The Last Best Good Story
Not Your Father's Generation
Hooked On Teaching
C'est Missoula Vie
AROUND THE OVAL
About the Montanan
The Campus with a Mountain at
One Time Had a Lookout, Too
by Jodi Allison-Bunnell
UM has long boasted it's the only university in the country with a mountain on its campus. But from 1915 to 1929, a small building perched on the top of Mount Sentinel also made it the only university in the country with its own forest fire lookout.
Students in the School of Forestry built the lookout and the zig-zag trail up to it in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service in 1915. The six-sided log building was two stories high, with windows all around the second storya unique design not seen in any other known fire lookout in the region.
The person on duty had a panoramic view of the timberlands around Missoula and a telephone line to the district ranger's office. Students from the forestry school staffed this and many other lookouts during their summer vacations. They spent their time looking for "smokes" and talking to visitors about modern methods of fire control, encouraging them to participate in the Forest Service's program of total war on fire.
An object of pride for the forestry school, the lookout took a prominent place in the school's publications, as central as courses in surveying and silviculture. In an announcement in the Montana Kaimin in spring 1915, forestry Professor Dorr Skeels boasted that the lookout station was a significant step toward building a forestry school at UM that would be the largest and best in the United States.
A popular hiking destination from the time it was built, the lookout came to hold the signatures of many UM students who climbed to the top of Sentinel for the view and left their marks etched into the log walls of the lower cabin. "It was quite a thing in those days of long skirts and tight-fitting trousers for parties to hike up the mountain in the evening and have a beefsteak or weenie roast on the summit near the lookout," wrote Skeels in 1929.
But those days of pride in the lookout faded quickly. By the early 1920s, the little house appears in forestry school publications with the dour caption "an old lookout," while many articles and photographs describe the school's newest advances in forestry technology, including the use of airplanes for fire surveillance. By June 1928, a reporter for the Kaimin commented that the lookout "is not used for anything . . . [but] the view from the top, or even from the M, is well worth the climb."
It all came to an end in 1929, when a fire of unknown origin burned the structure to the ground. Skeels mourned the lookout's passing in the Forestry Kaimin, where he wrote that it would not be rebuilt because of construction difficulties and because students were more interested in automobiles than hiking.
Thousands of other lookouts were built around the northwestern United States by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but World War II brought further advances in fire detection and control, including Missoula's own smoke jumpers. A long decline for fire lookouts culminated in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the Forest Service burned many out-of-service lookouts deliberately.
Today, a careful eye will still find small shards of glass and rusty nails on Sentinel's pointed tip. Foresters now view fire as a natural part of forest ecology, and training forestry students in lookouts is as old-fashioned as handwriting tests and typewriters. Like hundreds of lookouts across the West, this unique structure is gone forever, remaining only in words and photographs in UM archives.
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