Book explores fire towers in Appalachia, including a few in Carter County

Published 9:58 am Monday, March 30, 2015

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Fire towers were once an integral part of community safety, allowing lookouts to spot forest fires and call in for help to have them extinguished before homes and communities were destroyed.

Hundreds of fire towers used to exist across the region, but over the years they have been taken down or have fallen from disrepair.

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Now, local author Robert Sorrell has written a new book about fire towers and their history in the Southern Appalachian mountains from Georgia and Virginia, including four fire towers in Carter County.

Sorrell found inspiration for the fire tower book while working on his previous project, a pictorial history book on Roan Mountain and discovered there had been a fire tower on Roan Mountain that had been taken down.

“When doing the Roan Mountain book, I became interested in the fire tower that was on Roan Mountain,” Sorrell said. “I also enjoy hiking and as I started getting out there more I started seeking out the fire towers and gathering information on them.”

Sorrell approached The History Press with the idea for the book. After getting approval, he started with the tower that had inspired the effort: the Roan Mountain Fire Tower. The fire tower is no longer standing, but the fire warden’s cabin is now a shelter for Appalachian Trail hikers.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Roan Mountain Fire Tower in the 1930s. The fire tower was not used for an extended time because it proved to be impractical for spotting fires.

“Because Roan Mountain is so high, the tower would have been above the clouds on cloudy days,” Sorrell said. “They decided it was basically pointless to have it up there because it could only be used on clear days.”

Because the tower was taken down, information on the structure was hard to find, Sorrell said. He searched through historic records and talked with Sycamore Shoals Park Manager Jennifer Bauer, who lives in Roan Mountain, about the feature. Research leads Sorrell to believe the Hampton camp of the CCC constructed the Roan Mountain fire tower.

The Holston Mountain Fire Tower is probably the most well-known in Carter County and is the only one left standing in the county. The fire tower at the top of Holston Mountain is the second to be installed at the site.

The original tower was build entirely of wood and burned down, Sorrell said. The structure was replaced with a metal tower moved in from Mississippi.

The other two fire towers in Carter County were on White Rock near Buck Mountain and in Blevins Hollow in Stoney Creek.

The Blevins Hollow tower was one of the earliest to be built in the state, Sorrell said.

“Most towers were placed on higher elevations,” he said. “The Blevins Hollow tower was used to spot fires in the valley.”

The tower cab, or structure where the lookout would have stayed, was moved and then dismantled. The property where the tower was located is now privately owned and used as farm.

The book features towers from Doe Mountain in Johnson County as well as ones from Unicoi County. The coverage includes towers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

“I enjoyed visiting all of the towers,” Sorrell said.

He added he attempted to climb all of the towers that were safe but that not all of them could be accessed.

The book is divided into sections featuring information on the earliest lookouts and describing the history of the fire tower system. There is a section on the structure design and equipment used in the towers and a section on the lookout themselves; the person who would have been in the tower searching for fires. The book details the end of the use of fire towers and current efforts being made to preserve the remaining structures.

The book will be available for sale on April 6 for $19.99 and will be available at large retailers such as Barnes and Noble and Booksamillion, as well as online at

Sorrell has several book signings planned through the area. The first will be held at the Elizabethton Star on April 10 at 2 p.m. He will be at Barnes and Noble in Johnson City on April 10 at 5 p.m. On April 12 at 2 p.m., a signing will be held at I Love Books Bookstore in the Kingsport Town Center. On April 18 at noon, he will be signing books at Books-A-Million in Bristol, Va. and on May 7, a presentation and signing will be held at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City at 6:30 p.m.