Mountain Fire Lookout Tower Will Elevate Your Autumn Experience
There’s simply nothing quite like looking up at a canopy of Wisconsin’s brilliant fall foliage…except, perhaps, looking down over it.
In Oconto County, home of Oconto Electric Cooperative, visitors can do just that by climbing the 132 steps up the historic Mountain Fire Lookout Tower for a sweeping, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
This view is stunning at any time of year, but in the fall it’s especially beautiful as the forest below bursts into bright colors. It’s also special because it’s a rare opportunity: The Mountain Fire Lookout Tower is the only remaining fire tower in Wisconsin that is open to the public to climb.
“There were 72 fire towers in the State of Wisconsin throughout history,” said Ann Maletzke, a member of the Friends of the Fire Tower. “There aren’t many left and I do not believe there are any working ones anymore. A lot have been taken down. We are probably one of the only places anywhere that has a fire tower that people can actually climb yet.”
Sentinels of the Past
Fire lookout towers like the structure in Mountain once served a very necessary and practical purpose. They were constructed along high vantage points that allowed for maximum viewing of range and distance. Fire spotters would spend hours standing in the cabs at the top of the towers, scanning the horizon for smoke columns and flames.
“I always tell people it’s cool to go to the top and the tower is a piece of history, but just think of the people who actually worked up there,” Maletzke said. “Because at the top, the cab is only 7 by 7 feet, and there are absolutely no amenities up there. Just close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to be up there for several hours at a time.”
At their peak, fire towers covered the forested sections of the countryside, with about 8,000 such lookouts by the 1940s. As aerial surveillance measures like drones and planes rendered the fire towers obsolete, many were dismantled or fell into disrepair. Few were saved.
Last One Standing
The 100-foot, steel Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was built under the direction of the Forest Service during the winter of 1934-35. It was constructed by the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps as part of a 19-tower network that extended across the Nicolet Forest, operating as a forest fire detection system for more than 35 years. The Mountain tower was removed from service in 1970 and later used as a radio relay station for the Forest Service and the Oconto County Sheriff’s Department from 1977 to 1992.
On a clear day, the view from the cab atop the Mountain Fire Lookout Tower
extends to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Bottom photo courtesy of Oconto
County Economic Development Corporation.)
The tower was first restored in 1994 and opened to visitors who’d climb to the top to take in the view, but the years, the weather, and all those steps took their toll. By the mid-2010s, it was clear something needed to be done.
“The tower was kind of in a state of disrepair,” Maletzke explained. “It was rocking and rolling as you walked up. The steps were in disrepair and the metal was kind of iffy.”
With the tower’s cultural significance and historical value—it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was the first tower in Wisconsin to be placed on the National Historic Lookout Register—dismantling the structure was not an option anyone wanted.
The Oconto County Economic Development Corporation and the Friends of the Fire Tower launched a fund-raising campaign supported by local businesses, organizations, and individuals. Together, they raised more than $11,000 for the tower’s restoration. Employees from the Lakewood-Laona Ranger District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest spent more than 500 hours doing the restoration work, which included replacing all the steps, platforms, and the cab floor. To wrap up the project, Maletzke overcame her self-described fear of heights to join another local volunteer in climbing to the top of the tower to apply a fresh coat of paint to the inside of the cab. The newly restored tower was reopened to the public in 2016.
All that work was soundly tested in July 2019 when a derecho storm tore through the area, bringing dangerously high winds and causing significant destruction.
“I believe the winds were clocked at 80–127 miles an hour, and they lasted about 20 minutes,” Maletzke explained. “It was devastating, and Mountain was ground zero. But the tower is metal and the wooden steps are open, and it withstood the storm. The wind could blow right through it.”
Although the fire tower has proven itself to be more than sturdy, visitors should be prepared for an experience similar to what the early fire spotters had. The tower is located on high ground already, and it rises 100 feet into the air, for a total elevation of 1,380 feet above sea level. Getting to the top is a workout, as the only way up is to climb the 132 steps to the small, airy cab at the top.
“It’s very, very open,” Maletzke pointed out. “There are the steps, which are open steps, and there are handrails, and that’s about it, all the way up.”
In addition, the tower sways with the wind at the top, which can be a bit unnerving to those who are leery of heights.
However, the view from the top is worth every one of the open steps to get there.
“It’s a stunning spot,” Maletzke said. “The sunsets up there are beautiful. It’s just a very special place, and the fact that we were able to save our tower when a lot of them had been taken down is amazing.”—Mary Erickson, photos courtesy of Katie Jagiello, Oconto Electric Cooperative
The Mountain Fire Lookout Tower is located about 2.5 miles north of Mountain, along Mountain Tower Road. Take Hwy 32 North, turn right onto Sparky’s Lane, then left on Old 32 Road for 2 1/2 miles to the entrance sign on the right-hand side of the road. The tower is open May 1 through October 31. The site is free, but donations are appreciated. For more information, visit www.ocontocounty.org.