Fire lookout restoration stays true to history
Firs, traditional tools help retain cabin’s character
High above the purple lupine and fire scars of the past stands a crudely made square cabin, weathered beyond its glory days.
To reach it, travelers head into the mountains west of Kettle Falls and follow the Kettle Crest Trail up to 7,000 feet, where the Columbia Mountain Lookout stands.
The structure is one of the oldest left in the Colville National Forest. C.C. Reed, an early forest supervisor, designed the fire lookout around 1914. It hasn’t been used or maintained since the 1930s, said Stuart Chilvers, a forest archaeologist.
Working from original pictures and records, Chilvers and other Forest Service employees and volunteers set out to restore the building using traditional techniques.
“You don’t find remains like this everywhere. People in the area have wanted to preserve the lookout for more than 20 years,” Chilvers said.
The restoration is part of a Forest Service program called Passport in Time, which connects volunteers with professionals for archaeological and historical preservation projects. Volunteers sign up through the Passport website, and project leaders, such as Chilvers, select them.
Passport projects vary in type and length. The Columbia Mountain Lookout project lasted two weeks, and volunteers camped below the trail and hiked 6 1/2 miles roundtrip each day.
As of last Friday, the crew still needed to close a hole in the roof and put on the shingles. Chilvers is trying to work out a time to finish the project before fall, he said.
Last summer Chilvers led a Passport crew that started the restoration. Back then the lookout leaned, and the back logs were as soft as sponge cake, Chilvers said. The crew took apart the lookout and salvaged the usable lumber. They carefully numbered the logs and wrapped them in a tarp until this summer.
“When we deconstructed the original, we found magazines from the 1920s used as chinking,” the mortar-like material between logs, said Karl Dietzler, a summer employee and project volunteer last summer. “There were articles on silent film stars.”
The logs themselves speak to the history of the lookout. Names are etched all over the inside walls, including those of former lookouts assigned to the mountaintop to watch for smoke during fire season. Chilvers pointed to the name “Slagle” on the back wall; two Slagle brothers served as lookouts during World War II, he said.
Lookouts were part of new policies resulting from a public outcry after the region’s devastating 1910 fires. The buildings reached their golden era in the 1930s and ’40s, said forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton. The lookout built by Reed was meant to be temporary.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built another lookout on Columbia Mountain in the 1930s, relegating the original lookout to a storage shed.
In the 1970s, the Forest Service started using planes to detect fires and decommissioned many lookouts, including the one on Columbia Mountain, according to Pemberton.
The original, restored lookout sits on the ground. It had a platform above the cabin with another roof, but the crew didn’t restore the platform out of concern for visitors’ safety, Chilvers said.
In the reconstruction process they tried to stay true to the original construction methods. They cut sub-alpine firs within a couple hundred feet of the project to mix in with the salvaged lumber. They mostly used traditional tools, such as broadaxes, to hew the logs, stripping back bark into piles on the ground.
“I’ve gained an appreciation for what it took to build an original cabin like this,” said Allison Young, a seasonal archaeologist with the Colville National Forest.
“A restoration must be done to the same standard of the original. If it’s a good restoration, it should be in authentic ways,” Chilvers said.
Once finished, the lookout will “stay as a historic landmark” and be open for the enjoyment of skiers, hikers and hunters.
“I hope it stays up there for another 95 years. It’s incredibly impressive,” Chilvers said.