David Rocco remembers the first time he saw the Mt. Beacon Fire Tower up close. “It was loaded with turkey buzzards,” he says about the abandoned, rusty structure. “They have an amazing wingspan, and they were rushing around. It was as though they were telling me to back off.” But Rocco didn’t back off; in fact, he climbed the 1,650-foot tower that day. As the stairs were rotting, he had to walk on the side of each one, but he made it to the top. “I was puffed up and excited; it was a new challenge.”
Rocco soon took on another challenge: saving the tower. The Mt. Beacon Fire Observation Tower, erected in 1931, was one of several fire towers put in place by the state in the early 20th century to protect state-owned forests. In 1975, the structure was officially decommissioned as aircraft had mostly taken over the role of fire observation. For years it sat abandoned, until a group formed in 2003 began restoration analysis. After many fits and starts, work began several years ago; now the structurally sound tower is set to be dedicated on June 22.
Rocco, a retired carpenter from Westchester who became the group’s project manager, says it took a dedicated group of volunteers to get the job done. First, money had to be raised; they “sold” each of the 72 steps and secured two large grants with the help of former State Senator Steve Saland and the late state Assemblyman Tom Kirwan. The first order of business was repairing the tower’s footings; then the steps and stair landings were replaced with steel material, as opposed to the original wood product. The steel platform landing grates used were actually made from material from the old Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge. “You have a piece of history from one iconic Hudson Valley landmark being reused in another iconic structure,” says Rocco. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Rocco also gives thanks to both the National Guard and the Hudson Valley Four Wheelers, who helped haul supplies up the treacherous mountain road. “Without them, this wouldn’t have happened,” he says. Some of the final steps before painting were raising the handrails and putting fencing on the steps and the landing. Now, the seven-by-seven-foot cabin at the top is ready for hikers. “The views are amazing,” says Rocco. “You can see all the way to New York City, both Poughkeepsie bridges, and even the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. One guy says he can see to Albany. This tower is really special.”
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