The first fire lookout towers in Ontario appeared on the scene in the 1920's. These early towers were constructed of wood; some were simply platforms in tall trees. By 1947, there were 52 wooden, and 227 steel towers across Ontario.
The 1950's and 1960's marked the glory years for fire lookout towers in Ontario. By 1962, there were a total of 316 steel towers in operation throughout the province; by which time most or all of the wooden towers, save one, had disappeared (Ontario Resources Atlas, 1963).
Ontario's lookout towers were generally named after the townships in which they were located, or after nearby prominent geographic features such as lakes, rivers, mountains or towns. Smoke from a distance of about 15 statute miles could be spotted from these towers, which provided a coverage of over 700 square miles of terrain. Each tower was situated in such a manner so as to provide overlap with at least two of its neighbours. In this way, the location of a smoke could be determined - using a device, with which most mariners are very familiar, called an "alidade" - through triangulation. The alidade was mounted on a map of the immediate area with the geographic position tower located at the centre of the map. The entire map/alidade platform was mounted on an ingenious sliding device which could be offset to sight fires which would otherwise be obscured by the corner posts of the cupola windows.
Towers were organized into divisions; in each division, a "key" tower was established. All of the towers in a particular division reported to the key tower, which in turn, reported to Chief Ranger's Office, who reported to the Forest Protection Office and the Forest Protection Supervisor. Key tower operators were always the most experienced and reliable. The regular routine called for the key tower to conduct a roll call to determine local conditions such as rain, lightning, etc. All divisions operated on the same radio frequency so that if a smoke was detected, its location could be determined, by triangulation, even between different divisions. By the late 1950's and early 1960's, all towers were connected by telephone lines; in fact at one time, the former Department of Lands and Forests had more miles of telephone line than Bell Canada.
Towermen were a very unique and solitary breed. "…requiring freedom of fear of heights, good eyesight, intelligence, and a contentment with his job great enough to overcome the loneliness of the life".
Towermen came from all walks of life: loggers, lumbermen, trappers, highly-educated, scholarly types, and in many cases, veterans of both World Wars. Many towers were both manned and constructed by local aboriginal people for whom the Forestry Service was a good source of gainful employment. Captain Bill Shields, a towerman, and conservation officer, had this to say about the towermen: "...Most towermen were eccentrics (they had to be); usually prospectors or trappers...from Bush Culture!.. "
James Guiney manned the Mount St. Patrick Tower (Tweed District) for 22 years from 1922 until his retirement in 1944. Guiney grew tired of climbing up and down the ladder, day in and day out, so he devised a system of weights and pulleys that enabled him to ascend and descend the tower with a slight pull on a rope. Apparently, one day, one of the weights dislodged, resulting in Guiney making the descent much more rapidly than intended, and with predictable, though not fatal, results. Guiney subsequently abandoned his apparatus and returned to the old method of getting to the top by climbing the ladder.
The job a tower observer was not always restricted to men. During WWII, quite a few women were employed as tower observers, due to the fact that many of the able-bodied men were overseas and/or otherwise occupied in the military. Very few women however, retained their positions after the war At least two women ("tower girls") served in this capacity: Ms. Ernestine Morin, who staffed the Lowbush Tower in the late 1940's, and Mrs. Georgina Mylymok, who staffed the tower near Upsala in 1959.
A shortage of men was not the only problem with which the old Department of Lands and Forests was faced. Construction of fire lookout towers, and consequently, the coverage area, was seriously hampered during WWII by a shortage of steel. It was not until after the end of the war and a resumption of domestically-available raw materials (such as steel) that the fire tower system in Ontario was completed.
The demise of the tower detection system began in the late 1960's when it was decided that aerial detection was a more cost-effective and efficient means of spotting forest fires. By the beginning of the 1970's, lookout towers were being taken out of operation; by 1973, the tower detection system was closed down entirely and replaced with aeroplanes. It was the end of a glorious and romantic era for the "sentinels of the forest".
Courtesy Robert Eno