Fire tower revival heats up

The old Ward Pound Ridge Fire Tower

This photo shows the Cross River Mountain fire tower at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. The Trailside Museum board wants to restore the tower at its original location as a sightseeing attraction. (Courtesy of Bob Eckler)

Members of Westchester County’s Board of Legislators and parks and public works departments met last week with Tom Cohn, a Friends of Trailside Museum board member, to hash out safety concerns and get the ball rolling on the proposed resurrection of the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation fire tower.

“Our vision is really to create a beacon,” Mr. Cohn said. “The reservation, which already has a tremendous draw throughout the tri-state area and the county — we think this will absolutely enhance that status. We believe it will be very well received by the public and become a very special destination and bring wonderful tourism to the reservation.”

The installation of a fire tower is estimated at $140,000, but with liability concerns at the forefront of the meeting, the safety standards of the 1960s and 70s will surely need upgrading and may increase the total cost of the tower to a very preliminary estimate of $250,000 Mr. Cohn said.

At the June 26 meeting, Mr. Cohn said that the Friends group has already made significant headway in raising the funds for the tower, with the group’s coffers holding $100,000, of which $40,000 to $50,000 may be used for the tower.

“This is going to be a destination for people to seek out,” he said. “The reservation already pulls in 100,000 people a year and when word spreads that this easy hike with amazing views is available, people are going to come from all around,” he said. “Jaws are going to drop when they realize the vantage point and the perspective it gives them and how beautiful our area is.”

The fire tower

Originally erected in 1926, the fire tower served as a critical monitoring station for forest fires. According to town historian and Trailside board member Maureen Koehl, a Westchester County government report from 1975 indicates that about 500 fires were reported from the tower between 1966 and 1968, with tower observers working with aerial support to pinpoint their locations.

The tower was also a major attraction, averaging approximately 5,000 visitors a year between 1966 and 1968, she said.

Mr. Cohn, Ms. Koehl, and County Legislator Peter Harckham, who led last week’s meeting, can all recall fond memories of visiting the tower during the 1960s and 70s before it was decommissioned in 1971 and removed several years later.

No longer maintained and monitored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the tower was taken down due to liability concerns, with some dispute as to whether or not it was done via the proper processes since the DEC removed the tower without approval from the county, according to Ms. Koehl.

At full height the 60-foot tower is expected to rise 920 feet above sea level and provide a 360-degree view, ranging anywhere from 50 to 100 miles depending on weather, Mr. Cohn said.

If constructed the tower will be the only fire tower available to the public in the county.

Concerns

County Parks Commissioner Kathleen O’Connor firmly said that she would not support any proposal that did not include supervision — a point of unanimous agreement at the meeting.

Mr. Cohn also added that he envisioned a type of adjustable stair access that could be raised and lowered so that park visitors would only have access during park hours. The need for a paid employee to oversee the tower was also a point of unanimous agreement, though who would pay for that position was left open, with Mr. Cohn suggesting that the Friends of Trailside Museum would be interested in perhaps sharing costs.

The tower that is being proposed is an exact copy of the original model, Mr. Cohn said, and would likely be placed on the same foundation as the old tower.

If the tower is deemed a restoration then it will not have to comply with new construction regulations, including handicap accessibility, which would require an elevator and make the tower cost prohibitive, Mr. Harckham, whose District 2 includes Lewisboro and Katonah, told The Ledger.

Mr. Cohn emphasized at the meeting that the proposal has the written support of supervisors from neighboring towns, including Lewisboro.

He is optimistic that by this time next year the public will be enjoying the view from atop the tower, though Mr. Harckham was more cautious about placing a date on the project, which is very much in the preliminary stages with many logistical hurdles left in the process.

“I would love it if we have it up this time next year,” Mr. Harckham said, “but I am little more cautious having been in government for a little while now and I don’t want to set a time frame and have people disappointed, but there is a lot of positive momentum and I do think we will get this done. It’s a wonderful addition that will help attract new visitors to the park and our local communities and spend their dollars in our restaurants and stores. It’s a wonderful attraction and amenity and a great opportunity for historical education.”

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