After more than a year of renovation work, the historic Smith Mountain Fire Tower is set to open to the public June 16
Story by Natalie Nettles
“It’s like being in an airplane without having to be in one.”
That’s how Jerry Bynum describes how he feels standing 80 feet above Smith Mountain in the cab of the newly restored Smith Mountain Fire Tower.
Bynum – along with a handful of other volunteers – are in the cab working to put the final touches on the fire tower, which is scheduled to open to the public in mid-June.
“Saturday, June 16, we will be open for visitation,” said Jimmy K. Lanier, founder of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association that is developing Smith Mountain into a public hiking park with the restored fire tower as its grand centerpiece. “We plan to then wait a couple months to do the big dedication ceremony – probably the fall when it’s cool.”
Lanier said there are plans for the Dadeville Kiwanis Club to host a fish fry at the dedication ceremony, just as the club did in 1939 during the dedication of the original fire tower.
The tower and 10 acres at the top of the 780-foot Smith Mountain in Dadeville – property that was managed by the Alabama Division of Forestry as a working fire lookout from 1939-1980 – was deeded to CRATA by Alabama Power Co. in November 2010.
Restoration work began in early 2011 on the tower. The project, Lanier said, has taken longer than expected, but has been less expensive than projected, because of the use of volunteer labor and donated materials instead of contractors and purchased materials.
“We fabricated all the landing railings and did a lot of the work ourselves,” he said.
Robert Hodnett, a structural engineer from Hodnett Hurst Engineering Company out of Huntsville, donated the restoration plans for the tower. The more permanent structure has been made stronger than the original tower and safety railings and heavy-duty wire mesh have been installed along the stairs and landings.
“We know that “the tower weighs at least 3,000 more pounds than it originally did,” Lanier said. “The last metal we put on was 830 pounds and the time before that was 2,100 pounds.”
Ninety-seven cedar steps – and 12 landings – lead the way to the top of the tower.
Standing in the cab of the tower, visitors are far atop the trees on Smith Mountain, and can see Lake Martin landmarks such as Young’s Island, Blue Creek, Sandy Creek and Little Sandy Creek, Chimney Rock, Hog Mountain, River Bridge and Pleasure Point.
“You can pretty much see the whole lake from here,” Bynum said as he pointed to several of the landmarks. “On a clear day, I’d say you could see for about 25 miles or more.”
Once open, 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 lot at the bottom of the mountain,
“It will be a footpath only. There will be no vehicles coming up here,” Lanier said.
Restoration of the fire tower has been made possible by public donations that total more than $48,000 so far, as well as in-kind donations.
Donations are still needed to fund other needs at the hiking park, including building miles of trails, according to Lanier. Plans are in place to create at least four hiking trails covering more than 10 miles that wind through centuries-old pines, rock ledges, old turpentine milling sites and even an old gold mine. At least one of the hiking trails will be accessible by boat at a lakeshore landing.
There are also plans to install 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.
Eventually, CRATA also intends to restore an old fire ranger building at the base of the tower and use it as a museum where they will put photos of, and various pieces from, the original tower.
Lanier said he would like to thank everyone who has donated to the restoration, as well as the many volunteers who have worked on the project, including 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.
He added that it “feels good” to be nearly done with the restoration project and he is looking forward to sharing the new tower with the public.
“It’s taken at least a year out of my life,” Lanier said. “But I can say one thing: it’s been a joyful year. It really has.”
“It’s definitely been a labor of love,” construction volunteer Mike Wilson added. “At least on my part, there’s a lot of self-interest because I’m going to come and wear these trails out.”
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.