Standing guard atop a lookout tower dozens of feet above the forest floor, female fire finders, sometimes called “lady lookouts” have been helping to protect American forests since before World War I. Hallie Morse Daggett was the first female lookout hired by the Forest Service in California in 1913. She was the most qualified of three applicants. (The other two were ne’er-do-well men.) Daggett had grown up exploring the Siskiyou Mountains in northern California’s Klamath National Forest and was familiar with and passionate about protecting the forest. She was paid a seasonal salary of $840 and liked the job so much that she returned for fifteen seasons. In her first season it is said that she reported forty fires. Her quick reaction time kept the burn area to under five acres.
As word of her success spread through the forestry community, other women were offered lookout jobs. Some women were motivated to seek out positions during World War I, when men who were overseas fighting left behind vacant lookout towers. In 1919, Helen Dowe took up a lookout post in Colorado’s Pike National Forest. She worked for three seasons and reported fires that prevented thousands of acres from burning. Through the early 1920s there were at least eighteen other female lookouts in the West. Women proved to be capable lookouts – more than a few male foresters were surprised to discover that female lookouts took the job more seriously than some of their male counterparts. The “lady lookouts” showed more patience and vigilance and were less likely to wander off on hunting or fishing expeditions.
Here at the American Heritage Center, there are no records of female lookouts in Wyoming until World War II. Then, in the summer of 1943, it appears from photographic records, that Roberta Eads served as a Forest Service lookout in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Eads worked 55 feet above the forest floor in the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. Perched at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet, the tower is located seven miles west of Albany, Wyoming in the heart of the Medicine Bow National Forest. On the job, Eads would have enjoyed a panoramic view of Medicine Bow Peak, Rob Roy Reservoir, Jelm Mountain and the southern end of the Snowy Range.
It is likely that the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. More than 3,000 lookout towers sprung up in forests across the U.S. during the 1930s. The towers were typically a metal frame topped with a fourteen-foot by fourteen-foot wooden cabin. Access was by a ladder or a staircase. The cabin was surrounded on all sides by a catwalk. The catwalk gave the Forest Service employee outside access from which to conduct their regular forest surveillance duties. Furnishings in the cabin in the sky were sparse – a chair, small table and cot for furniture and a small woodfired stove for cooking and warmth. While simple in construction, lookout towers were a critical part of forest management. In most cases, the Forest Service was responsible for staffing the lookout towers.
After the lookout construction boom of the 1930s, there was a need to staff all the new lookout towers. And with World War II drawing so many men away from forestry jobs, once again opportunities for female fire finders grew. There were as many as 600 “lady lookouts” hired in the 1940s.
The Forest Service set up specially designed classes and training sessions known as Guard School. Lookouts learned how to use radio sets and other lookout equipment and became well versed in lookout station duties. Their training reviewed specific responsibilities – lookouts used binoculars to scan the landscape and horizon at regular intervals (sometimes as often as every 15 minutes), spending time on each quadrant of the cabin’s catwalk looking for smoke.
Being a lookout was not for the faint of heart. Female lookouts had to endure isolation, storms, loneliness and sometimes even wild animals prowling at the base of their lookout towers. But most of the female lookouts found the rewards of living amid wilderness worth the risk. Often, they were motivated by a sense of civic duty to protect our nation’s forests. It was the women who worked as lookouts high above the forest floor that saved lives and kept land from burning.
One of the tools “lady lookouts” would have learned to use in Guard School was the Osborne Firefinder, a circular steel disc mounted in the center or the cabin. The forerunner to the device was invented in the 1800s to help combat fires in London. William Osborne, of the U.S. Forest Service, modernized the technology in 1911. Eads and Evens used the Osborne Firefinder by peering through two sighting holes that rotated around a topographic map fixed to the disc. They could pinpoint the location of distant smoke and record the directional coordinates of the fire.
Like all good fire finders, “lady lookouts” had to be both self-reliant and comfortable with pioneer-like conditions – hauling water, chopping wood, cooking over a primitive stove and hand washing clothes. Groceries and supplies would have been delivered to them periodically, but a lookout would have spent most of her time alone. And there were no days off or visits into town over the course of the fire season. It is likely that lookouts spent weeks on end with only radio contact with the outside world. It was by radio that they would have contacted the Forest Service to alert them of smoke spotted on the horizon.
For the fire season of 1944, Mary Lockett took over Spruce Mountain lookout duties from Roberta Eads.
If you want to get a taste of lookout life yourself, you can spend the night in the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. While no longer serving as a lookout, the tower has been refurbished and was reopened in 1977. During the summer months, for forty dollars a night and a minimum two-night stay, those not afraid of heights can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the surrounding forest. Be prepared to rough it, though. As was the case in the 1940s, lookout furnishings are basic and there is still no water or electricity at the site. And beware of electricity of the natural sort. The Forest Service website cautions, “During lighting storms, stay in the cabin and do not touch metal furnishings.”
Today, while the Forest Service relies on aircraft, drones and satellites to spot forest fires, there are still some 450 lookout towers in active use, particularly in the western U.S. The Osborne Firefinder continues to play a critical role in helping lookouts pinpoint the location of a fire. And thanks to the exemplary work of the early female lookouts, it is estimated that at least half of modern-day Forest Service lookout employees are women.
The American Heritage Center’s collection of Medicine Bow National Forest records contains the photos of used in this blog post.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.