After more than a year of work, the Smith Mountain Fire Tower is nearing completion
Story by Kenneth Boone
The restoration of the historic Smith Mountain Fire Tower is almost finished and a dedication ceremony is tentatively scheduled for the end of May.
“We are probably 93 percent complete,” said Jimmy K. Lanier, founder of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association that is developing Smith Mountain into a public hiking park with the tower as its centerpiece.
“All the big stuff is done,” said tower construction volunteer Mike Wilson, explaining that several railings still need to be constructed and installed and a number of smaller tasks still remain. “We’re down to brass tacks now,” he said.
Tower restoration, which began in early 2011, has taken longer than expected but has been less expensive than projected because of the extensive use of volunteer labor and donated materials instead of contractors and purchased materials
“As far as the tower, we are way under budget,” Lanier said. “We saved $10,000 by fabricating these metal railings.”
“We recycled a lot of the metal we took off the tower,” Wilson said.
Sitting on the floor of the tower’s cab to get out of the 25 mph winds in late March, Lanier said, “There are quite a few braces that need to be fabricated and hot-dip galvanized, but as far as structural construction, we are probably at least 93 percent complete.”
For casual observers – those of us who don’t wear climbing harnesses and spend hours at a time on the tower – the floors of the fire tower’s 12 landings have been a bit disconcerting during the restoration process. Up until this point, makeshift floors were mostly loose plyboard laid atop the steel girders, or in a few cases simple boards with wide-open spaces on both sides. Both tended to move underfoot. However, the finished cedar flooring was expected to be installed during the last week of March. The 96 cedar steps leading to the tower’s cab are already in place.
“As soon as the landing floors are in, it will be a lot safer for us to do what we need to do on the bracing,” Lanier said.
“I’m expecting to be finished by the end of April,” he added.
The much more permanent steel superstructure has been made stronger than the original tower and, while it is possible to feel the tower move very slightly underfoot, it is very sturdy. Safety railings and heavy duty wire mesh has been installed all along the stairs and landings, a feature that the original fire rangers did without.
The view from the cab of the fire tower is nothing short of spectacular. The top of 780-foot Smith Mountain has long been a famous, beautiful meeting spot for Lake Martin residents. But climbing the 80-foot tower, far above the trees on the top of the mountain, offers an unfettered view where visitors can see the waters of Blue Creek and Lake Martin on three sides, as well as Hog Mountain and the rolling foothills beyond the lake.
One common sight from the top of the fire tower is looking down at – or at eye-level with – nearby flying buzzards. The tower has long been a favorite roosting place for the large birds, and restoration has even included a set of spikes on the cab’s roof to discourage birds from stopping there.
“There are lots of buzzards,” Wilson said as a number soared by the cab.
“They’ve called me an old buzzard up here a few times,” Lanier laughed. “Mike’s called me everything, just about.”
“Yea, you can’t be thin skinned up here,” Wilson said as wind whipped through the tower’s cab.
Restoration of the Smith Mountain Fire Tower has been made possible by public donations that total more than $48,000 in cash so far, as well as in-kind donations.
Lanier said donations are still needed to fund other needs at the hiking park, including building miles of trails and an informational kiosk near the parking area at the base of Smith Mountain where hikers will learn about the park, the tower, the trails and the environment in the area. Also, Lanier said CRATA has plans to purchase a chainsaw and a four-wheeler or a “Gator” to help maintain the park. Eventually, CRATA also intends to restore an old fire ranger building at the base of the tower and use it as a museum.
Lanier said the trail from the parking area to the top of Smith Mountain is basically complete now, but additional trails in the park are still in the planning stage.
CRATA’s effort to create a public park on Smith Mountain – one of the most beautiful spots on Lake Martin – has evolved into a community project. More than 100 people have helped work on the tower and the trails leading to it, and many hundreds of people have donated money to the restoration project.
The tower and 10 acres at the top of Smith Mountain – property that was managed by the Alabama Division of Forestry as a working fire look-out from 1939-1980 – was deeded to the CRATA by Alabama Power Co. in November, 2010.
This summer the restored tower will be open year-round during daylight hours. The tower will be accessible only by hiking a 1-mile loop trail that begins and ends at a parking area at the foot of the mountain.
Plans are in place to create at least four hiking trails covering more than 10 miles. At least one of the hiking trails will be accessible by boat at a lakeshore landing. The trails will wind through beautiful, hilly countryside that’s home to centuries-old longleaf pines, rock ledges, old turpentine milling sites and at least one old gold mine. Workers building the 1-mile loop to the tower discovered a gold mining shaft by accident when one of the trail builders fell a few feet into the mine. It has since been blocked off but the trail wasn’t moved.
Lanier said the sheet steel walls of the tower’s cab contain 14 bullet holes, which have been smoothed and left open as a conversation piece for visitors.
“We wanted to keep it like this because it’s part of the history of the tower,” Lanier said. “We could have gotten new sheet metal, but it would have cost us a good bit.”
Volunteers working on site include the Dadeville First United Methodist Men’s Group, members of the Lake Martin Resource Association, CRATA and area residents including Scouts and members of the Kiwanis Club and Key Club in Dadeville.
Donations to the Smith Mountain Fire Tower Restoration should be made to CRATA. All donations are tax-deductible and all donors will be recognized in print by Lake magazine and at the dedication ceremony. People who donate $100 or more will be named on a permanent cast plaque displayed at the site.