Three years ago I wrote a blog for this website about Bernheim’s historic fire tower. Today the tower joins Bernheim in turning 90 – July 13 marks the day when construction of the tower was completed and it was put into service. So, today was a good time to revisit the structure that has been so important in the history of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
At that time Bernheim was very new and the plans to transform Isaac W. Bernheim’s dream into reality was just beginning to take shape. There was in fact no forest. Only abused farm land with a handful of mature trees and most of the land covered by weeds and brush. It was not even referred to as a forest but rather was called the Bernheim Estate — though there were never plans for any member of the Bernheim family to reside there. The budget for improvements was painfully small. No roads had been built and travel was restricted to primitive dirt trails. No new buildings had been constructed and the proposed arboretum remained a far distant project for which no location or design had been selected. The work force consisted of a small number of local farmers and distillery workers who were in need of employment.
Despite these challenges, Isaac Bernheim was determined that his great project get off to a solid start. A fire tower was ordered from the Aermotor Windmill Company of Illinois. It arrived in pieces by train and was hauled to the top of Ledgerock Knob (a name given by its previous owner and soon to be forgotten) and assembled. At 921’ above sea level, the knob possessed a commanding view of the land for many miles in each direction. The tower is 48’ tall and with the total elevation of 969’ the skyline of Louisville and the hills of southern Indiana can be viewed during favorable conditions.
The tower looked then very much as it does now. The first improvement was to install windows at the top to provide protection from the weather. Next, the original wooden steps were replaced with metal ones. Many years later a fence was built to enhance security.
The work of watching for fires started immediately. A telephone was installed in the tower and was connected to the Headquarters Building located along what is now KY Highway 245 near the community of Hobbs and also to several old farm houses on Bernheim property that were now occupied by Bernheim employees. One of the employees would be assigned to lookout duty in the tower whenever the danger of fire was considered high. There were many fires over the years but a comprehensive list has not been preserved. Many of those fires were started on neighboring land by farmers burning trash and brush. Others were located along Bernheim’s northern border where coal fired locomotives from passing trains threw hot cinders onto the surrounding land. Still others were the result of lightning strikes. The tower continued to be manned by Bernheim employees for many years. The Kentucky Division of Forestry provided assistance starting in the mid-1950s and installed a radio in the tower. The tower was a vital link in Kentucky’s network of 165 fire towers. It remained in service until 1980 when, like other towers in the region, its mission was assumed by trained observers in small planes. Most of Kentucky’s fire towers were torn down when no longer being used and only about two dozen are still standing. The only other fire tower in Kentucky to offer visitor access is at Cumberland Falls.
Now the tower welcomes Bernheim visitors to come and observe stunning views of the forest and the surrounding area. The tower is usually open on weekends when weather permits and also during the spring and fall breaks for local schools. Additional days are added in the fall to allow views of the colorful foliage.
Make a trip to the top of the tower a part of your visits to the forest. Celebrate their shared birthday and that magnificent view.
The fire tower is scheduled to be open Saturday and Sunday 1 – 4 p.m. throughout the summer. Please call (502) 955-8512 for any last minute schedule changes.
–Ken Johnson, Volunteer Naturalist