Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
LOOKOUT: Claryville resident George Elias looks toward the highest peaks of the Catskill Mountains from atop the Red Hill Fire Tower near Claryville on a recent sunny afternoon. The 70-year-old fire observation tower has recently been restored and will be officially reopened to the public tomorrow at 11 a.m. in a ceremony conducted by Elias and his wife, Helen.
Red Hill Fire Tower
By Dan Hust
CLARYVILLE July 14, 2000 Hidden in the mountains above Grahamsville, 3,000 feet higher than the Atlantic Ocean, stands a steel construct almost a century old.
Its shiny metal supports give no indication of its age, nor do the nine flights of stairs leading up to its 60-foot-high enclosed cab, where fresh-cut wood and an old circular table have recently been painted over in battleship grey.
The windows of the cab creak slightly when theyre opened but then something happens so suddenly that you cant help but forget about those old hinges.
Its not just the fresh breeze or the warm sunlight hitting your face.
Its the view the incredible, breathtaking, spectacular view of nearly 50 miles of surrounding countryside as seen from the 3,050-feet-high platform at the very top of the Red Hill Fire Tower near Claryville.
The Aeromotor tower, built by a company that specialized in the windmills of the Midwest, sways nary a bit in the stiff wind, affording an undistracted and commanding observation of a good portion of Sullivan Countys relatively flat land in the west, the straight-edged Shawangunk Ridge in the south (even seeing so far as High Point in New Jersey), the Hudson River valley to the east, and the increasingly rugged Catskill Mountains of Ulster County in the north.
Sullivan Countys highest peak, Denman Mountain, is close within view, and the Catskills highest, Slide Mountain, is plainly visible to the immediate north. In fact, the tower, which sits just over the Ulster County line from Sullivan, is in a prime spot to see even into the deepest of nearby valleys which is what it originally was intended for.
The first tower was constructed on top of Red Hill in 1920, according to Marty Podskoch in his new book, Fire Towers of the Catskills (Purple Mountain Press: 2000). Its purpose was to provide a location for a fire observer and forest ranger to serve as lookouts for any forest fires, which could devastate huge tracts of land in the days before modern firefighting equipment.
For over 70 years, the Red Hill Fire Tower served that purpose, helping keep the Catskill Forest Preserve . . . well, preserved.
(As an interesting side note, a local explained that the tower was originally to be constructed in Sullivan County on Denman Mountain, but political pressure kept it in Ulster. Still, it had a healthy tourist trade, seeing on average 400-500 people a year as soon as it was built.)
In 1990, the last observer, Don Wood of Sundown, descended those steps for the last time, having been replaced by aerial surveillance, and the tower and nearby cabin were subsequently vandalized and subjected to the unstoppable forces of weather and time though to a far lesser degree than the dozens of other Catskill towers abandoned much earlier than Red Hill.
People still came up for visits, though, just as they had for years. And two of those people, George and Helen Elias of Claryville, decided to go one step further.
After contacting the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and with the help of the Delaware County-based Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, the Eliases organized a group of 60 volunteers in 1998 to hike up the side of Red Hill and restore the tower and accompanying cabin to their original beauty.
They thus became a part of the Catskill Centers Catskill Fire Tower Restoration Project, an effort initiated by the nonprofit organization to bring five area fire towers (four in Ulster County and one in Greene) up to tip-top shape so as to attract tourists and retain a bit of local history.
The first year, we raised money through dances, raffling off a quilt made by the Claryville Quilters, and selling the 40 tower braces at $100 apiece, said Helen Elias, the chair of the Red Hill Fire Tower Committee.
The braces were not actually sold, of course. The money helped fund any needs, but individuals and groups names are now associated with each brace through a historical display at the towers cabin.
And since the tower needed new braces created by Liberty Iron Works through the measuring help of some steelworkers from Local 417 in Newburgh money obviously was needed to purchase them.
And, like a picnic table at the tower site, the braces had to be helicoptered by the NY State Police to Red Hill, since the only usable road up the mountainside is on private property, and the owner intends to keep it private.
But, with the exception of the braces and table, the Eliases and fellow volunteers trekked up and down over 500 feet in elevation on a dirt trail deep in the woods to haul paint, wood, nails, roofing and flooring materials, and other assorted items up to the tower and cabin.
And so, tomorrow at 11 a.m., the committee and supporters will join at the 2,990-foot summit of Red Hill to officially open the Red Hill Fire Tower and its modest three-room cabin (not to mention a nearby outhouse/storage shed) to the public once again a far better fate than the states original plan to tear it down.
Everybody thought it was worthwhile to save, said Helen, because it was a part of town history and was loved. We thought it was a shame to let it go.
The community has really been behind us, added George as he surveyed the mountainous landscape from the towers cab. We got enough people interested so the state would not take it down.
Still, both agreed theres more yet to do more restoration, and more importantly, more ongoing maintenance. The Eliases are even trying to get volunteer guides to stay up in the cabin overnight on weekends to give visitors informative and historical tours.
Weve done a lot of work, but were not done yet, explained Helen. Its all ongoing. It has to be maintained.
We still have to paint the tower, she added, but thats for another year. Were pretty tired out!
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If you decide to go to Red Hill tomorrow for the ceremony or anytime for a visit, be forewarned that you must hike a good hour up several hundred feet of moderately steep mountainside on a well-marked but rock-strewn trail. The climb is not extremely difficult, but it is taxing (though well worth it for the scenic rewards at the end).
To get to the trailhead, take County Route 19 from where it meets with NY Route 55 near Grahamsville. Head north through Claryville and into the Town of Denning in Ulster County. About a mile or so after entering Ulster County, look for Red Hill Road on your right and make the turn. Follow that for several miles until you see Dinch Road on the left. (Yes, it is a dirt road.) On Saturday, parking will be available at this intersection. Otherwise, follow Dinch for 1.2 miles until you see the trailhead markings on your left. (Youll probably have to park alongside the road well before that point, since the road is quite narrow near the trailhead.)
For more information, contact the DEC at 256-3082.