West Virginia's first fire towers were erected in 1916, but they were two-story "Jenny Lind" style buildings with living quarters on the lower level and observation space on the top floor. Starting in the 1920s, observer towers perched several stories above the ground atop wooden or steel support beams began to appear on some of the higher peaks across the state.
In 1935, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew built the Thorny Mountain Tower to replace a tower that had been built on nearby Michael Mountain during the 1920s. Beanblossom said he wasn't sure why the unique live-in, western-style tower cab with a 14 by 14-foot living space and surrounding catwalk was chosen for the site. Seasonal observers lived and worked in the Thorny Mountain Tower until 1988, two years before the use of manned observation towers was completely phased out in the state.
More than 80 towers were built on peaks across the state on both state and federally managed land, but only about a dozen of them still stand, according to Beanblossom.
"The cost of staffing and maintaining them was a factor, and by the 1980s, telephone service was available everywhere in the state, and people getting good about reporting fires as they saw them," he said. Observers taking part in airborne fire patrols began replacing observers in towers in the 1970s, and now fill the primary observation role in detecting and combating forest fires in West Virginia.
Observers at the Thorny Mountain Tower slept in cots, got heat from a wood stove, and used a rope-and-pulley system to bring food, firewood and water into the cab.
A wood stove may return to the cabin once renovation work is complete, but it will be used for decorative and historic purposes. Beds, water and firewood will be provided, along with a picnic table, grill, fire ring and pit toilet at the base of the tower. A solar lighting and battery charging system will be installed. Guests will be able to drive to the base of the tower.
"We'll tell guests that it will be like rustic camping, only the tent will have really hard walls and a great view," said Rob Sovine, superintendent of both Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and Seneca State Forest. "The idea of coming up here and sitting on the deck and reading a book really appeals to me."
A Seneca State Forest maintenance crew consisting of Sandy Weik, Forbes Mullenax and Paul Goehner has replaced the wooden stair steps leading up to the cab, the catwalk surrounding it, and is working on the cab's windows and window frames.
After use of the fire tower was discontinued, trees continued to mature in its vicinity, eventually blocking the view from the tower. "It got to the point that all you could see was pine needles," said Sovine. A small timber auction was held to clear trees from the area immediately around the tower, re-opening the view.
Beanblossom said the tower cab will be available to rent for $50 per night through the Seneca State Forest office at Dunmore. Seneca State Forest also rents eight off-the-grid "pioneer" cabins, with hand-pumped water, gas refrigerators, gaslights and wood-burning cook stoves. Five are located along the shore of four-acre Seneca Lake, and come equipped with canoes, while the others overlook the Greenbrier River.
Seneca is West Virginia's first state forest, created in 1924 to ensure timber and wildlife resources for the future in an era of heavy industrial logging. The state began operating a tree nursery at the forest in 1928. During the 1930s, Seneca State Forest was home to the largest and most varied populations of wildlife to be found anywhere in West Virginia, according to Sovine.