Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cerney tells about Black Hills fire towers

It was 100 years ago that the first fire rustic lookout was built in the Black Hills atop Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the European Alps.  The structure was quite modest when compared to the stone lookouts later erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.  By mid-Twentieth Century, steel towers had replaced many of the old wooden structures.

Author Jan Cerney (left) with
LCHS president Jeannine Guern
South Dakota author Jan Cerney shared a few photos and lots of facts about fire towers with members of the Lawrence County Historical Society on Sunday (11/13/11)  at the organization’s annual meeting in Deadwood.  The dinner session was held at the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center and was catered by the Stage Stop Café at Cheyenne Crossing.

Cerney’s presentation was largely based on a book about Harney Peak and the Historic Fire Lookout Towers of the Black Hills National Forest that she co-authored with Roberta Sago of Black Hills State University.   Cerney lives on a ranch with her husband, Bob, in the South Dakota Bad Lands.  Both Cerney and Sago have authored several books published by Arcadia, a leading publisher of local histories across the United States.

“Before they even began to construct towers, horses were used to patrol the area, and they’d have to ride a distance to report any fires,” said Cerney.

 Early lookout towers were quite humble, including those that were created simply by driving spikes into a tall tree, allowing a lookout to climb to a high vantage point to scan the region.  That was the simple strategy employed by the Homestake Mine lookout that was used near Moskee.  They later added a platform to the top.

This fire tower at Cement Ridge near the Wyoming-South Dakota border is one
of only a few such facilities that remain in operation across the Black Hills.
 “Most of the old towers that were built later have become hiking destinations – some are gone and totally destroyed – but a few are still used,” she noted.  They include structures at Mount Coolidge, Bear Mountain, Cement Ridge, Elk Mountain, and at Warren Peak in Wyoming.

“The Lakota called Harney Peak the center of the world,” Cerney told the group.  “Lakota leader Black Elk, his son Ben, poet John Neihardt and his daughters Enid and Hilda made a pilgrimage to Harney Peak back in 1931.”

Stage Coach Cafe at Cheyenne Crossing provided
a superb lunch for the annual meeting of the LCHS.
The next year, Neihardt and Black Elk collaborated on the book Black Elk Speaks, which told the story of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man.

Cerney showed a few of the more than 200 photographs included in her book.   Today, perhaps the most recognizable remaining watch tower is the stone structure perched more than 7,200 feet above the Black Hills on Harney Peak.  It typifies the solid structures that were the handiwork of the CCC, which started building the tower in April of 1938.  By that November, they had used some 7,000 stones, 500 bricks, and 15,000 hollow tiles.  It was completed in 1939.

 The November 13th meeting served as the Annual Meeting for the Lawrence County Historical Society.  New officers were introduced, including Jeannine Guern of Deadwood, president; Norma Kraemer of Deadwood, vice-president; Jacke Mitchell of Spearfish, treasurer; and Donna Watson of Deadwood, secretary.  Members were delight to see Jerry Bryant and his wife, Linda, at this meeting.  Bryant had stepped down from the presidency earlier this year due to health reason.

You can review more photographs and additional information about the November meeting in our Historical Marker Gallery.