Saving Shuckstack: Age, weather and vandalism take their toll on Smokies’ firetower
Its bolts are rusting, floor planks are rotting, and its windowpanes shattered. The roof is pocked with holes that let in the rain and snow. Even the some of the guardrails have gone missing from the 60-foot-tall lookout tower — an unnerving thought for any person daring enough to climb it.
Since its construction in the 1930s, the Shuckstack firetower in the Fontana region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Appalachian Trail has been used as a proactive tool to spot wildfires and later a radio repeater tower. But the tower no longer serves a purpose — other than a historical landmark — and its future is bleak.
Will Shuckstack go the way most decommissioned firetowers do, or will the National Park Service undertake the time-consuming and potentially expensive task of restoring it as one of the staple landmarks — and one of the best views — along the A.T.?
Peter Barr, director of the N.C. chapter of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, described the standard park protocol that comes with what he saw as the less desirable of those two scenarios.
“Over time, the tower will continue to deteriorate and become a increasing concern,” Barr said. “The Park will restrict access to it, take it down or remove a flight of stairs so people can’t climb it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time either, according to Barr. About three-fourths of the firetowers that once existed in the North Carolina have succumbed to a similar fate. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone had 11 towers at one time, seven of which were torn down in the 1980s. And one of the four remaining towers has since been closed to visitors.
Barr has taken it upon himself to save the Shuckstack tower. For him, the tower holds a special place in the Park’s history as well his own personal history with wilderness areas.
Barr first encountered the tower as a teenager after he had headed out from Fontana Dam on the first overnight backpacking trip of his life. After an uphill slog of some 2,000 feet over just a few miles, Barr reached the base of the tower and climbed it.
From that vantage point, he understood the true beauty of Western North Carolina for the first time and decided to enter into a career in land conservation.
“It became important and symbolic spot for me,” Barr said. “The structure itself represents the essence of the National Park — it stands for preservation.”
In 2010, Barr hiked the A.T. in its entirety, and once again he climbed Shuckstack, but that time with the mission of saving it. As part of his trip, he took monetary pledges from donors in the name of preserving Shuckstack. He raised a few thousand dollars, and even more in the years that followed his hike. Currently, about $4,000 sits in an account, in care of Barr’s firetower organization, and has been designated to the restoration and repair of the Shuckstack tower.
In upcoming weeks, Barr will award $500 of that money to the Friends of the Smokies, a volunteer organization that works on park projects, to reverse some of the damage done by severe vandalism over the past year to the tower. Some vandalism is purely aesthetic, like names carved in the woodwork, but broken windows and damage to structural components will eventually take their toll if not addressed.
The money Barr has raised so far falls far short of what a full restoration would take. But any repairs to the tower must be OK’d by the Park — and so far, the park is still up in the air when it comes to rehabilitating the tower. Within a year, Shuckstack and the park’s two other metal firetowers could be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, according to Ranger Erik Kreusch, an archeologist and cultural resource manager in the Smokies. That designation could draw more attention for the lookout towers.
But Kreusch said an engineer and other experts would have to evaluate Shuckstack before doing any major work.
“You don’t want to just go in and start mucking with these things without knowing the most important parts of the structure to preserve, and the historically significant parts,” Kreusch said.
Meanwhile, failure to even patch holes in the roof are exacerbating the tower’s deterioration — and it wouldn’t be the first time that the lack of basic repairs to historical structures in the Smokies has turned minor issues into major ones.
Kreusch acknowledged the park’s limited resources and admited it can seem slow moving. He was optimistic, though, that a historic designation would open new doors.
Currently the firetowers are not regularly maintained by park, Kreusch said. Even a receptionist in the Sugarland visitor center in the Park, when asked if the Shuckstack firetower was open for visitors, said that it was, but described it as a little “creaky.”
But the waiting game can create a Catch 22. So far, restoring Shuckstack has not been a priority for the park. And without some signal that the park is interested in saving Shuckstack, non-profit groups like Friends of the Smokies are hesitant to mount a fundraising campaign for the project.
The waiting game has also been disheartening for Barr, who has been in communication with the Smokies since 2008 about the state of the tower. Before Barr’s A.T. trip, he had sent a letter to Smokies Superintendant Dale Ditmanson, expressing his desire to help save Shuckstack. The response he received, even then, was not so promising.
“Structures such as the tower at Shuckstack always present a special challenge as they no longer serve their initial purpose but still have a potentially important role in telling the history of the park,” Ditmanson wrote. “However, Park management must make decisions and set priorities with available funding and staffing capabilities in mind.”
To date, the Park has still not made a definitive decision to close the tower at Shuckstack, but neither has it invested in the structure’s future. Barr described the status of the tower as one lingering in limbo, while the structure deteriorates each day.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of movement on it,” Barr said. “I’m kind of in a stalemate with the National Park Service — who are not especially interested in restoring it. It’s not that they don’t want to, but it’s not a priority of theirs.”
What rubs salt in the wounds, Barr said, is that the Park has invested money and resources in maintaining other historic buildings and structures in the Park during the past few years, namely another firetower on Mount Cammarer, while neglecting Shuckstack.
Mount Cammarer’s firetower, also along the A.T. but at the opposite end of the Smokies in Haywood County, has become an icon. The stout, octagonal, stone structure perches on a high mountain bluff. A rallying cry to save Mount Cammarer in the mid-1990s ultimately led to the formation of the Friends of the Smokies group.
Barr had hoped to mirror that movement with the restoration of Shuckstack almost 20 years later, but his efforts have proven frustrating. In fact, a fundraising campaign is underway to make more improvements to Mt. Cammarer.
“I’ve been a bit frustrated in that the Park Service used their funding to make additional repairs to the Mount Cammarer tower,” Barr said. “Meanwhile Shuckstack was ignored.”
Shuckstack doesn’t have the architectural uniqueness of the tower at Mount Cammarer. Shuckstack is also remote in comparison.
Another factor possibly working against Shuckstack: it is nearly 40 feet taller than the one at Mount Cammarer. Barr said its height might cause the Park staff to view it as a liability and not an asset.
Regardless, Barr said, with enough public support behind the project the Park might be inclined to take action to preserve the tower.
“The most critical component to make that process successful is getting the word out,” Barr said. “I’m trying to raise public support to get members of the community and the region to realize importance and significance of tower.”