Historic Structures

Suntop Lookout Fire Watchtower, Greenwater Washington

Date added: June 11, 2021 Categories: Washington Fire Watchtower

Suntop Lookout is located on the andesitic ridgetop of Suntop Mountain, 15 miles northeast of Mt. Rainier. The origin of the mountain's name is unknown. The lookout is at 5270 feet elevation and has a view of forest land in the White River and Huckleberry Creek valleys.

Concern for the protection of forest lands prompted the establishment of a system of Forest Reserves from the public domain in the late nineteenth century. By 1905,they had evolved into the system of National Forests today administered by the Department of Agriculture.

From the outset, fire prevention and control was seen as essential to protection of the Nation's forests. In addition to the actual loss of timber consumed by fire, the threat of fire caused forest owners to harvest their holdings at a rapid rate. This led to depletion of the resource and an oversupply of timber that was economically unhealthy.

Detection is critical to fire control, as early detection generally reduces the control forces required and the resource loss. Initially, detection efforts consisted of a system of fire guards on foot, horse or automobile patrol. They proved inefficient, as visibility from existing trails was limited. The guards came to be referred to as "pothole patrolmen", because their routes kept them at low elevation.

Detection programs were expanded following the disastrous fire season of 1910. The Pacific Northwest Region began to expand its network of elevated lookout stations. Typically, the fire patrolman camped in a tent below a high peak, and hiked daily to a lookout station on the peak. The station consisted of a tree platform or pile of rocks furnished with a compass or crude firefinder and a means of communication, commonly a telephone line or heliograph.

This system also proved unsatisfactory, primarily because the location of the tent camps and lookout stations left the occupants exposed to the full force of the elements. This led to the development of a prototype lookout house, placed on Mt. Hood in 1915. The prototype evolved into the Plan D-6 lookout (for District 6, now known as Region 6). The plan featured windows encircling the upper walls, a hipped roof, a glassed-in second story observatory (cupola) and shutters.

Some experimentation with design followed. In 1928, Standard Plan L-2 was developed. It resembled the D-6, and was designed to accommodate a limited budget and construction in remote settings. Components were pre-cut for delivery aboard eight mules, and labelled for construction using to a set of simple plans and tools. The goal was to have the fire patrolman match the pre-cut and numbered pieces and build the shelter himself. Few of these lookouts were built, and they did not hold up well.

The design rapidly evolved to the L-4 plan, also designed for shipment aboard a pack string but intended for construction by an experienced carpenter and crew. The L-4 plan was revised twice between 1930 and 1936, and was used until 1953. Suntop was constructed according to the plan as revised in 1932.

Development of the L-4 plan coincided with a Pacific Northwest Region initiative to replace the "pothole patrolmen", following another disastrous fire season in 1927. It also coincided with the initiation (in 1932) of a ten-year national plan for forest improvements, and the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Between 1933 and 1942, the C.C.C. constructed hundreds of lookouts, thousands of miles of telephone line, foot trails and roads, greatly improving the forest fire detection and suppression system.

During World War II, a number of the lookouts in Washington, Oregon and California were incorporated into the U. S. Army Aircraft Warning Service. The lookouts were staffed around the clock and 365 days a year to give early warning of enemy attack. Suntop was part of the system in 1942 and 1943. No significant incidents are associated with this use, but the Forest Service was challenged by the necessity to provide reliable telephone service and supplies to a remote lookout in the dead of winter.

Following the war, many lookouts were abandoned. The increasing use of aircraft patrols made an extensive lookout network unnecessary. During periods of low fire danger the time tolerance for detection is high, and lookouts are expensive in relation to the likelihood of detecting a fire. A few patrol flights could be readily substituted. Those lookouts which remain are, in many cases, only occupied during periods of extreme fire danger. Suntop is now primarily a recreation site, used for picnicking and interpretation of Forest Service fire control and land management practices.

Suntop Lookout was constructed according to the 1932 revision of Standard Plan L-4, and therefore embodies the distinctive elements of that plan. Specifically, it is a one-story, single-room, 14 X 14 foot cabin. The wood components were pre-cut to facilitate packing by horse or mule string. It possesses the pyramidal roof of the 1932 revision, which replaced the gable roof of the 1930 L-4. Also typical are exterior walls with a continuous band of windows forming the upper two-thirds, and permitting a 360-degree view of the surrounding forest. As specified in the 1932 revision, these are two-over-two fixed and pivoting sash, a replacement of the nine-light windows in the 1930 plan.

Other typical features originally included shutters of 1 X 6 inch shiplap reinforced with double z-bracing. When closed, these shutters provided structural support for the relatively weak frame formed by the window mullions. When open, the shutters provided shade and reduced glare. Although the original shutters were removed ca. 1978, a 1988/89 restoration provided shutters constructed according to the original plan.

The interior of Suntop also shows construction details typical of L-4 lookouts. These include a firefinder stand, stool, table, and a bunk.

By the winter of 1987-88, Suntop was in poor condition.. In about 1966, the original shiplap siding was covered by cedar board-and-batten siding for cosmetic reasons. The original shutters were replaced ca. 1978 with X-braced plywood. The foundation had failed, and the north and south walls were bowed. Two windows, on the western end of the south wall, had been broken out by vandals.

These deficiencies led to a major rehabilitation project in 1988 and 1989. The structural components of the buildings were numbered, disassembled and removed from the foundation. The foundation was demolished, and replaced with a concrete foundation with a native rock veneer. Building components were examined, and where deteriorated were replaced in-kind with new components. The components were then re-assembled according to their original position in the structure. The board-and-batten siding was not replaced, exposing the original shiplap. New shutters were constructed according to original plans. A new shingle roof and metal chimney were installed. Exclusive of the roof and shutters, approximately 70 percent of the original wood components remain.