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Historic Photograph from the USGS

Taken by W.C. Alden in 1925, part of the USGS Photographic Library

The Medicine Bow Peak Fire Lookout does not exist anymore. But there are still traces of it in the area and there are also several great stories of or associated with it. I will try to share a few of them.

Medicine Bow Peak from the Southwest

Similar shot taken in 2012

One of the most important jobs of the Forest Service was, and still is, managing the timber. Forest fires cost the government dearly in terms of money lost, but manpower was scarce and lookouts were rare. With that in mind, you would think that putting a fire lookout on top of the 12,013 foot summit known as Medicine Bow Peak would have been a no brainer but it wasn’t. In fact the Forest Supervisor in 1908, a man by the name of P.S. Lovejoy, had one hell of a time getting the thing built. His efforts to establish the lookout are in his words, “regular story-book stuff.” (note 5)

Fire Lookout, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Fire Lookout, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

I’ll do my best to summarize his account here but I’ve linked to a copy of it near the bottom and encourage everyone to read it.

Getting men to a fire quickly was a big problem so Lovejoy and an old Ranger named Mullison hatched the idea to try and put a lookout on top of Medicine Bow Peak in 1908. But they couldn’t figure out a way to do it “without money for a man and without communication” (note 5) to the summit. So, Lovejoy floated the idea of getting money allocated at the Forest Supervisors meeting during the winter of 1908-09. All the other Forest Supervisors, who happened to be old timers, just ridiculed the idea as typical of the “school men” like Lovejoy, who they thought were “about as useful as a singed yellow cat thrown in the crick.” (note 5) The District Forester sided with the old timers and nothing was done.

However there was one man who I know only as Morrell, who worked at the district headquarters in Denver and thought the idea was worth a try. He suggested that Lovejoy hire an extra guard for “sheep work” and put him on the summit, but even with that problem solved neither man could figure out how to run a phone line from Laramie to the small strand of wire Lovejoy already started from Centennial up toward the peak.

That spring, Mullison worked out a plan to have the lookout communicate the location of fires with a series of smoke signals and by god they were going to try and do it that way. Then at the last minute, Lovejoy got word that he had been shipped 60 coils of barbed wire that he hadn’t ordered. Low and behold this barbed wire was actually phone wire which was “mistakenly” shipped by Morrell. This part is great because Lovejoy doesn’t act like he knew about this “mistake” ahead of time. It seems like Morrell just did it because he wanted to help Lovejoy and knew what he would do with the wire.

Observatory on Medicine Bow Peak, Hilton, 1921, Box 21, Folder 6, Medicine Bow National Forest Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Observatory on Medicine Bow Peak, Hilton, 1921, Box 21, Folder 6, Medicine Bow National Forest Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

At this point it seems like things were coming together but they weren’t. One of the big problems left was that Lovejoy was not allowed to use his Rangers for improvement work unless he used improvement funds. And there were no improvement funds available. So being a problem solver he had his Rangers bring rifles and pistols along as they strung wire so that he could justifiably state that the men were not doing improvement work but rather were hunting predatory animals like coyotes which was an authorized use of manpower.

The former army officer in me gets a special kick out of that part. I’ve preformed my own bureaucratic acrobatics to get something done and I know what it’s like when it feels as though your own higher headquarters is a bigger enemy than the enemy.

Once that was done an initially reluctant man by the name of Fred Miller was chosen to be the first lookout and early in May 1909 Miller phoned in the first fire report which I will quote; “Dese as Millar. Dese as Snowy Range Lookout. Aye got fire re-port number vun. Do you got it? She as Sout fifteen an’ von half Vest. Do you got it? She as across de Continental de-wide – an two de-wides more. Do you got it?” (note 5)

Carrying Supplies, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Carrying Supplies, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Here was Miller reporting a fire about 65 miles southwest in the Routt National Forest. Two things are important to note. One was that nobody outside of the Medicine Bow National Forest knew about the lookout yet. And Two, the Supervisor of the Routt National Forest was one of the men who went furthest to mock Lovejoy and this whole plan. So Lovejoy was in a pickle. If he reported the fire and it turned out false, he would blow his unauthorized experiment wide open, kill the experiment before it even had a chance, and maybe even get fired for his trouble. But at the same time, how could he not report this fire.

So he had Miller wait until sundown and call him again. Think about what that means. Miller had to stay up on the summit until after it was dark and then climb down the “French Creek Face” using a lantern to get to the phone at Black Jack (a place I can’t yet identify). Miller did it, and his story didn’t change so Lovejoy reported the fire the district office in Denver.

The district office was confused because here was a report from the Medicine Bow National Forest of a fire deep in the Routt National Forest. But when asked, the response from the Routt National Forest to the question of whether or not they had a fire was “Hell no. And when there was they would report it before anybody up in Wyoming did, too.” (note 5)

Lunch, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Lunch, Unknown Photographer, Unknown Date, Box 21, Medicine Bow National Forest, Coll. 3654, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

But later the next day a man on horseback saw the fire and brought the report to the Routt National Forest and Lovejoy had his vindication. At the next supervisors meeting the Supervisor for the Routt National Forest had to eat his words when he joined the crowd demanding funds for fire lookouts.

I later found a great description of P.S. Lovejoy which I’ll quote: “P.S. Lovejoy was possessed of a very brilliant mind, but had a peculiar quirk which impelled him with a drive that can only be called militancy. He was a born troublemaker.” (page 9, note 6) I suspect this to be accurate given the story above.

That isn’t all there is though as the story of the Medicine Bow Peak Fire Lookout continues. Fred Miller manned the lookout for years. Miller originally came out west like a lot of people did, hoping to cure himself of tuberculosis. It must have worked because he spent many years as a tie hack for the Carbon Timber Company and later he built a log cabin by Lookout Lake and a stone shelter up near the Medicine Bow Peak for his use as the Fire Lookout (which you can still visit the remains of today).

There are many great pictures of the lookout in the Medicine Bow National Forest Collection at the American Heritage Center, we have included some of our favorites on this page.

The Medicine Bow Peak Fire Lookout was also one of the first to be “manned” by a woman. Lorraine Lindaley spent several summers on the summit starting in 1921. It was very lonely work and many thought that a woman couldn’t handle it but in reality not very many people at all were cut out to handle it. Medicine Bow Peak didn’t get the visitors then that it does today and the lookouts often went for weeks without seeing another person.

I know that this page is much longer than any other point of interest or trail that I’ve written about but the story and the pictures were just too good for me not to share. I borrowed very heavily from the words of P.S. Lovejoy and encourage everyone to read his account for themselves (linked here as a PDF, this is the same letter as cited in note 5). It is one of the best stories I’ve ever read or heard and more people ought to know about it.

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User Comments

  1. Roger Ludwig |

    What a fascinating story! Thanks for your research to pull this interesting history out of the dusty files and bring it to life again.

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