Keeping watch: Mt. Cammerer fire tower restoration marks Friends of the Smokies’ 30th birthday
Gary Wade grew up in Pittman Center, Tennessee, just 7 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trailhead leading to Mt. Cammerer. But despite being a lifelong hiker, he didn’t reach the storied fire tower at the summit until 1993, when he was in his mid 40s.
Wade made the hike for the first time with his friend Tom Trotter, an architect and Gatlinburg resident, as part of their years-long effort to hike as many trails as possible of the national park in whose shadow they’d grown up. They’d completed about half the trails on the Tennessee side before attempting Mt. Cammerer, one of the toughest hikes in the Smokies.
When, after walking a 5.6-mile route that climbs about 3,000 feet, they finally reached the top, Wade was faced with two stark realities: the grandeur of the view and the dilapidation of the tower.
“I was just shocked by how lowly the fire tower was, as was Tom,” Wade said. “And I was amazed by the views that we had from the fire tower. It was just special.”
The next day, Trotter secured a meeting with Randy Pope, park superintendent at the time. It was time to restore the fire tower, he said. Pope agreed — in theory.
“The superintendent said, ‘You’re right, we’d love to restore that, and many of the other things,’” Wade recalled. “And he said, ‘There’s no money.’”
Prior to the recent restoration work, the fire tower was a mess of broken windows with a kicked-down door. Helen McNutt photo
Trotter responded by enlisting Wade’s help to raise that money, $35,000 in total. With support from the Rotary Club of West Knoxville and other donors, the funds materialized. But the park had many other needs as well, so on Sept. 3, 1993, an organizational meeting hosted by Pope and Bob Miller marked the birth of Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wade was elected president, a title that later changed to chairman. In the 30 years since that day, Friends of the Smokies has raised $87 million to fund park projects that wouldn’t be possible using federal dollars alone.
This year, Friends of the Smokies is not only celebrating a milestone birthday — it’s also celebrating Mt. Cammerer, the inspiration that launched its existence, with another round of much-needed restoration kicking off a new program aimed at honoring the Smokies’ historic places. Just as Mt. Cammerer became the symbol around which park supporters rallied at the Friends’ creation, now it’s the rallying point for the Forever Places program, an endowment that seeks to ensure that Smokies landmarks like Mt. Cammerer get the attention they so desperately need.
At 8 a.m., the newly risen sun still hangs low on the other side of the mountain as I make my way through Cosby Campground to meet Low Gap Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The final days of September still feel like late summer down here, the path nearly free of fallen leaves as the trees above remain mostly green, subtle hints of yellow barely beginning to peek through.
That changes as we walk, the trail climbing roughly 2,000 feet in elevation in the 2.9 miles before its junction with the Appalachian Trail . As the sun rises higher it becomes obvious the day will be on the warm side. Sweat pours from me faster than I can offset it with sips from my Nalgene.
“This is the easy part,” says one of my hiking companions, retired Smokies Chief Ranger Steven Kloster.
Luckily, he’s joking. At the intersection with the Appalachian Trail, we find a few rocks to sit on, sip some water, and enjoy a mid-morning snack. The sun is brighter here on the ridge, the yellows and reds of early fall more apparent. Walking on, the trail continues to climb as it follows the ridgeline, but this time it’s mostly a gentle rise. Early-browning leaves crackle under my feet as I venture through the dry upland forest. A smattering of fall mushrooms pops from logs and tree trunks. Sweeping mountain views and a nearly cloudless sky peek through places where the trees are thin.
But much grander views await just a little further on, up at Mt. Cammerer, 5.5 miles from our starting point at the campground.
The buzz of a saw greets me as I pick my way through the finally craggy stretch of trail separating me from the summit. It’s an unusual sound in the national park, most of which is managed under Wilderness Act rules that prohibit use of mechanized equipment, including power tools. But in certain circumstances, exceptions can be made — and the rehabilitation of Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower is one such circumstance.
The octagonal tower has occupied the rocky mountaintop 100 feet from the North Carolina line since 1939, when the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps finished building it.
“The National Park Service was fortunate in being able to hire the cream-of-the-crop in almost any segment of the building and landscaping fields,” reads a 1992 report nominating the fire tower for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. “It was within this broad context that many NPS facilities, and those in many state parks, were designed and constructed by the CCC. The Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower was one of those projects.”
The tower is one of the four fire towers of the park’s original 10 that remain standing, the others being Mount Sterling, Shuckstack Mountain and Cove Mountain. Such towers were usually built square, their sides aligned with the four points of the compass.
In a photo dated June 1940, a ranger takes in the view from Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower. Tennessee State Library Archives photo (Tennessee Department of Conservation photo collection)
But the summit of Mt. Cammerer was so rocky, so rugged, that the typical square build would have been nearly impossible, so it was built with eight sides instead. It’s short, too, compared to the others, a two-story building with stone walls. The bottom floor was used for storage, while the top floor, with its circle of glass windows and surrounding catwalk, was the living quarters and observation post for the park rangers who lived there, keeping their eyes peeled for signs of fire, until the tower was decommissioned in the 1960s.
“This structure tells so many stories, from the early park development to the CCC story, and then what it was like to be a working ranger,” said Friends of the Smokies President and CEO Dana Soehn , gesturing toward the tower from her seat on the rocks below. “And you can tie that then into the change of the landscape and fire on the landscape. This was in the 1960s, and that was one of their primary responsibilities here, was to suppress fires . It was staffed all the time so they would have that early detection.”
The 360-view from the tower was functional, then, but it is also beautiful. The most expansive vista lies north and west, where the Pigeon River runs along a ribbon of Interstate 40 on its way to Newport, set amid the smattering of small East Tennessee communities laying at the feet of the mountain waves.
“This is one of my favorite places in the park,” Soehn said.
By the time Wade and Trotter reached the summit back in the 1990s, three decades had passed since the tower was in active use, and it had fallen into a state of disrepair. A photo from that time shows boarded-up windows and peeling paint. Wade remembers graffiti too. Restoration work began in 1995 and finished a few years later, but nearly three decades on, the tower was once again looking rough. The door was kicked in, the glass in the windows cloudy, broken or missing, a fresh coat of graffiti covering the walls.
So, in an homage to its roots, Friends of the Smokies gave the park more than $50,000 to complete a new round of restoration.
“For visitors to see the work that goes into this, and knowing that we have a partner like the Friends to help us accomplish that, that tells a complete story of why this park exists and why we should continue to protect it,” said Park Spokesperson Emily Davis as she finished her lunch on the mountaintop. “I look forward to seeing what other projects we can work on together.”
That’s what Friends of the Smokies hopes to see happen, too, which is why it established its Forever Places endowment in 2020. The nonprofit aims to raise $9 million to fund a permanent crew of skilled craftsmen to carry out these restoration projects in perpetuity.
Forever Places is now in its second year of projects after kicking things off in 2022 by funding restoration of the Walker Sisters Cabin , five structures in the Elkmont area of Daisy Town and the Ephraim Bales Cabin and Barn, along with planning and design for a full structural rehabilitation of Little Cataloochee Church — $409,000 in total.
This year, Forever Places has budgeted $406,000 for a new slate of projects that includes the Mt. Cammerer project. Also on the 2023 project list are the Tipton Oliver Cabin and Barn, John Ownby Cabin and David Chapman Cabin, along with further funding for the Walker Sisters Cabin.
Forever Places crew members Aron Williams (left) and David Sharp work to level the floor. Holly Kays photo
“Structures provide that window into the past in an experiential way,” Soehn said. “When people come up to a place like this without the structure, it’s hard to imagine what it would have been to be a fire watchman. With the structure itself, you’re walking inside of it, and it really provides you that opportunity to step back in time.”
But, as was the case in 1993 when Tom Trotter made his request to Superintendent Pope, there’s no money in the park budget to restore these structures. To solve that problem, Friends of the Smokies built on a model that’s already proven successful — a model formed with Trails Forever, another Friends of the Smokies endowment fund that ensures the park can carry out critical maintenance work in beloved areas. Just as Forever Places funds a permanent crew of skilled craftsmen, Trails Forever funds a permanent crew of skilled trail builders. The program completed its first trail rehabilitation in 2010 with the restoration of the Forney Ridge Trail. Since then, Trails Forever has funded extensive work on the Chimney Tops , Alum Cave , Rainbow Falls , Trillium Gap and Abram Falls trails, with restoration work ongoing at Ramsey Cascades Trail.
“The ability for the Friends group to provide the funds to hire permanent crew members has been a game changer,” Soehn said, “and we’ve seen how well it works in the Trails Forever program. So this Forever Places has the same model and will enable the park to start to really address now-longstanding needs at historic structures and other special park places.”
It’s no easy task to carry out meticulous restoration work on a rocky mountaintop, miles away from any road.
When we reach the summit Sept. 28, we find the crew focused and all too aware of how long their to-do list remains as the next day’s departure grows closer.
The three-member crew arrived for their mission on Monday, Sept. 26, riding horses up alongside a string of mules wrangled by the Smokies’ animal packer Danny Gibson . With motor transport impossible, the task of hauling hundreds of pounds of glass, wood, power tools and supplies fell to these hardy animals — each of which is capable of walking miles with 250 pounds on its back. Getting all the materials and people up to the top required two trips, with two of the three crew members arriving at noon and one at 5 p.m. Since then, they’ve been full steam ahead, working 12-hour days to get as much done as possible ahead of their scheduled departure Sept. 29.
But they’re not immune to the beauty around them.
“To be able to look at this at work is too cool,” says stone mason John Smith, gesturing to the panorama visible from the catwalk. “It’s worth not having a shower, to be here.”
The octagonal room where the remaining crew members are hard at work is also their bedroom. Cots topped with sleeping bags are shoved to the walls, and the windowsills are used as storage for everything from bug spray to playing cards. Outside, large, green canteens hold the crew’s water for the week — there are no creeks or springs nearby — and a giant solar panel faces south, gathering enough energy to keep batteries charged for power tools, radios and cell phones.
The job’s not done, but already the fire tower is pristine compared to what it was a few days ago. Now, the door hangs upright as Smith gives it a fresh coat of white paint. New glass makes the windows clean and clear. Wooden spindles have been installed in the catwalk around the tower’s perimeter, and the stairs leading to it have been replaced. Rotted sections of the rafter tails have been removed. Crew members Aron Williams and David Sharp work to lift up every buckled floorboard, sweeping out the dirt underneath and reattaching it flush with the floor.
“It’s kind of half safety, half preservation of the structure,” Williams said.
Animal packer Danny Gibson works with the mule team the crew relied on to haul supplies. NPS photo
The crew prioritized its efforts to address safety issues like faulty steps and railings, and tasks that prevent degradation of the structure, like replacing blown-out windows. They finished their to-do list that September trip but will need to return at some point to finish up some cosmetic details.
An open question is what to do about the graffiti. It’s all over the structure — the door, the walls, the roof — and ranges from run-of-the-mill inscriptions like “H+S” to inscrutable silliness (or possibly an A.T. trail name) like “Spooky Dookie” scrawled in large letters near the apex of the ceiling, to unintentional irony such as a message on the exterior wall reading, “Tread Lightly Upon the Earth.” Some of it, like the “H+S” inscription, can be covered up with the same brown paint into which the message is etched. Others, like “Spooky Dookie,” will be difficult to address — the fire tower is on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning crews can’t just paint over an area that wasn’t previously painted without undergoing a bureaucratic process to secure permission.
“Maybe we can do something with it, take the wood off and flip it over maybe or something if the other side is still good,” Williams said, examining graffiti on the windowsills. “But that could have already been done. We don’t know.”
If things go wrong, the attempt could “open up a can of worms,” creating more problems than there were to start with.
Williams hopes that future visitors will take note of the work that’s been done and fight the urge to carve the name of their current romantic interest into this 84-year-old structure.
“I hope it will provide a sense of pride for the visitors that come in, and they’ll stop graffitiing and destroying,” he said. “They’ll see the effort that we’re putting in, and the money that the Friends and the park’s putting in to keep these places alive for the future … So maybe they come and see, ‘Hey, they’re taking pride in the place. Maybe we should too.’”
Wade remembers how, back in 1993, when the fledgling Friends group took on the restoration of the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower, he would reflect on that tower’s history — on the park rangers who once lived there, watching over the park and protecting it from wildfire, and on how that was such a fitting symbol for what the new Friends group hoped to do.
The metaphor still holds.
“We like to believe that we are watching over our park,” he said, “just like the park ranger watched over the park from the fire tower.”
To learn more about Forever Places, or to make a donation to the endowment, visit friendsofthesmokies.org/forever-places.