Vermont fire towers: From smoke spotters to thru-hikers
More than a century ago, an alliance of conservationists and wealthy landowners joined forces to set up fire towers across the state. Today, 13 towers are still standing and open to the public — while others have fallen into obscurity.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Wesley Davis of Chittenden:
“What is the history of the fire towers scattered across Vermont's peaks? How many were there and how many are still standing?”
Reporter Sabine Poux searches for answers in the early 1900s, when timberland owners and railroads ruled the Vermont landscape. Her reporting also brings her to the doorstep of a couple that found a lifetime of artistic inspiration as fire tower lookouts in southern Vermont. And she joined question-asker Wesley on a quest to locate a mostly forgotten fire tower hidden in the woods.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.
Sabine Poux: And I’m Sabine Poux.
Wesley Davis grew up in the woods — specifically, the woods around Mount Holly. But there was always one place where he could be high above the trees.
Wesley Davis: I remember the first time going up there — It was, like, weird, kind of surreal, like, it looks kind of like a radio tower or something. But it’s just amazing to get above the treeline.
Sabine Poux: He’s talking about the fire tower on the summit of nearby Ludlow Mountain, at Okemo. On top of the tower, Wesley and his siblings could see for miles.
Wesley Davis: It was close enough to our house that you could figure out, OK, that’s our neighbor's property, and that's the lake, or whatever. And there's a farmhouse, you know, it's neat.
Sabine Poux: As Wesley remembers, the tower was made of metal and had four or five flights of wooden stairs. It was tagged with graffiti and there was often broken glass at the base, probably left behind from some high school party. The remains of an old cabin sat nearby.
At the time, it all just seemed really old.
Wesley Davis: I never really understood what the purpose of it was. I always knew it was for fire. But I was like, well, it’s not like we have fire that much in Vermont.
Sabine Poux: Fast forward to today. The fire tower that Wesley grew up with, on Ludlow, is about 100 years old. By our count, it’s one of 38 total fire towers that were built in Vermont. And it’s one of about 13 that’s still climbable, minus those that are temporarily closed for repairs.
But Wesley’s also interested in the ones that aren’t so easy to find.
Wesley Davis: And like, those are ones that probably interest me the most. For example, the one on Mount Carmel.
Sabine Poux: Mount Carmel. That’s a peak in Chittenden that Wesley can see from his back porch, and he’s heard there used to be a fire tower there. That got him thinking about all the other towers that might be sitting in the woods, forgotten. And it reignited his earlier curiosity — about why they were put there in the first place.
The origins of Vermont’s fire tower program
Sabine Poux: My hunt for answers starts with some beginner's luck.
On my first day of reporting, I’m told to get in touch with Luke O’Brien, a forest recreation specialist with the state of Vermont.
I give him a call — and he just so happens to be standing on top of the state’s oldest fire tower, on Burke Mountain, working on some repairs. I join him up there the next day.
Sabine Poux: Well, should we go up?
Luke O’Brien: Yeah, let’s go check it out.
Sabine Poux: Sweet.
Sabine Poux: It’s an impressive structure: ladders zig-zagging up the tower’s metal torso, into the clouds. Climbing up feels a little treacherous.
Luke O’Brien: Just, you know, three points of contact maybe, and take it easy.
Sabine Poux: OK.
Sabine Poux: The fire tower on Burke, in the Northeast Kingdom, is the oldest and one of the tallest towers in the state, with sweeping views of Willoughby Gap and the Green and White mountains. The cab of the tower — that’s the small closed-in hut at the top — is tagged with the names and initials of visitors who’ve proudly stomached the daunting heights and ripping wind to get to this point.
Luke O’Brien: It’s distracting with the wind.
Sabine Poux: Yeah.
Luke O’Brien: It's hard to concentrate.
Sabine Poux: We get out of the wind and head to the base of the tower to chat. A ski lift sits idle nearby, in summer hibernation. And a few yards away, there’s another tower that stands even taller.
Sabine Poux: What is this broadcast tower we're looking at?
Luke O’Brien: I think it's for Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public, I should say. So yeah, there's a lot of infrastructure here on Burke.
Sabine Poux: Luke has been restoring fire towers like this one for more than 20 years. He’s also a self-described fire tower geek.
And he says the story of Vermont’s towers begins a very long time ago.
Luke O’Brien: Many people refer to the northeast as the asbestos forest that doesn't burn. But I think that some of the land practices back in the early 1900s combined to contribute to a number of forest fires.
Sabine Poux: When European settlers first came to Vermont, they cleared forests to build farms. Later on, companies built railroads, also out of wood, to haul all that lumber. That meant there was a lot of dry wood sitting around, waiting to catch fire. In the early 1900s, a series of wildfiresburned more than 15,000 acres across Vermont.
Luke O’Brien: So it was quite large, more than your average small forest or field fire. So I think it drew the attention of folks.
Sabine Poux: Those fires cost the state a fortune and set in motion a few big changes.
In 1904, the state set up a system of local fire wardens. And a few years later, they created a Division of Forestry and appointed its first ever state forester.
It was that forester who decided to set up towers across the state’s highest peaks — based off a similar system that already existed in Maine. That system came highly recommended. In a letter to the Vermont forester, one timberland owner from Maine wrote that his state's system was, quote, “the very best protection that could be possibly had against forest fires.”
In Vermont, wealthy landowners paid for the construction of the early towers, which helped them protect their own forests property. The tower on Burke was financed by Elmer Darling, who owned the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City and had roots in the nearby town.
Luke O’Brien: And so he, over time, acquired quite a bit of land, including much of Burke Mountain, and he wanted to protect that land. And he was willing to finance the construction of the first tower.
Sabine Poux: And so, Vermont’s fire tower program was born. The state paid lookouts $2 a day to stand watch.
Over the years, the program grew. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built even more towers and restored old ones. And this time, they were using steel. A storm in 1938 had knocked over a wooden tower at Burke. Steel proved to be more durable.
In total, there were 38 towers built, along with many corresponding cabins. They were staffed during the dry season — from late spring to early fall — and most of those towers were in the Northeast Kingdom, where wildfires hit the hardest.
When lookouts weren’t spotting fires, they were doing a lot of mundane tasks, according to records Luke found at an old lookout cabin.
Luke O’Brien: Not a lot of excitement there. A few, a few smokes spotted, but mostly hauling water, painting sheds and taking care of the infrastructure there.
Sabine Poux: It seems like it would take a very patient person, or a person who really appreciates being alone.
Luke O’Brien: Yeah, yep.
Enter Hugh and Jeanne Joudry.
Sabine Poux: Hi.
Jeanne Joudry: Good to see you.
Sabine Poux: Oh — are you a hugger?
Jeanne Joudry: I’m a hugger.
Sabine Poux: For people who spent 37 summers of their lives in a cabin in the woods on top of a mountain, Hugh and Jeanne are surprisingly outgoing.
Sabine Poux: How old are you two?
Hugh Joudry: Uhh, 114…
Jeanne Joudry: 195… No, I just turned 79.
Hugh Joudry: I’ll be 86 soon.
Jeanne Joudry: So, yeah. You’re going for it.
Hugh Joudry: Oh, absolutely.
Sabine Poux: When Hugh and Jeanne were in their 20s, they took jobs as firewatchers on top of Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont. Recently married and looking for adventure, the couple joined just as the program was starting to wind down in the 1960s — and they stayed for 11 years.
Today, they live at the base of Stratton, in a cabin that’s filled every inch with books and art — paintings by Jeanne and sculptures by Hugh. In early September, I join them on their screened-in porch, along with today’s question-asker, Wesley, and his baby, Veery.
Jeanne Joudry: We have enough room for everybody.
Wesley Davis: There will be a little more room once I finish changing her diaper…
Sabine Poux: Wesley and I are here to get answers to his question. But there are some questions that Hugh already knows we’re going to ask, because, well, everyone does.
Hugh Joudry: Four questions, I condensed it to: Number one, doesn’t it get lonely up here? Number two, what do you do? Number three, how did you get a job like this? And number four, when are you leaving?
Sabine Poux: They’re interesting questions. And they’re the types of questions, after all, that have become the center of so much fire tower lore — like in Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums. The book ends with the protagonist working as a lookout on Desolation Peak, searching for truth. He writes about meditating one night outside the tower: “Here indeed was the Great Truth Cloud, Dharmamega, the ultimate goal.”
That interest in spiritual contemplation is partly what brought the Joudrys up to Stratton in the first place. They were living in Buffalo, New York. Hugh was a math teacher and Jeanne was a graphic designer.
Jeanne Joudry: And then we said, “Well, this is kind of boring … What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?”
Sabine Poux: At the time, Hugh was in a playwriting course. That’s where he met a friend who he found incredibly serene.
Hugh Joudry: So I finally asked him, I said, “How can you sit there like that wo still when all this is going on?” He says, “Well, Joudry, I’ll tell you. In the springtime, I go to Okemo Mountain, and I go up in the fire tower with a lot of books, and I just watch for fires.” I said, “They pay you to watch for fires? Just to sit up there and do that? Can I get a job like that?” I wanted to get out.
Sabine Poux: Hugh says he was looking for intellectual adventure — and time, to read books about mythology and philosophy. Jeanne wanted some space to paint and to figure out what was next. The job of fire tower lookout fit the bill for them both.
Luckily, the watch on Stratton was ready to move on. Hugh’s friend wrote down the number for a contact with the forest service and told Hugh to give him a call. So in May 1968, Hugh and Jeanne took a chairlift up to the top of Stratton to start their new job and meet their supervisor.
Hugh Joudry: He had his doubts, you know. We looked like nervous city slickers, and we wouldn't really last the season. … So he says in very few words. And says, “Just learn new territory, you. And see you later.” And there we were, isolated.
Jeanne Joudry: It's May 21. And it's snowing heavily.
Sabine Poux: Hugh and Jeanne were to stay in a tiny cabin near the fire tower and report down to the base twice a day, using a radio. All the while, they were scanning the vast landscape below. Here’s question-asker Wesley, again.
Wesley Davis: When you say scan, do you mean scanning with the naked eye or with binoculars?
Jeanne Joudry: The naked eye. You sort of know the ridge lines, totally, and that whole thing, and then something stops -– you don't even know why you're stopping.
Sabine Poux: Reports weren’t always met with the urgency that Hugh and Jeanne expected, having come from the city. Hugh recalls one particularly slow-going call, in his first year of fire spotting.
Hugh Joudry: And I spotted a smoke over here, on Sheldon Hill. And I called the warden up. I said, “Well, would you please check it out?” … “Yep.” Hmm, that’s a long pause. “So, OK, I'll see you later then.” OK, so three days later, I got a ring on the phone. He says, “I got it.” That's all, five words.
Jeanne Joudry: Things were slow.
Sabine Poux: Still, Jeanne says their jobs felt important at a time when the conservation movement was picking up steam and the country was celebrating its first ever Earth Day.
When they weren’t fire spotting, the Joudrys tended to their mountaintop garden and made frequent trips to a water spring a quarter-mile away. They made pets out of the wild hares and subsisted off what Jeanne calls a “Spartan diet” of ham, spam and SpaghettiOs.
Jeanne Joudry: It’s a wonder we lived.
Hugh Joudry: You can do without a lot.
Jeanne Joudry: Yeah.
Sabine Poux: How much were you guys making a season for this work?
Hugh Joudry: Oh about five bucks, maybe?
Jeanne Joudry: No, probably about $90 every two weeks.
Sabine Poux: This was a time before hikers frequented Stratton Mountain. So Hugh and Jeanne were mostly completely alone. So they had plenty of time to get to their books. Jeanne says they read to one another at night, as a way to connect. The first author they read together was Dostoyevsky — a Russian writer who wrote long, philosophical novels.
Hugh Joudry: I was reading you know, this lamp was asthmatic. It was a Coleman lantern. And there's this misery, this Russian misery…
Jeanne Joudry: Maybe if you read the darkest books possible, you realize, you realize you have somebody that’s very nice with you.
Sabine Poux: Hugh says the solitude changed his life.
Hugh Joudry: Well, what happened was, it was so different, the environment, mentally and physically, that I started I started having dreams in which there was no narrative. I was like, “What the-– there’s no story. You’re here, man. It’s OK now.”
Jeanne Joudry: We weren’t talking to anybody but each other, for the most part.
Sabine Poux: I guess I was expecting that the silence would be a pitfall of the job, or something for lookouts to put up with.
But according to Jeanne, it was a draw — and not just for them, but for the other lookouts around Vermont, too.
Jeanne Joudry: There was a woman on Mount Olga, she was planning on becoming a nun. And she liked the solitude. And, of course, Fran was reading his 1,000 books.
Hugh Joudry: Aspiring to be a writer, that was the adventure.
Sabine Poux: There was a teenage woman on Burke who they’d talk to sometimes on the radio, and a friend on Elmore who was translating Tibetan poetry to English.
Jeanne Joudry: Everybody was doing something — they had their reasons for being there.
Sabine Poux: And Hugh got around to writing his play, about tourism and real estate development around Stratton. The play was later produced and broadcast by public radio station WFCR, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Radio announcer: And now, in stereo, we present, “Visitors.” An original non-drama by Hugh Joudry.
Voice actor: Bang, bang, bang against the trees. Down they go. Bang, bang, bang.
Sabine Poux: It’s pretty abstract.
Voice actor: Doesn’t it get lonely here? How do you get your food? What do you do in the winter? Didn’t you get certified to sit here? Is that all you do is sit around here? (unintelligible).
Sabine Poux: From the late ‘60s to the late ‘70s, Hugh and Jeanne thrived as fire lookouts on Stratton Mountain. Then, something changed: Vermont’s fire tower program came to an end. So, in 1979, Hugh and Jeanne packed their bags and headed for a different wilderness: New York City.
The end of Vermont’s fire tower program
Sabine Poux: By the late 1970s, Vermont had phased out pretty much all of its fire towers. One reason for the shift was that there just weren’t as many wildfires anymore. The lumber and railroad industries that had caused so many fires earlier on were no longer threats to the landscape. And thanks to campaigns like Smokey the Bear, the public had a better sense of how to be safe when it came to preventing fires.
Sabine Poux: But the state faced a new problem: what to do with all those old towers. Its answer was to put many of them on the market for just $1 a piece. As the Associated Press reported at the time, there was a “catch”: Buyers had to go get, dismantle and haul out the towers themselves — many of which weren’t accessible by road. It was a hard sell.
When it came to watching for fires, the state switched to a new system: When fire danger was high, it sent up patrols in airplanes to keep watch.
But even that strategy has petered out. Dan Dilner is the current forest fire supervisor for the state of Vermont. And he says the state hasn’t sent up a plane in a while.
Dan Dilner: So it’s established, it's all planned, so we could get them up in the air quickly, we just haven't utilized it for a really long time. Haven’t really had a need to.
Sabine Poux: Today, almost all fires in Vermont are started by humans, so they’re near people’s homes. That plus quicker emergency response services means there are hundreds of thousands of civilian spotters around Vermont ready to make the call.
Dan Dilner: In terms of watching for fires, we don't, we don’t, you know, sit there and look for them. People call them in to 911. And, you know, fire departments respond very, very quickly.
Sabine Poux: There are way fewer wildfires today than there were in the early 1900s, due to Vermont’s changing landscape and better prevention tactics. But there is a very important caveat. Climate change is causing more extreme weather in Vermont. And that means conditions can get much drier, which increases the risk of fires. At the same time, Vermont is seeing really wet conditions.
Dan Dilner: As we saw this year in June, until we started getting that excessive rain, we were in some pretty high fire danger, we had a lot of potential. And northern Quebec, obviously, didn't get the rain and so they continued to have fires throughout the summer. But thankfully we did. But then we got too much.
Sabine Poux: Once again, Vermont finds itself having more days with a higher fire risk. For the first time, the state is hiring two full-time professional wildland firefighters, jobs that are already common out west. Dan Dilner’s job, too, has changed in the last year, to have more of a focus on wildfire prevention.
Not all states have turned away from their fire lookouts. Out west, where fire risk is much higher, states are using a combination of automated lookout technology and old-school fire watches. There are still more than 70 lookouts in Washington and Oregon, and nearly 60 in California, according to theNew York Times.
And some states on the east coast have actually reinstated their fire tower programs to address increasing risk. A few years ago, the state of Pennsylvania spent $4 million to build 16 new towers there. New Jersey and New Hampshire still use lookouts also.
But if you're hoping to run into a fire lookout on one of Vermont’s peaks in the near future, don’t hold your breath. While Dan says nothing is completely out of the question, he says it’s hard to imagine today that it would be necessary to bring back lookouts in Vermont
Still, many of the state’s fire towers have gotten a second life. And it’s why many of us know about these towers in the first place.
The hiking boom
Sabine Poux: The end of the fire tower program in Vermont coincided with the start of the modern hiking boom, in the 1960s and ’70s. Hikers could get unobstructed views from the tops of towers — a sort of reward for a long trek to the top.
One ski resort even built a tower in the 1960s just to bring in more hikers in the off-season. The Green Mountain Club is rebuilding that tower next summer.
Luke O’Brien: They're still quite popular. And uh, as you could see here, we're still trying to keep them in good shape for the public.
Sabine Poux: It’s that popularity that brought forestry’s Luke O’Brien to the summit of Burke Mountain last month. The tower there hasn’t been used as a fire lookout in about four decades. But now, it’s a lookout spot for visitors. Luke’s replacing the wooden treads on the tower’s staircase, which have been worn down by weather and hiking boots.
Luke O’Brien: Here we're just doing a wholesale replacement of all the wooden parts. There are 72 treads on the Burke Mountain fire tower and six landings. So it's a lot of wood. But we're chipping away at it, you know, a little bit at a time.
Sabine Poux: Some hikers have made a project out of visiting all the fire towers in Vermont. That’s what siblings Marriette and Simon Aborn did early in the pandemic, when they were living at their family’s home in Manchester for the first time since high school.
The first tower they visited was Mount Olga, in Wilmington.
Mariette Aborn: And then I think just from there, we just started wondering about fire towers. We knew of a couple others that existed and then we sort of started to generate the list from there.
Sabine Poux: Mariette says making the list was half the fun. They did some research online and mapped out the towers that were open to the public.
Some took them to parts of the state they had never seen. But even the towers in southern Vermont gave them new perspectives on familiar views.
Simon Aborn: We have, like, a certain perception of what Stratton Mountain looks like, you know, growing up skiing there from the, from the ski resorts side. But you find the the fire tower and the top of Stratton Mountain looks really flat. It’s really, it’s like a pretty flat dome that's just totally at odds with with how we've experienced it from below.
Sabine Poux: As for Hugh and Jeanne Joudry, after they left their fire lookout in 1979, they couldn’t stay away forever. In New York, they found themselves often making the drive to hike and camp in the woods upstate.
So, in 1996, they came back to their cabin and fire tower on Stratton — this time, as caretakers with the Green Mountain Club. For almost three decades, the Joudry’s enjoyed their second wind on their mountain perch.
Jeanne Joudry: But this time, many more people. And our duties were not that of fire, you know, watching for fire. But we always looked anyhow. I mean, why wouldn't you be looking?
Sabine Poux: A lot had changed since Hugh and Jeanne left. The tower was now a lookout for tourists and thru-hikers, who were coming by on the Appalachian and Long Trails.
What was initially a monkish artists’ refuge had turned into quite the social scene. Jeanne and Hugh, delighted by the company, invited hikers into their cabin for tea when it was raining, and, on some occasions, for pancakes. They maintained several miles of trails, and met hikers from all over the world.
Like the towers themselves, they became local legends. They met a man who was setting a speed record on the Appalachian Trail, and stopped him for a quick autograph. In his book, the runner said he wished he had more time to talk to the wise, old French-Canadian couple at the top of Stratton.
Hugh Joudry: Wouldn't you know, that day a guy from Georgia comes up. He says, “Hey, y'all, I know you got some wisdom to pass on?” I say, “Oui, monsieur. If you have maple syrup, si vous plait, keep it under lock and key.” OK, stick with the script. That’s the wisdom.
Sabine Poux: I mean, I'm sure a lot of people saw you guys as these, like, enlightened mountain beings, right?
Hugh and Jeanne Joudry: Sometimes, yes.
Sabine Poux: Is there truth to that?
Hugh Joudry: There is, well…
Jeanne Joudry: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Sabine Poux: Last year, the couple retired so they could get back to focusing on their art. A younger caretaker took their place.
They still live close to the mountain — a five minute drive from the base. And they still go up to the top when they can, to look around at the forest they know maybe better than anybody.
Jeanne Joudry: I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I want to be right here. We’ve got, the connections are too strong to be anywhere else, at this point.
Sabine Poux: Not all fire towers have stood the test of time – which brings us to this postscript in our story.
First, some quick math. At the top, we told you there have been a total of 38 fire towers in Vermont. 13 of those towers are still standing and still climbable, though two of them are currently closed for repairs. A handful of others are privately owned.
And that leaves about 20 that are no longer standing — including the fire tower on Mount Carmel. That’s the one that sparked the curiosity of our question-asker, Wesley Davis.
Wesley’s heard it’s still out there. So we decide to go find it ourselves.
On a cloudy Tuesday, colleague Joey Palumbo and I head to Chittenden and load up in Wesley’s red pick-up truck.
Our mission is one of redemption. Wesley has tried to find this tower before on a nearby mountain.
Wesley Davis: Long story short, we went up there and didn't find any fire tower.
Sabine Poux: We head up the Long Trail a ways, past a group of thru-hikers, and then up Mount Carmel itself, bushwhacking our way through.
Eventually, we rejoin a narrow trail. And then, all of a sudden-–
Sabine Poux: Oh my God!
Joey Palumbo: Oh, wow.
Wesley Davis: It’s like, completely intact, just on its side.
Sabine Poux: In the middle of what feels like nowhere, there's a huge hunk of metal, turned completely horizontal. The ladder running up its side is twisted, like a roller coaster track, and it’s overgrown with trees that have, at parts, wrapped fully around its legs. We later find out that the tower was toppled by the state in the ’70s — likely because it was a liability issue.
The cloud cover clears and Wesley climbs up the tower’s side. Like he did when he was a kid, on Okemo, he looks out for landmarks.
Wesley Davis: You can see Mountaintop quite well. Yeah, the reservoir is due south … Cool. Yeah, you’ve got to get up here, Sabine.
Sabine Poux: Alright, I’m coming.
Sabine Poux: I can see what Jeanne meant — it would be easy to spot a disturbance up here, a flash of orange or gray interrupting rolling green.
Up here, there are no gondolas, no graffiti, no smashed up glass bottles. Just metal and earth and us.
Thanks to Wesley Davis for the great question, and for joining us in our reporting.
This episode was reported and mixed by Sabine Poux, and it was produced and edited by Josh Crane. Additional support from Sophie Stephens, Corey Dockser and Joey Palumbo. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Mark Haughwout, Ron Kemnow, Mary Jo Llewellyn, Peter Hayes, Alan Thompson, Keegan Tierney, Prudence Doherty, Juls Sundberg, Liam Elder-Connors, and Danielle Kovacs and the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.
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