The Fire Tower in South Wellfleet on Route Six near Pilgrim Spring Road was erected in 1927. Cape Cod had been regularly threatened with damaging woodland fires, some reaching many hundreds of acres. A report in the Barnstable Patriot in May 1875 described a fire of more than 100 acres burning in the vicinity of the South Wellfleet Railroad station for more than a day “in spite of the efforts of the citizens to extinguish the flames.”
Such fires became of greater concern when the early twentieth century brought new summer residents and vacationers. Some blame the Cape’s sandy soil with plants that quickly dried out without rain but fires also were clearly a result of the sparks from railroad engines. There are numerous newspaper reports of the pressures Cape residents put on the New York New Haven and Hartford Railroad to acquire more land on either side of their tracks, and to keep it clear of brush.
Wherever the fire came from, all citizens — even children — were put to work putting out the flames. On a taped “memory piece” Mary Stubbs Magenau speaks of her experience beating out flames in South Wellfleet when she was a child.
In a July 1915 article “Forest Fires on The Cape” in Cape Cod Magazine, R.H. Cahoon reports that in 1915 Massachusetts set up a man to watch for fires in Harwich, in the cupola of the Exchange Theatre. He was paid $60 per month to work every day (except rainy days). Another observatory was set up in 1910 in Barnstable on Shoot Flying Hill. Cahoon describes the job:
In the observatory, besides being equipped with a telephone, the watchman has a chart, arranged with a shifting rod, by which the observer is able to locate fires within his district, the station is equipped with books, maps and lists of fire wardens residing in the various districts. The observatory is connected by telephone with the office of the local fire warden, who is called when any smoke is sighted. The chief fire warden learns the exact location of the fire, then hastens there, calls aid and commands the work of extinguishing the blaze.
This observatory quickly became a favorite place for visitors to climb and look out over the Cape, much as we go to the top of skyscrapers today. One report notes that the Marconi Towers in Wellfleet were clearly visible against the sky.
Reports began to appear in the Hyannis Patriot in the spring of 1927 that Wellfleet’s tower would soon be erected. In April of that year there was a serious multi-day 2,500 acre fire in Truro. There were reports that a fire tower to protect the lower Cape could not be built until 1928. However, the state workmen got busy and soon had “a cement foundation and posts for a twenty foot square steel tower to be erected after the Fourth of July, and to be done in August, which is located about fifty feet in the State Highway line in the South Wellfleet section of Wellfleet, at the crest of a hill between Spring Valley Road and so-called Hinckley’s corner, on the west side of the road.”
There were also plans to plant trees and to grade the Fire Tower site so that it would be attractive. An article later in July reports that the State fire tower was going up rapidly, with the workmen tenting at the rear, in the woods, and that Richard Baker of South Wellfleet was expected to be the watchman there. Richard Baker was the son of M. Burton Baker bought up much of the Crowell family land on Indian Neck, and ran the Indian Neck Inn (more on this topic later).
In early 1928, the paper reported the discussion, at the Wellfleet Town Meeting in February, about the Town’s expected donation to the cost of erecting the Fire Tower. The Tower’s cost was $2,000, mostly covered by the Commonwealth. Wellfleet contributed $150, and the towns of Orleans, Eastham and Truro each contributed $100. The extra $50 requested of Wellfleet must have spurred the discussion. But people understood that Wellfleet would benefit more, and have the quickest results of a fire being spotted. Richard Baker contributed to the discussion by reporting that during the months the fire tower was open in 1927, two thousand visitors had registered their visit by signing the book kept at the top. The reporter continues, “One can see what advertisement of our wonderful panoramic scenery is received from the height of the town and what it does for those away in telling of the Cape’s beauties and charm.” Richard’s father, Burton Baker, had attended a meeting at the State House in January when the contributions were proposed and — the reporter noted — the other towns were coming in line.
In April 1928, the flag began flying again at the Fire Tower, and Richard Baker was the “observer” once again. In 1929, William Wyler must have taken the position, as he is listed in the 1930 census as “fire observer” for the State. In 1929, a news report notes that Miss Dorothy Baker was substituting for Mr. Wyler who was home with a swollen ankle.
In 1927, the Howes family built “Brownie’s Cabins” – first calling it a Motor Court – near the Tower, as pictured in this old postcard. They are still there today, but having become a condominium association about ten years ago.
One other news report gives us a report of the Fire Tower visitors, this one in 1942 when 4,282 visitors from 41 states and 12 foreign nations climbed the fire observation tower.
In 1960, a new sixty-eight foot tower replaced the old iron tower. In 2001, a new cab was installed. an excellent site today for cell tower additions.
My research about the Wellfleet Fire Tower was greatly helped by the website: http://www.firelookout.or/towers/ma/wellfleet.htm
News reports from Hyannis Patriot online at http://www.sturgislibrary.org.