SALT LICK — Most of the cab on the top of the Tater Knob Fire Tower is made of metal or wood wrapped in metal, so whoever set it afire must have exerted considerable effort.
The fire was noticed Wednesday afternoon. By Friday, wisps of smoke still were curling on the wind at the top of the tower. There were blackened spots around the base, where burning wood had fallen, and pieces of aluminum that had melted and resolidified.
The last remaining fire tower in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which was built 74 years ago and has earned a spot on the National Historic Lookout Register, was damaged so badly that it has been closed.
At 1,388 feet above sea level, Tater Knob is the highest point in this part of Kentucky. From the 35-foot tower that sits on its summit, one can see Bath County below and several counties around — perhaps 30 or 40 miles on a good day.
But the old tower will be off limits for some time, and perhaps forever.
It has not been used to spot fires in decades, but it was a popular spot for people visiting Cave Run Lake and other local draws.
Forest Service officials worry that the still-smoldering floor of the cab will give way under someone's feet.
Dave Manner, the ranger for the forest's Cumberland District, said engineers will have to decide whether the structure of the tower still is stable enough for the cab to be rebuilt.
He said the Forest Service will do everything it can to restore the tower. But even if the engineers give the go-ahead, he said, there is the matter of finding the money in a time of tight budgets.
"It certainly is a sad event, and ... it's hard to understand why someone would do this," Manner said Friday.
Law enforcement officers are trying to determine who set the fire, he said. A reward will be offered by the Forest Service, but the amount had not been determined Friday.
The Tater Knob Tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. The CCC was a federal program that put young men to work during the Great Depression.
The construction was quite a feat.
The CCC workers used dynamite and hand tools to make a road to the base of the knob. A mule team was used to hoist building materials to the top.
At first, the cab took up all the platform at the top of the tower. It was big enough for a wood stove, two cots, a cabinet, a storage box, a small table and a stool.
There also was a device called an alidade, or fire finder. Telephone lines were strung through the forest to connect towers. If a fire was spotted, the fire towerman took a reading from the alidade, then called another tower to help pinpoint the location.
The original wooden cab was replaced with a smaller metal one in 1959.
Joe Mauk, who lives in Morehead, helped build the new cab. On Friday, the 88-year-old recalled lugging building material up the knob, as well as the view from the top.
"You could see the water in the lake after the lake was put in, and you could see the other towers," he said.
From the 1930s to the early 1970s, someone was in the Tater Knob Tower daily during fire season.
But fire towers were phased out as planes took over the spotting. Many towers were torn down for scrap, or had their cabs replaced with radio antennas.
The Tater Knob Tower was abandoned for years. Then, in 1993, it was renovated by several groups, including the local Tater Knob Fire Tower Restoration Committee, the Kentucky Bicentennial Commission, the Bath County Historical Society and the Frenchburg Jobs Corps.
The restoration added 200 steps from a parking lot at the base of the knob to the top. That made the tower, with its 42 steps, much more accessible to the public.
There once were at least 160 of the "magnificent structures" in Kentucky, said Danny Blevins of Morehead, a volunteer firefighter who is director of the Kentucky chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
Only a handful remain.
Five, including Tater Knob are on the National Historic Lookout Register. The others are the Bernheim Forest Tower in Bullitt County, Pinnacle Knob Tower in Whitley County, Hickory Flats Tower in Rowan County, and the Robinson Forest Tower in Breathitt County.
On a visit to Tater Knob Friday, Blevins said the towers provide a link to an era of fire protection that will never be seen again.
"Once you visit a site like this and see the beauty and the historical significance, it really is disheartening to learn that we may lose this," he said.