Oregon fire lookout gets a new life

SALEM, Ore. – A group of volunteers has restored a Forest Service lookout in the Willamette National Forest along the Cascade Range east of Salem.

The restoration of the Gold Butte fire lookout is the work of the Sand Mountain Society, volunteers who try to save U.S. Forest Service lookouts.

The lookout was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and offers a view of a number of Cascade Range volcanoes.

It will be ready by spring to be rented through a national lodging system.

“It’s an awesome experience for people to be in a fire lookout,” said John Tracy of Monmouth, one of four society members who spent more than 1,000 hours each restoring the lookout beginning in 1999.

“It’s an opportunity you don’t find very often, and it’s really a neat opportunity for families, the opportunity to sleep in something that’s sealed – no mice, no bugs, he said. “If you read the visitor’s log, people come here from all over the country and just can’t believe what the view is like.”

The lookout near the Detroit Ranger Station is among more than 100 fire lookouts in Oregon. In World War II, it was an observation point in the aircraft-warning system.

“That unique assignment is what made it a special place in terms of its eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places,” said Rod Stewart, a recreational forester for the Detroit district. “When it was being used as part of the aircraft-warning system, it was staffed year-round. It looks like this would be a pretty tough place to spend the winter, but they did it.”

Forest Service archaeologist Cara Kelly said a husband and wife team during the war “alternated spending 12 hours on, 12 hours off. So they’d see each other only in passing as they went from the cabin to the lookout, from the lookout to the cabin.”

Several members of the society have personal connections to Oregon fire lookouts, or once worked there.

Don Allen, now the general manager of an electronics-manufacturing company in Portland, spent time with his parents at one and worked himself at another. The Gold Butte lookout was “on the verge of disappearing” in the 1960s, when the cabin and garage just down the hill were burned and the lookout was scheduled to be next, he said.

“I always liked this lookout because it was the first one I came to when I got my driver’s license,” Allen said. “I helped take care of it a little bit then, so I have a long history with it. I have that background: My grandfather was a fire lookout, my dad was a lookout, and I was a lookout, so there’s quite a few lookouts in our history.”

The lookout was dedicated Sept. 9 in the name of a society member, Ron Johnson, who spearheaded the society’s plan for reconstruction but died in 1998 before the work started.

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