Dickinson Hill Fire Tower in Grafton NY


What’s New with Dickinson Hill Fire Tower in Grafton

 by John Leahy (Originally published in the Eastwick Press September 2, 2005)

A sweeping expanse of treetops rolling away to the horizon greets the eye of the visitor who is up to the challenge of climbing the 60-foot Dickinson Hill Fire Tower. With the turret rising above the tree canopy below, the tower looks out towards distant landmarks in every direction, over the Tomhannock Reservoir towards the Adirondack Mountains, to the impressive folds of Petersburg Pass and Berlin Mountain rising to the east, down the long forested spine of Grafton Plateau to the south, and across the Hudson valley to the Helderbergs and the Catskill Mountain peaks to the southwest. The fate of this fire tower and its impressive vista have been hanging in the balance for several years as the current owners try to determine the best usage for the property. The location is under possible consideration for use in a statewide emergency communications network, but there is also a movement to have the fire tower conserved and maintained as an historical and recreational site.

The fire tower was built in 1924 and was part of the network of fire protection observation posts until the 1970s. The City of Troy contributed funds for the original construction to protect the watershed that supplied its water supply. It also saw some limited duty in the Aircraft Warning Service during the Second World War. Grafton resident, Helen Ellett, was hired as the first woman fire observer in New York State and she worked at the tower for 18 years beginning in 1943. In her green New York State fire observer uniform, Helen rode her horse four miles through the back lanes to work every day and kept a lookout from the beginning of April till the end of October, with days off only when it rained. Helen also planted flowers at the tower and did oil paintings from its lofty vantage point. With the changing patterns in land use over the last century, the pastoral view over the agricultural fields that Helen saw during her days as fire observer was quite different from the reforested plateau that the visitor sees today.

            If all goes according to some plans that have long been in the works, this impressive vista will be preserved and open to the public as control of the historic fire tower is transferred from its current owner, the New York State Police, to the New York State Parks Department. In 1979 the fire tower and the site around it came under the control of the New York State Police who erected their own radio repeater tower, which stands 100 feet away. Since that time, the fire tower has been not been in use for any official capacity, but has not been entirely forgotten as the abundance of broken glass from beer bottles littering the ground readily attests. In 1998, the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park, a non-profit organization whose aim is to foster educational and environmental projects in the park, began making the initial moves to bring the fire tower under the stewardship of the park, which is located just west of the tower.

The status of the proposed transfer of jurisdiction of the fire tower from the NY State Police to the NY State Parks Department is currently pending a final decision on whether the site, which also contains a radio repeater tower, will be involved in the potential development of New York State’s Statewide Wireless Network and how this involvement could impact the fire tower itself. The Statewide Wireless Network initiative is part of New York State’s effort under the Office for Technology (OFT) to upgrade its communications infrastructure to provide an integrated communications system for police, fire, emergency medical, and Homeland Security departments. When the OFT makes its final selection of the optimal technology for its communication needs, it will then decide on the sites necessary for the development of the infrastructure, and then ultimately on what other features could operate in conjunction with the infrastructure on those sites selected. Alternative land-use preferences would be part of the criteria in potential site selection.

The OFT conducted an environmental impact statement and held a public comment period in 2004, during which Dick Gibbs and Paul Kolakowski of the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park submitted an application requesting that the fire tower be considered as a historical heritage site. The fire tower is eligible to be placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, according to Peter Shaver of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but the application has not been processed. According to Lieutenant Glenn Miner, Spokesperson for the New York State Police Public Information Office, the New York State Police are deferring further consideration regarding any transfer of land ownership or authorization of access to the fire tower until the Statewide Wireless Network system designs have been completed.

The fire tower story reflects a larger scale concept on a local level as communities plan the development of economically feasible land-use projects for infrastructure or industrial needs that are compatible with environmental and cultural preferences. The Hudson River Valley Greenway is a New York State agency whose mission is to simultaneously promote conservation of natural and historical resources as well as beneficial economic development. The Greenway fully supports the designation of the fire tower as a historic site and the transfer of the fire tower to the New York State Parks Department. According to Greenway Executive Director Carmella Mantello, the preservation of the fire tower would have various benefits for Rensselaer County and the Town of Grafton, would fit well with the Grafton Lakes State Park, and would exemplify the type of community development that the agency hopes to encourage.