History of the Red Hill Fire Tower - as of May 2000.
Nested in the Catskill Mountains, built in 1920, the Red Hill Fire Tower sits at 2,990 feet in the hamlet of Claryville, Denning Township, Ulster County, New York. It is an aeromotor type steel tower which stands 60 feet from the ground to the top where a 7 X 7 foot observers cab resides. The steel for the tower was brought up the mountain with a horse and wagon. Leo Sheley drove the wagon and Don Wood's (past observer from Sundown) great great uncle helped. When it became too steep for the horses, the men hand carried the steel the rest of the way.
Elmer Schultz was the first observer, 1920-1938 and the initial access to the tower was on a foot path from his farm off Red Hill Road. Elmer had cows, pigs, a big chicken coop and a big garden. He plowed with two work horses named "Dick" and "Jane". He also made wooden scoops on a hand-turned lathe and traded them at the Claryville General Store for flour, sugar and other supplies. His second wife Millie made delicious pancakes every morning on their wood stove. Elmer's brother John lived on Barnes Road across from the Q&N Club in Ezra Ackerley house. They had a signal system set up from the valley to the tower at the top of the mountain. They would hang different colored sheets of material outside with various meanings like; "Come for support", "Emergency", "Yes", "No", etc. According to Dot Conklin of Claryville, "He was a nice guy who would do anything for you anytime.."
Ed Lewis was the next observer from 1938-1958. He was an uncle to Harold Van Aken, Supervisor of the Town of Denning from 1959-1988. The following information is from Harold. Ed was very proud of his uniform. He would often take his dog "Jake" to the tower with him, but Jake would not go up the tower stairs. Ed Lewis had an agreement with Mr. Dibble to go up to the tower over his property. Around 1938 or 1940, shale was taken out of Dibble's bank to make a road. This road went in front of what is now the Switzler house.
Dibble's property had a history of growing wonderful potatoes. Mr. Dibble would sell potatoes and lamb to those going up to the tower. When visitors came down, their lamb would be butchered and ready to go. The Dibble property was sold to Dopf/Conklin.
Ed Lewis had a farm on Red Hill where he raised sheep. His wife Bertha took care of the farm in the summer when he was on duty at the tower. They eventually sold that property and moved down to Claryville where they had a big garden and took in hunters during hunting season.
Then Mr. Kilby bought some property on Red Hill Road and he also bought the Dopf/Conklin property. Around 1958/59, a new road was established to the tower with access from Red Hill Road. Mr. Kilby would not sell any property to the State, but did allow access to the tower. There was never a right-of-way granted to the State. A trip to the tower was an annual ritual of many local families in the area. They would pick blueberries and have a picnic lunch while enjoying the view and talking to the observer.
Claude DePew, from Sundown, was the next observer from 1958-1966. Claude climbed the tower with a wooden leg. His wooden leg was from a logging accident. He was a great story teller of bear and hunting stories. His wife Susie (still living in Sundown) and their daughter would go up the tower with Claude and stay in the cabin in the summertime. He had an electric generator and a phone. The phone line to the tower was a party line that served the rest of Red Hill.
Claude was not very fond of heights. When he and Ranger Herb Lepke Jr., were putting a new roof on the tower, they unscrewed the old bolts, and with a long pole, lifted up the old roof and "let her fly". When Claude looked up and saw nothing but blue sky, he said "Get me out of here." and down they went.
There was another wooden tower built on Red Hill near the present tower, around 1939 or 1940. It was not a fire tower. It was built by Bob Swink, a ham radio operator. A hurricane in the 1950's took it down.
The next observer was Reeves Sennett, from Liberty, New York, who had the job for three years, 1967-1969. He had very bad diabetes and often his wife went up to the tower with him. She is still living in Liberty. Reeves made a very good "Smokey the Bear" and loved doing it.
Mr. Kilby sold his property in the 1970's and the new owner closed the tower road to the public.
Don Wood from Sundown was the observer from 1972-1991, and lived in Sundown until his death in 2002. Don's grandfather Fred Wood was a Forest Ranger, but never served Red Hill. Don told us that at the slightest frost the steps up the tower were like glass and he would have to sand each step as he went up. One day, with the sky showing no warning, he started to get static on his radio. Then a bolt of lightning hit the tower guy wires and traveled in a blue streak to the ground where it hit in a 7 foot ball of blue flame. One time lightning hit the telephone wire while Don was on the phone and it burned his lip and knocked him off his chair.
Red Hill Fire Tower was the last manned tower in the Catskills and Don was on duty until 1991.
The fire tower observers watched for forest fires from this and many other fire towers in the Catskills. They were up in March or April through the summer into October and sometimes November. They would stock 5 days food in the cabin in case they had to stay over night on the job. They were part-time at first, with no compensation for off-time. But in later years they were given unemployment for their months off duty.
If the observers saw smoke, they could triangulate its position (with the use of a map and alidade) with other fire towers. Red Hill was always an excellent spot for communication in the region. The hotest fires are in the spring when the new leaves are budding. There were many fires in the 1960's. In 1992, 170 acres burned on Denman Mountain just across the valley. (Origionally the tower was suppose to be built on Denman Mountain, but "politics" had it changed to Ulster County and on Red Hill.)
As airplane overflights and local fire departments increased throughout the region, it was felt that the observers and towers were no longer needed. The Red Hill tower was the last to close in 1991. Only five of these towers remain standing today. Five Volunteer Citizen Committees are restoring them under the auspices of NYSDEC and the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.
Helen and George Elias, owning a home on Red Hill, with interest on preserving the tower, formed, lead, and coordinated The Red Hill Fire Tower Restoration Committee, PO Box 24, Grahamsville, New York 12740. The Committee was formed in 1996 and the tower is scheduled to re-open July 15, 2000.
There is no road access. Instead, a new hiking footpath to the tower, entirely on state land, was constructed by the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference and the NYSDEC, in the fall of 1996. The trail starts from Dinch Road in the Denning Township, and is 2.2 miles round trip with an ascent of 890 feet to the tower.
The restoration materials, new steel braces for the tower, nuts and bolts, roofing shingles for the cabin, a picnic table, cement and supplies, and other materials were flown in by helicopter in the fall of 1999.
~ Priscilla & Emmett Bassett
~ J. Bruce Lindsley
The Rangers always worked very hard. It was not an 8 hour day way back. They stayed on the job until the job was done. On top of their other responsibilities, they maintained the tower road, the tower, the cabin, and built anything needed. They re-roofed, painted, and repaired, with the help of the observers, they did it all !
Over the years departments, boundaries, and duties changed, but to this day the Rangers watch over the 5 towers still standing in the Catskills.