Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hi Mountain History Lesson

Here are the old lookout photos from the scrapbook that Kevin found (I wonder if the 3rd photo is the same building as the 1961 photo, or an earlier structure??. A 1976 photo from MCAS is also included). Below is the text that is posted on the Buck Rock Lookout Foundation website…from Dave Bulla’s letter, it suggests a lookout was present in 1926, but I wonder if that is correct. The mystery of the lookout’s past history continues.

-Steve Schubert

Hi Mountain Lookout listed in National Lookout Register

Thanks to the help of Kathy Ball (Buck Rock Foundation), Dave Bula (Forest Fire Lookout Association), Rex Kamstra (, the USFS Santa Lucia Ranger District (LPNF), and the many others who helped us complete our recent application, we are pleased to announce our acceptance to the National Lookout Register! When a structure is less than 50 years old, but has sufficient historical significance to be registered, the lookout is listed in the National Lookout Register with an NHLR number, and is automatically transferred to the NHLR upon the 50th anniversary of its construction. The Hi Mtn. Lookout will be eligible for listing in the National Historic Lookout Register in 2010. Listing in the National Historic Lookout Register is often a first step toward eventual nomination to the National Register of Historic Sites maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

For those of you who don’t know Kathy Ball, she is the founder of the Buck Rock Foundation and has been involved with the Hi Mtn. Lookout Project for several years now. She helped us secure some of our first grant monies to get the project off the ground. You may have seen Kathy’s interview with Huell Howser on the PBS series “California’s Gold”. Kathy attended out Open House/Condor Campout in October 2002, and it was there that we first spoke to her about getting Hi Mtn. Lookout listed in the NHLR. Over the course of the following year, we exchanged dozens of emails and initiated the somewhat tedious application process. Applying to the register involved tracking down as much historic information about our Lookout as we could find, and making a case for why it deserved acknowledgement as a building of historic significance. You can read our official NHLR application here.

The Hi Mtn. Lookout was accepted to the NLR on July 22, 2003 (US Lookout #522) as “meeting those standards of historic and cultural significance established by the American Resources Group, Washington D.C., in cooperation with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, the National Forestry Association, the National Woodland Owners Association, and State and Federal forestry agencies.” At our 2nd annual Open House/Condor Campout on October 4, 2003, Kathy Ball presented us with our Certificate of Recognition and official NLR sign. It was a proud moment for all of us. There were even a few tears as Kathy praised the Lookout Project for it’s dedication to restoring Hi Mtn. as a field research station, interperative center, and Condor telemetry outpost. Kathy told us that Hi Mtn. was the first lookout to be restored and listed in the name of wildlife monitoring. We sincerely hope that the Hi Mountain Lookout Project will now seve as a model, inspiring other folks to find reasons to save and restore their forgotten, dismantled, or vandalized fire lookouts.

Aside from the national recognition it brings us, listing in the NLR has other benefits for the Lookout Project. Our listing paves the way to future recognition of Hi Mtn. in the National Historic Lookout Register and as a California Historical Landmark. So as we continue to pour love, money, and effort into our little lookout, we are witnissing history in the making! As an added bonus, the listing process started us digging into the murky past of the Lookout tower. It turns out that the original lookout was built in 1926 and may have stood in a different location on the long spine of Hi Mountain. The current tower was built in 1961 to replace the old one and fell into disuse by the mid 70’s. Bits and pieces of Hi Mtn. history continue to surface, but there is much we still don’t know. What did the original tower look like? Who staffed and maintained it, and what aretheir stories? As the project progresses, we hope to learn much more about the historical significance of the Hi mtn. Lookout to San Luis Obispo County. Below is one of the emails we received from Dave Bula while researching the Lookout for the application process. Its a great example of the interesting history we uncovered while putting our application together.

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the update on the old Hi Mtn LO. It was not at all uncommon for replacement fire lookouts to be built in a slightly different spot from the earlier lookouts. The usual reason was the elimination some nagging blind spot where fires often occurred without being seen directly from the LO until they got a lot bigger. Another advantage to moving the location slightly was the ability to continue to use the old LO even while the new one is being constructed. The old one didn’t need to be removed until after the new one was completed. This happened in a lot of places. In others, where the mountaintop was so small (like up on top of a rock pinnacle), this was not an option, but it was usually done when possible. There are a number of pictures of band new lookouts standing a few feet away from the old lookouts. I also know of some cases where the new LO was placed as much as a mile away from the old one. It just varied.

Now, we have just learned something new about the old Hi Mountain LO. While visitng a CCC museum, Kathy Ball found some old materials in their “Don Hobart Collection”. The CCC did not build the old Hi Mountain LO in 1926, since the CCC wasn’t even formed until after FDR was elected in 1932, but since the CCC did build a lot of other lookouts, the museum must (correctly) have felt it was appropriate to house this entire collection.

Anyway, among that stuff that Kathy found was an undated description of the Hi Mountain LO. It was called a “standard 14×14 cab” on a “10-foot wood tower”. Even though that data is undated, it couldn’t possibly have been describing the current 1961 15×15 LO on a cement block base. It had to be the 1926 LO. To save time, I’m going to quote a little bit of my reaction to this news from Kathy.

“You’re right, that does NOT describe the current LO. The current LO can’t be called a 10 foot wood tower no matter how such things are designed. 10 foot block base? Yes. 10 foot cinder block? Sure. But wood tower? No way. So I think you’ve found something here. Now what we can’t tell from this is whether the cab was up on legs or up on top of a lower wooden enclosed story, like my old Argentine LO is. Either way might have been described as a “10 foot wood tower.” I’ve seen both types described as such.

Now what about the cab itself? “Standard 14×14 house.” To many, that would suggest the classic L-4 cab. However, in 1926, the L-4 had not even been developed yet. Up here in the northwest the lookouts in 1926 were of the cupola variety, usually the D-6, but some were D-1’s as well. However by 1926, as you know better than anyone thanks to Buck Rock, the 4A cab, or whatever you want to call that cab with the steeply pitched roof and large windows, was well established in California. This design WAS standard in the Santa Barbara NF (the earlier name of the Los Padres NF). Chews Ridge LO, Figueroa LO, and others of this type were built. This has been my guess all along for what the 1926 Hi Mountain LO must have been. But with no picture, or otherwise undeniable proof, I’ve been reluctant to state it as such.”

So now I feel like we’re one step closer. Hopefully, a picture of the old LO will turn up someday, confirming all this.

Continued good luck to you and all your group down there on your most worthwhile condor project.

Dave Bula Western Deputy Chairman, FFLA