Kettlefoot Fire Lookout Tower at Doe Mountain
Backstory and Context
The United States Forest Service was established in 1905 to maintain America’s “forest reserves” – the forerunners of today’s National Forests. One of its founding philosophies was “total fire suppression,” or preventing/extinguishing every fire on national lands. While the Forest Fires Emergency Act of 1908 allowed unlimited spending to contain forest fires, the major trigger for increased fire management resources was the “Big Blowup” of 1910. These fires burned three million acres in two days. The Weeks Act was passed the following year; it allowed federal and state cooperation on fire management and authorized the creation of National Forests. (Cherokee National Forest, location of the Kettlefoot Tower, was created in 1920.)
Lookouts were designed to give fire observers a panoramic view while protecting them from the elements; they progressed from mountaintop shanties to elaborate complexes and soaring towers. Their designs were regionally dependent; for example, lookouts sat much lower to the ground in areas where observers did not need to see over surrounding trees. Many were constructed to mesh with the surrounding nature and park architecture. The Kettlefoot Tower, whose strange name supposedly came from the story of a bear who “caught his foot in a kettle,” was built at the top of Doe Mountain – 3,889 feet above sea level – in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Its Carnegie galvanized steel structure stands 60 feet high and 96 steps lead up to its observation cabin. It is an example of the Aermotor MC-39, a popular fire lookout model that came in heights from 33 to 176 feet. The Aermotor Company originally produced (and continues to produce) windmills but slight modifications of their designs made them, “the premier manufacturer of steel fire towers in the early twentieth century.” The CCC, founded in 1933 to provide employment and complete public projects (including fire management), built 3,470 fire towers by 1942; in fact, it “was responsible for the construction and operation of the majority of the fire lookout towers built in the early twentieth century.” This included 98 in Tennessee and eighteen in the Cherokee National Forest alone.
Increased road travel and recreational activities after the Second World War resulted in more citizen reports of forest fires. Not long after, forestry services started using aerial (and eventually satellite) fire spotting. This combination began to render fire towers obsolete. The late 1960s also saw a major shift in Forest Service policy; now land managers would allow some fires to burn interrupted as a natural part of ecological cleansing, rather than instantly dousing every small blaze. Because of these changes, the Kettlefoot Tower was retired in the mid-1970s.
275 fire lookout towers once stood in Tennessee, including three in Johnson County; today, 164 survive, with Kettlefoot as the only remaining tower in the county. It is now surrounded by the Doe Mountain Recreation Area, an 8,600-acre wilderness with 60 miles of trails used by Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs), mountain bikers, and hikers. Currently, the only way to visit the tower is by way of Multi-Use Trail 25. However, the DMRA is planning to build more trails to the tower as well as repair it using money from a 2018 Appalachian Regional Commission grant.
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Tate Davis, Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kettlefoot_Fire_Lookout_Tower_atop_Doe_Mountain,_Johnson_County,_Tennessee.jpg) - CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)