933 of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC influenced the physical development of lands under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service more than any other single group or federal program. The CCC had a particularly significant impact on the improvement of National Forests in the Pacific Northwest. Between 1933 and 1942, the accomplishments of the CCC in the region included the construction of hundreds of lookout houses and towers, the installation of thousands of miles of telephone lines, and the construction and maintenance of foot trails, forest roads and fire breaks. Administrative and service buildings, many of them still in use today, were also erected by CCC crews.

CCC projects were undertaken on the Wenatchee National Forest by enrollees stationed at Camp Taneum near Thorp, Camp Icicle near Leavenworth, Camp Brannigan on the Entiat River, Camp Twenty-five Mile Creek on Lake Chelan, and the Soil Erosion Camp at Mission Creek at Cashmere. In order to better accomplish isolated projects, several other "side" or "spike" camps were also established and operated entirely by the Forest Service.

The contributions of the CCC greatly improved the Forest Service's fire detection and suppression system. Over 30 lookout houses were erected by the CCC on the Wenatchee National Forest alone. Trails or roads to access the lookout sites were also provided. Many CCC enrollees additionally served as lookout men or made up firefighting crews on major forest fires in the 1930s.