Resources 1984 – C. Structures Eligible for the National Register 2. Watchman Fire Lookout (Bldg. #168)

Historic Resource Study, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1984

XI. Summary of Important Structures


C. Structures Eligible for the National Register

   2. Watchman Fire Lookout (Bldg. #168)

Protecting the forests has always been a major activity of the National Park Service at Crater Lake. A system of motorways for use only in forest protection was developed throughout the park. Maps were available to lookouts showing the types of ground cover in the surrounding area and the location of streams and springs where water could be obtained. Trained staff over the years included rangers and CCC enrollees and they experienced good cooperation with the U. S. Forest Service and U. S. Indian Service. The presence of two lookout stations in the park and several Forest Service and Indian Service lookouts in surrounding national forests provided almost one hundred percent visibility of the forests in the Crater Lake region. Rangers on lookout duty were in constant communication by short wave radio and telephone with the fire dispatcher’s office at park headquarters.

The prompt detection of forest fires is a basic necessity for the efficient protection of forested parks. Trained observers are necessary for early fire detection and reporting. Stations are usually located on heights overlooking a great expanse of dangerous area.

Because lookouts are on vantage points selected for their broad coverage of the forest, they are also the best points from which the public can gain panoramic views. Because they can be seen by many people at a great distance, they should harmonize with their setting as much as possible.

The location for the Watchman lookout station was chosen by M.S. Sager of the NPS Landscape Division. It is at an elevation of 8025 feet and affects a commanding view of the western half of the park. Located on the west rim of the lake and completed in early 1932, it has served a dual purpose as lookout and trail museum. The flat-roofed first floor, walled by massive stones, houses a museum room for fire prevention data with an eight-foot plate-glass window overlooking the lake and also contained restrooms and a storage area–a somewhat unique arrangement for the first floor of a fire lookout and necessary primarily because of its accessibility to the public. The steel-framed second story, resting on only a portion of the irregularly-shaped first floor, is a four-sided, plate-glass-enclosed observation room. The roof of the observation room and the catwalk around it are of logs, enabling the tower to blend in remarkably well with the peak. “After Mr. J.D. Coffman, Fire Control Expert, inspected the building he stated that he believed it to be the best fire lookout building in the United States.” [2] The tower was manned during fire seasons for many years (until 1974 and intermittently since) as part of a system for early detection and suppression of fires. Another lookout, maintained in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Indian Service, was located in 1926 atop Mount Scott, the highest summit in the park, almost directly across the lake. The Watchman lookout tower offers tremendous interpretive potential because it has spanned a period of fifty years, during which time there has been a marked philosophical turnabout in the approach to wild fire management and a clarification of duties required for the protection of natural resources. Much historical material exists from the lookout’s early days.

It is recommended that the Watchman Fire Lookout be nominated to the National Register as being of local architectural significance. It contains all the essential elements of a good fire control station, as outlined in Good: unobstructed visibility, using plate glass and a minimum of obstructing posts; a walkway or platform around the observatory for visitors; railings for the protection of the attendant and visitors; thought to its appearance, making it seem a part of Watchman Peak; and use of native materials to provide harmony with surrounding topography. [3]

The Watchman lookout was a complex building project. The building is unusual because it serves the dual purpose of fire lookout station and trailside museum, primarily because the lookout is accessible to the public by a trail. [4] It gives park visitors a new conception of the lake and surrounding country, so it helps in interpretation as well as fire control. Its striking appearance also ties in with the rustic architecture theme of the park. The lookout is historically significant because of its early role in fire detection and suppression within the National Park System and symbolizes an important conservational activity of any park.


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