Tower wreckage reveals treasures


Last updated 6/10/2003 at Noon

Sisters District Ecologist, Deschutes National Forest

Inmate workers sort through the wreckage of the old Black Butte Tower. Photo by Maret Pajutee

It's been nearly 70 years since the sound of hammers on wood and the shouts of a large crew of men echoed on the top of Black Butte near Sisters.

In 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laboriously assembled a new fire lookout tower using a thousand loads of lumber carried up the mountain by pack horses. Last week the job was to take apart the tower ruins with a 20-man inmate crew from the Deschutes National Forest /Oregon Department of Corrections Work Program.

The historic tower fell under a load of snow and ice in December of 2001. Last year the Sisters Ranger District received a grant from the Samuel S. Johnson Foundation of Redmond to sort, assess, and salvage old growth lumber and metal hardware from the ruins. Assistant Fire Management Officer Kirk Metzger, who led the work force, hoped that despite the appearance of the wreckage there might be significant components to salvage for lookout restoration projects. He was not disappointed.

The inmate crew made quick work of sorting the jumble of twisted wood, wire cables, and broken glass. Under the direction of Metzger some men carefully unscrewed old bolts frozen in the old beams and protected by unusual large wood gaskets. Others picked out and extracted intact support beams, piled burnable debris, picked up glass, or rolled the hundreds of feet of heavy metal cable that once held the tower steady against the wind.

Five hours after they arrived on the mountain top, the chaos was resolved into neat stacks of beams, burn piles, metal hardware, and lookout parts.

Fifteen large, sound beams milled years ago out of old growth trees were found. Five intact staircases and the wooden floor of the lookout cab, with fire finder stand still attached, were also located. Metzger estimated that crews also salvaged nearly 500 pounds of metal hardware, including unusual hand-forged chafing plates which protected the tower beams from the thick metal cable.

Despite the difficult hike to the top with heavy loads of tools including chainsaws and the challenging task, the crew was in high spirits and glad to be of service.

"This needed to be done, it needed to be cleaned up... Fresh air and exercise -- what more could you want? I love the mountains. Anything I can do to help mountains -- I do it." said Bobby Rose of Vancouver.

Mark Tidwell of Corvallis exclaimed, "I'm just part of the 'damn glad to be here' club. Everyone makes mistakes. I'm glad to give something back. We really do try to work hard. You'd be amazed at what we can get done."

The inmates were accompanied by their guards, Officer Teal of the Oregon State Prison and Officer Wanous of Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla.

Teal enjoyed the unusual project, saying, "This is the fifth week of the program here with these 20 guys. Today's been a good adventure. They're working together well as a team and handling this task. It's a dream that came true about coming up here to Black Butte."

Officer Wanous explained, "When these guys get an opportunity like this to pay back society it makes them feel good. They did an outstanding job as usual. I never thought I'd see a group of inmates work so hard in my career. I'm just glad we got to come up here today."

Next steps for the salvage project involve discussions with the High Desert Museum for possible exhibit developments.

News of the finds will also be advertised through lookout restoration networks for use in reconstructing old lookouts.


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