Ed Beck retiring after working in fire tower for 17 years

October 21, 2000

Ed Beck retiring after working in fire tower for 17 years

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - To his former colleagues at Michaux State Forest, Ed Beck was known as the man from Snowy Mountain.

Heart trouble forced Beck, 68, to leave a job he had loved for more than 17 years - manning the fire tower 80 feet above Snowy Mountain in the 85,000-acre forest that stretches over Franklin, Adams and Cumberland counties.

It was Beck's job every day during the spring and fall fire seasons to climb the tower's 119 steps, enter the little shack on top and keep a constant eye on the Appalachian hills and ridges that surround the tower for miles around.

It was also his job to man the alidade, the compass-like device used to pinpoint a fire's degree reading and distance from the tower.


"I didn't use it half the time. I could tell how far away a fire was by looking at it," Beck said last week after making his slow way up the steps to the shack. "I'm taking my time," he said on the way up, stopping to rest at each of the tower's 13 landings.

Three angioplasties and open heart surgery has slowed him down, he said.

"I got my nitro (nitroglycerine) handy."

Beck started working part time in Michaux State Forest in 1978 under a federal jobs program.

"I done a little of everything," he said. "I run a stone rake to grade the roads, I drove dump truck, I put in culverts, put in pipe, built walls. I put in and painted gates."

A year later the tower lookout was killed in an automobile accident and a replacement was needed. Beck applied for the job and got it. At the time, none of his supervisors knew of his intimate knowledge of the forest gained by a lifetime of using it.

"I lived in this area all my life," Beck said. "I hunted and fished there. I cut wood there. My dad and my granddaddy cut wood there. I quarried stone there."

Beck's supervisors were amazed at his knowledge of the geography of the forest.

"No one could pinpoint a fire like Ed," said Rod Lyon, forest fire specialist at Michaux. "He could show us people's back yards."

Some days, in the height of the dry season, Beck said he would spot multiple fires. Nearly all were started by vandals, arsonists or through carelessness, he said.

Pennsylvania residents are allowed to burn trash and leaves. Often its those little fires, in home burn barrels, that get caught by the wind and spread to the nearby forest, Beck said.

Last week, on his first visit to the tower since retiring five years ago - a visit Beck said that "was like going home again" - he scanned the Appalachian ridges and pointed out names that are second nature in his vocabulary. "There's Rocky Mountain, over there is Snaggy Ridge, there's Kane's Ridge, Pine Mountain, Staley's Knob and over there is Grub Hill," he said. "I always see fires there.

"One day I spotted more than 30 on Grub Hill. They caught the guy who started them. He ended up doing time."

The cramped quarters in the tower shack became Beck's domain every spring and fall for nearly two decades. His was the loneliness of a lighthouse keeper. He endured sweltering heat and bone-freezing cold and winds that sway the tower like a reed.

"She rattles and shakes in the wind," he said.

He loved every minute of it.

He could also take in vistas that only such a lofty perch offers. He saw the sharp crispness of a late autumn afternoon, its long shadows painted with the brilliance of trees in full fall foliage or a snow squall moving across a far ridge leaving a layer of white in its path.

Beck never complained, even about wearing out three vehicles over the years driving up the rutted forest roads that lead to the tower.

"I wore out a Volkswagen, a '64 Chevy and a '67 Ford pickup coming up here," he said.

He lugged an old chair to the shack to improve his comfort. He had a portable radio for company. Sometimes a friend would come up in the evening to spell him so he could dash home for a warm supper before coming back to the tower. It was nothing for Beck to stay in the tower all night if fire dangers were high.

The tower was built in 1973 as a replacement for one that was knocked down two years before by vandals. They cut off two of its four steel legs and watched it topple to the ground.

The state built a strong chain link fence around the new tower but even that has not kept vandals out.

"They broke 67 windows last year," Lyon said.

"One time they broke in and threw my chair down to the ground," Beck said. "They ripped the door off its hinges and threw that down, too, and they damaged the alidade."

Since Beck retired, the tower has been manned whenever a qualified forest worker can be freed from other duties, Lyon said.

The only other fire tower in Michaux State Forest is atop Big Flat Mountain in Cumberland County.

Lyon said the use of towers for fire control is being slowly phased out. Population is growing in the areas around the forest, and passersby often call the forest's office when they spot a fire.

"Today only about 20 percent of the fires in the forest are reported by the towers," he said.

Still, he said, he hopes they stay.

"They're good for early detection," he said.

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