Montana Outdoors

July 17, 2008

Penrose Peak, Part 8

The “cab” on the peak.

There is very little information available about most of the lesser known western mountain peaks, and what is available is hard to come by. In my searches for information on Penrose I found practically nothing, but it did show up in one listing of peaks that had been used as fire lookouts. That fact was way in the back of my mind as I hiked the last part of the trail to the top, and therefore it was somewhat of a surprise when I ascended above this last snowbank

Penrose peak, just before the summit

and looked up to see this sight above me.

Penrose Peak

Penrose Peak

The listing was correct: Penrose had once been the site of a fire lookout, the kind that, because of the way the top of the peak was configured, needed no tower. In this case a simple cabin, called a “ground cab”, was built with rock walls and possibly glass windows all around with a gabled roof. The base is still in surprisingly good condition.

With no good information to go on, I can only guess at the dates of the lookout. While there were fire lookout towers even before the founding of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, I would guess this one might have been built after that.

A huge wildfire in 1910 known as the “Great Fire of 1910” or the “Big Blowup” burned over 3 million acres of forest through Washington, Idaho and Montana and killed 87 people. Even when I was a kid in the 1940’s much of the burn area from it could be plainly seen across western Montana and I still remember my father pointing it out to me as we drove through some of the high mountain areas. Smoke from that fire was heavy in Denver, 700 miles southeast, and the ash fallout caused street lamps to be turned on in the afternoon in Missoula Montana about 70 miles away. There were reports that traces of the smoke actually made it as far east as Washington DC.

One of the results of this fire was that early fire detection and suppression became a priority and caused a huge increase in the building of fire lookout towers for early detection, aided in 1933 by the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps which made available an enormous amount of manpower and funding. By the late 30’s there were around 8,000 fire lookout towers in the United States. My guess is that the one on Penrose is likely of that vintage.

Following are some photos taken from the base of that old tower.

Roughly to the southwest: some of the high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains can be seen in the distance and just before the forest is the burn area from a very hot fire that burned 3,500 acres of beetle-killed trees in 2003. (I watched the smoke plume from it from my house.) Note the bead of old cement along the top of the wall: I suppose that was the base for whatever kind of windows were used in the cabin, if there were indeed windows.

Penrose Peak Fire lookout base

Through the door, part of the town of Plains is visible to the east-southeast in the Clark Fork Valley about 12 miles away.

Penrose Peak Fire lookout base

To the north across the Clark Fork is the TeePee/Spring Creek roadless area in the Cabinet Mountains, including Bighole Peak and its own fire lookout.

Penrose Peak Fire lookout base

Northwest of Penrose stand the other high peaks of the Cherry Peak roadless area, including Eddy peak at the far end which holds its own tower, one of the few which are still in service today.

Penrose Peak Fire lookout base

All in all, quite a viewing area for a lonely lookout who was probably communicating with those manning similar towers on other peaks by means of a heliograph, a device which used two mirrors to reflect sunlight and send messages in Morse Code.

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