FIRE TOWERS OF THE CATSKILLS
THEIR HISTORY AND LORE
by Marty Podskoch
From chapter 22:
Gallis Hill Fire Tower was removed from the Kingston area in 1950 by Conservation Department workers and moved eight miles north of the village of Woodstock, where it was rebuilt on Overlook Mountain (3,140 feet). This new location gave a commanding vista of the eastern Catskills.
The state received an easement from landowner Wilbert D. Newgold to build the tower, cabin, telephone line and truck road from Mead Mountain Road to the summit.
Observer Barnet "Barney" Howland and rangers Frank Border, Aaron Van De Bogart and Herb Lepke Sr. helped move the 60-foot tower. Howland says, "We used a bulldozer to widen the old road that used to go to the old Overlook Mountain House. Then we built the tower and cabin. I loved my job, but I had to give it up to get a better-paying job so I could send my daughter to college."
The tower began operating in 1951, and Barney Howland reported seven fires, followed by 23 fires in 1953 and four fires in 1954. After 37 years service the DEC closed Overlook Mountain Fire Tower in 1988. "I was sad to see the tower closed down because the fire observers were very good at teaching the hikers about fire safey and ecology," says retired Forest Ranger Roger Blatter of West Hurley. Overlook Mountain offers one of the best views of the Catskills. According to Blatter: "From the tower or from the ledges, the hiker has a panoramic view of the Berkshire Mountains, the Hudson River, the Ashokan Reservoir, the Shawangunk and the Catskill Mountains. You can see seven states."
"Johnny Baldwin was one of the observers at Overlook," says Blatter. "He was great with the hikers at the tower, but he wanted to keep it in good shape. Well, word got out that he was strict."
Baldwin chuckles, "Sometimes I had trouble with some of the hikers and campers who wanted to break into my cabin by the tower. I learned how to catch rattlesnakes from Ranger Aaron Van De Bogart and people knew this. Well, I used to keep a black snake in my cabin to deal with rodents, and sometimes it would crawl up on the chair and peer out the window. The hikers would see this and word got out that there was a rattlesnake in the cabin. After that, I had no problem with people trying to break into my cabin."
"I also had a tame deer and a tame bear cub that I called Tedra," says Baldwin. "One summer Tedra got lost, and I looked for about a week. One day I heard some people screaming and I rushed to see what was the matter. I saw Tedra at the base of a tree going through some backpacks. Two hikers were clinging to the top of the tree screaming for help. When I got to Tedra, she jumped up into my arms. The hikers couldn't believe their eyes, and reluctantly climbed down after I told them that she was tame."
Baldwin liked to have fun with the hikers. Sometimes he would bet the visitors that he could climb up the tower on the outside steel bars faster than they could using the stairs. "They thought it was impossible, so they'd start climbing up the stairs and I started on the outside," says Baldwin. "They would stop on the stairs and look at me in amazement. While they stared at me, I made it to the top before they did."
At one time there were 23 fire towers in and around the Catskill Mountains. The author has researched the history of each and gathered stories of the rangers who supervised them and the pilots who replaced them. Marty Podskoch teaches at the Delaware Academy in Delhi. His wife and three children share his love of the old towers and their lore.
120 pages, 150 illustrations, 8.5 x 11, index, 2000
$20.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original
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