November 2018
Simple Times

Atop the World

 

From the bottom of the fire tower looking up, photo from Park Director Jeffrey Todd.

Climbing the 133 rickety-ladder-like steps to the top, 99 feet and 9 inches away was not the main challenge for me when a classmate and I climbed Blount County’s only fire tower almost 48 years ago, during our senior year in high school.

Even though I’ve always been afraid of heights, I managed to get safely to the top, climb in the small cabin atop, and chat with the man on duty watching for forest fires in our area.

The challenge then (and likely now when I get the courage and the energy to brave it once again) is when I exited the trapdoor from the lookout cabin to the ladder below, it felt at first as if my feet were just dropping into eternity before they reached that first narrow ladder-step!

The "rickety" and the other safety issues have now been addressed with the 2016 to 2018 $76,000 revitalization of Blount’s Sand Mountain Lookout Tower atop Ebell Mountain (but that bravery problem must still be addressed!)

Now visitors to Palisades Park can get a free permit and climb to their hearts’ content any time the park is open (which is any day except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day).

"We have just been tickled to death since it opened in July," Park Manager Jefferey Todd explains. "That first month we issued 451 permits for folks to climb it.

"We’ve had folks of all ages climb it. And you can’t beat the view. Palisades Park featured the best view in all of Blount County and now we’ve even topped that with the opening to the public of this fire tower.

"We have one couple who come and climb it every day as part of their exercise routine and just for the pleasure of it!"

Once in the 7 x 7-foot metal cab atop the tower, on clear days you can see some of the tallest of Birmingham’s skyscrapers nearly 40 miles away!

There are plaques inside as well, identifying the other areas that can be seen, including landmarks as well as water towers or tanks in towns such as Snead, Cullman, Holly Pond and Douglas.

Chris Green, Blount County Commission Chairman, said the revitalization and reopening of the tower was a longtime dream of his especially, as well as other county officials, not only as a way of preserving history but as a unique tourism destination.

"We have the prettiest county around and this is just another way of proving it," Green explains. "And this was just another example of our folks working together to bring forward a project that is good for us all."

The info sign at the base of the fire tower.

 

A plaque at the base of the tower notes the Blount County Commission; Blount County Economic and Development Council; DAVANNA, LLC; Hornsby Steel, Alabama; Wholesale Stone; the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham; CAWACO RC & D; the Palisades Park Board; and Park Manager Todd all worked together.

Built in 1949, the tower was manned full time until around 1972, and was then manned sporadically until about 1985, according to the Blount Forestry Commission.

Former Oneonta resident Dewey Underwood was full-time tower man from 1959 until his retirement, about the time the tower was retired from full-time service as well.

The base plaque also notes that the tower is an "Aermoter MC-30 heavily galvanized free-standing barter-legged hurricane-proof structure with nine flights, 133 steps, and stands 99 feet, 9 inches tall with a 7 x 7-feet metal cab at the top."

According to the former fire-lookout sites registry on the internet, at one time more than 8000 fire towers were in use in the continental 49 states. They estimate that today fewer than 2000 remain.

The tallest tower in the United States is believed to be the 175-foot one in Alexandria, Louisiana, with the "highest" believed to be the Fairview Peak in Gunnison, Colorado, that sits atop a mountain totaling 13,214 feet, mountain and all!

While the towers and their faithful watchers were once a mainstay against forest and wildfires, especially in our nation’s rural areas, more powerful radios, aircraft, radar and even satellites eventually made many of the towers obsolete.

Some of the wonderful old landmarks have even been sold for scrap, but many, like those forward-thinking officials in Blount, are restoring these integral parts of their communities. In Dunmore, West Virginia, the 55-foot-tall Old Thorny Mountain fire tower in Seneca State Forest has been restored, with the cabin atop now available for rustic overnight stays for $75 per night!

 

Jan and Deanna Johnson recently enjoyed the climb to the top of Blount’s newly revitalized fire tower. Jan and Deanna have both retired after many years’ service to the city of Oneonta.

   

Blount’s 911 Director Caleb Branch noted for this phone interview that he was sitting at his desk in the 911 office in Oneonta, looking directly at the Blount fire tower via fixed cameras on an adjacent communications tower.

"There’s constant security and constant camera attention," Branch explained.

Palisades Park has always been considered Blount County’s often-hidden gem. It grew from dreams of basically four civic- and history-minded residents – Amiliea Porter, Dalton Moss, Mrs. W.R. Sutton, and D.S. Loyd – in the early 1970s to provide a scenic area for hiking and picnicking along the mountain’s 60-70-foot sandstone bluffs.

The park has now grown to include a roofed pavilion, several rustic picnic areas, and three modern lodges for family and club gatherings complete with full kitchens and restrooms, the Quilter’s Cottage, a recently rebuilt playground, a small chapel, and historic buildings such as the Daniel Murphree log cabin, the Blackwood log cabin, and the Old Compton School – and now including the adjacent fire tower!

To reach Palisades Park and the fire tower, traveling U.S. 231 north from Oneonta for about 3 miles (or south from Cleveland about 7.5 miles), turn onto Elbell Road at the Rosa Town Limits, go about 1.5 miles, and turn onto Palisades Parkway and travel about a mile.

From Birmingham, take I-59 north to Tallapoosa Street East (Hwy 79). Take 79 north to Ala 75 in Pinson. Take 75 to Oneonta to its intersection with U.S. 231 and then follow the directions from Oneonta.

For more info and for more directions phone the park at (205)274-0017 or check out the website at www.blountcountypark.com.

All through December will be the Christmas Lights Extravaganza and there’s just always something to see or simply a swing to relax in.

And the best part?

The park and the fire tower visits are free (with fees only charged if you rent a pavilion or a lodge!).

You may not find this simple woman climbing that tower any time some, but she may be sitting in a nearby swing watching you soar to the top!

 

Suzy McCray is a freelance writer living on a simple homestead in Blount County. You can reach her on Facebook or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..