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MAINE TALES. “Staying Alive.” Township D, Range 2, Unorganized Territory, Aroostook County, Maine. Circa 1978

MAINE TALES. “Staying Alive.” Township D, Range 2, Unorganized Territory, Aroostook County, Maine. Circa 1978.

“No, sir! I’m the first man off the mountain when there’s lightning!” His disarming response lacked any hesitation whatsoever and it was startling in its unbridled honesty. Totally absent was any bravado from this Maine Watchman after I had asked whether he rode out a Maine thunderstorm. He’d lived in Maine his whole life and possessed a carefulness which indicated no interest in abbreviating his current living-and-breathing standing.

As a Fire Tower Watchman he was one of a dying breed, working in an isolated and lonely profession. His post was the Number Nine Mountain Fire Lookout, located six miles due west of our farm in the westernmost portion of our Unorganized Territory Township, TD R2. At elevation 1638’ Number Nine Mountain (also known in years past as “Bald Mountain”) is the 20th highest point in Aroostook County. It is also the 517th highest mountain in Maine, and the 49035th highest mountain in the United States. But you likely already knew that.

One Summer’s day forty-five years ago we climbed the thirty-six feet of open metal staircase up to the well-windowed wooden cab mounted atop the metal Fire Tower base. As one might easily imagine, the three-hundred-sixty-degree view was spectacular from the top of Number Nine Mountain. It had been a crystal clear, blue-sky-day and we could see at least fifty miles in every direction, and that included Katahdin’s peak, not quite sixty miles to the southwest.

A visitor will often find Mainers to be characteristically quiet and humble. This quality might explain why at first meeting, unless a specific question has been raised as in “What’s your name?” one will typically receive a friendly greeting but it will be without a volunteered introduction. It’s not unreasonable to assume they know who you are, otherwise they’d ask. So accordingly, introductions in Northern Maine are few and far between. While we should have, we never did inquire and learn Mr. Watchman’s actual name. But he was a wiry, older man in his fifties, who by all appearances had lived his life outdoors and had no qualms about flying solo.

Down at the bottom of the Tower Road, situated conveniently near the outlet to nearby Number Nine Lake, stood a spare but bucolic Watchman’s camp, painted Maine Forest Service brown and green. Mr. Watchman’s family lived in the Town of Masardis, 16 miles northwest of Nine Mountain as the crow flies. Chit chatting, I expressed my imagining that at the end of the work week he would get home by taking a shortcut of logging roads to minimize the length of his commute. “No sir! I’d most surely get lost on all them logging roads.”

Instead Mr. Watchman took a circuitous route to get home. He drove the eleven miles east on the Nine Lake logging road back to U.S. Route 1 in Bridgewater. Then, twenty-five miles north on US Route 1 to Presque Isle. Then, twenty-three miles west along Highway 163 to Ashland. And then finally another twelve miles south on Route 11 to Marsardis. Here was a man of studied caution. Exactly the sort of man the Governor would want to keep careful watch over hundreds of thousands of acres of precious Maine Woods.

The fire season in Maine coincides with the period in which there’s no snow, and so runs from late Spring until Fall. Back in the heyday of Fire Towers, which started in one-hundred-years ago, there were 144 Fire Towers spread out across the State of Maine. They were built between 1905 and the 1950s. Twenty-four of the State’s Fire Towers were located here in Aroostook County, the largest and most sparsely populated County east of the Mississippi River. To this day in Maine, fifty-five Fire Towers are still standing; eight-nine are gone or have been removed.

It was 1927 that Maine made history when for the very first time anyone used an airplane as a means of forest fire detection. That nascent flight was a harbinger of changes which would eventually follow. The battle for supremacy between Fire Tower and aircraft would be drawn out over decades. The actual decline in the use of Fire Towers began back in the 1950s. By 1962, 59 Fire Towers were still in use in Maine.

By 1973, only thirteen towers were manned and that included the Fire Tower on Number Nine Mountain. At last report, only two Fire Towers remain active today in Maine. The Maine Forest Service came to conclude it was more cost effective to fly spotter planes on a regular schedule than to hire a covey of seasonal workers to tend Maine’s far flung network of Fire Towers.

The very first Fire Tower on Number Nine Mountain was a log tower built in 1914. A year later it was replaced by a cab mounted on a four-sided log-crib built twelve feet high. Trees along the peak were removed for better visibility. Communication was secured with a hand-crank battery-operated telephone connected to two phone lines: one line went southeast to Harvey Siding eight miles as the crow flies; the other went to the railroad line at Howe Brook twelve miles to the southwest.

That second wood-crib structure was replaced in 1919 with a thirty-six-foot metal tower, reinforced against strong winds by steel guy wires, and with a cab built on top. In 1958, the fourth and final Number Nine Mountain Fire Tower was erected. It was a rugged, self-standing, 36-foot metal tower with a cab and still stands to this day.

During the 1950s, telephone and electric lines were run in from Bridgewater along the Nine Lake Road. At some point, the large, old-style white-domed microwave relay – distinguishable and clearly visible for miles from U.S. Route 1 – was mounted on the roof of the Fire Tower cab to improve Maine State Police communications. You can’t miss it.