Notes from the Field: Restoring the Black Mountain Lookout Tower

Black Mountain Lookout Tower, Summer 2014

Black Mountain Lookout Tower, Summer 2014

At 9,500 feet, the Black Mountain Lookout Tower offers a stunning, 360-degree view above the tree line of Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built this tower in 1939, one of hundreds of such structures erected by young men working for the federal government during the New Deal. Though no longer in use, the Black Mountain Lookout Tower has remained a popular hiking destination but had fallen into disrepair.


Each morning for a week last summer, I climbed to the top of the tower–hammer in one hand and a pile of shingles in the other–and took part in its restoration. The preservation of Black Mountain Lookout Tower was facilitated by HistoriCorps, a non-profit based out of Denver, CO. HistoriCorps protects and rehabilitates old structures throughout the country while offering unique outdoor experiences for their volunteers. HistoriCorps’ 2014 season included twenty sites, four of which were CCC-built. Projects ranged from cabins to lookout towers to amphitheaters.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, along with the other public works agencies created under the New Deal, built a vast network of towers, bridges, lakes, dams, forests, roads, parks, post offices, and pools throughout the country. These resources have been essential to our communities and infrastructure for decades, yet many have fallen into disrepair. I loved being able to add a hands-on dimension to my passion for these places. The lookout tower has been out of use since 1987. Like many New Deal projects these days, it still serves a valuable purpose; it just needed a little facelift. It was thrilling to breathe some life into it and begin to see its future as a rental cabin for hikers.


Natalie at work restoring the tower.

Natalie at work restoring the tower.

Both literally and figuratively, the hands-on aspect of HistoriCorps took me to the backcountry of preservation. As such, the project offered a behind-the-scenes view, one that I don’t often get at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, where my work stays on the advocacy and outreach levels. Indeed, our tasks included re-shingling the roof of the tower, cleaning out the interior, hauling scraps down the mountain, applying putty to windows,and sanding shutters. It was the epitome of a team effort, and I quickly realized I had stumbled upon an impressive cadre of hard-working, civic-minded people. In a way, HistoriCorps draws on the tradition and legacy of the CCC. Volunteers are committed to the preservation and accessibility of historic places on public lands and the stories behind them. Like CCC enrollees, we have the opportunity to gain personal and professional skills.


We were a small but impassioned group, and our nightly camp dinners proved we had more than enough to talk about. The three others and I chatted about favorite hikes and bucket list adventures. Amateur historians in addition to outdoor enthusiasts, we talked New Deal policies, the Protestant Reformation, generational gaps, and turtle extinction in the Galapagos (via a recent This American Life episode). I wondered how I could feel so comfortable and challenged by three semi-strangers whose paths happened to cross with mine for this one week in August, but I have to credit it to HistoriCorps’ brilliant set of “requirements”: interest in history, love of the outdoors, and not minding getting your hands dirty (or full of cedar shingle splinters, in my case).


Since returning from the project, I have encouraged many people to give HistoriCorps a try. I played a very small part in the Black Mountain Lookout Tower’s rehabilitation, and an even tinier role in its history. But for a self-professed New Deal nerd like me, that was more than enough.

Natalie Heneghan is Research Associate for the Living New Deal and a recent graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

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