East Tennessee's towering history from the view of local fire towers

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Tenn. (WVLT) -- For decades, fire towers were the only way rangers could detect fires. Now, some of the structures are rusting and ready to fall, though they carry a lot of memories of when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park first opened.

The beauty of East Tennessee is unmatched in so many of our communities, especially the views in the Smoky Mountains. But preserving that beauty isn't new.

Decades ago, when the Division of Forestry was started, fire towers began springing up all over the state of Tennessee.

"If you can imagine climbing a 100-foot tower every morning, that would be a scary feeling," said Shawn Hendrickson, of Chuck Swan State Forest.

Back then, many forestry workers didn't have a choice.

"There weren't a lot of jobs back in the 1930s, and a lot of them did it because that was all there was there in their community," said Hendrickson.

By the 1940s, there were more than 8,000 fire towers around the state, the highest being Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet. The tower is still standing, providing quite a view.

More importantly, Clingmans Dome served a vital role. At the time of its construction, it and those towers around it were the only way of helping locate wildfires, simply by eyeballing them.

"They would call the next tower over to triangulate the location of these smoke plumes," explained Hendrickson. "Where they crossed is where the fire was, so they would call the road location to start looking."

By the mid-1990s, things changed.

"There's technology we come up with today, cell phones—it's just more efficient through the 911 system to pinpoint any issues," said Hendrickson.

Through the years, most fire towers have been dismantled. Still, some like the one on House Mountain, built in the 1950s, are still used as teaching tools. In deeply remote areas, a few are still in use, but they are mostly viewed simply as recreational tools to view the beauty of what the mountains bring, allowing us to share with our children and theirs for decades to come.