Vacant forest fire tower hidden in north Raleigh neighborhood nearly 100 years old
You wouldn't expect to find a nearly century-old forest fire tower rusting away in the suburbs of Raleigh, not far from Crabtree Valley Mall – and yet it's possible you drive past it all the time without even noticing.
Most people think of forest fire towers as sentinels overlooking mountain trails in the thick brush of Appalachia – not something you'd see in the middle of a neighborhood. However, this antique tower is a relic from another era of Raleigh history. It was a time before sprawling suburbs, when this northern stretch of Wake County held tobacco farms and fields.
"On a clear day you can see 25 miles. From here, I can see Downtown Raleigh. The steam coming up from Shearon Harris," says Jeff Ulrick, a forest ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service.
Who operated this tower from the 1950s onward? A feisty, smart and incredible woman named Jenny Tilley, who started when she was just 22 years old. She had articles, awards and news coverage written about her work.
Today, almost no one knows the tower better than her son Jerry and her granddaughter Wendy Roberts, who spent her childhood referring to the tower and forestry service as just: Grandma's house.
In fact, Roberts says most of the fire towers in the 1950s and 60s were operated by women, who watched over Wake County from above, protecting us from the risk of spreading flames.
"This wasn't the forestry service," says Roberts. "This was home."
So why is the fire tower in the middle of a neighborhood?
Some locals may remember when the Bay Leaf Tower sat on Six Forks Road, which Jerry Tilley says was the highest point in the area at that time.
"When they moved it over here, they added 20 feet to it," he said. "To help make up the difference in height so mom could see."
It was far from the only fire tower in the Raleigh area at the time.
"We had multiple towers," says Jerry Tilley. "Back in those days we didn't have such easy communication or cell phones."
Houses were also few and far between, meaning if a fire started in that part of Wake County, it may go undetected until it had spread. Tilley and the other operators helped prevent that by using radio to communicate among themselves, then triangulating where they saw smoke rising.
"Just about all of the fire towers were operated by women," says Jerry Tilley. According to a newspaper article from the era, around 100 women worked in the area's fire towers, which was 75% of the workforce.
He says Knightdale and Lowes Grove also had fire towers; however, the one in Knightdale was torn down 30 years ago. Johnston County also have several fire towers still standing. Ulrick says there's also a fire tower on Occoneechee Mountain near Hillsborough.
The lease is first recorded for the Bay Leaf Tower in 1936, according to local fire historian Mike Legeros. At the time, it was around 8 miles north of Raleigh. Then, one year later, the Aermotor steel tower was erected.
In 1967, officials purchased a new tower site, which is where the tower stands today near Creedmoor Road. It was last listed as manned in 1985; however, Tilley stayed living there until the 1990s. After all, she didn't want to leave her home.
Living at a fire tower
Even today, a little house sits below the Bay Leaf Fire Tower. That's the house Roberts remembers having Christmas and Thanksgiving for so many years.
Now-a-days, it's the NC Forest Service office. But to Roberts, it's still Grandma's house.
"Grandma retired in 1995, but she still went outside and worked the weather station so she could continue living here," says Roberts.
Roberts stepped inside the house for the first time in many years just recently.
"It's emotional," she says. "Only thing that's changed is the bathroom. It doesn't have the pink bathtub anymore. Still has the same stove!"
Roberts remembers spending her childhood days with the coolest fort in Raleigh: An entire fire tower. She'd play up there with the other kids in her family.
"We used to climb up and eat bananas and then drop 'em, and then see how dark the peels were by the time we got down."
In recent years, the NC Forest Service has taken down the bottom steps to prevent people from climbing up into the abandoned tower. For a while, it served as 'Pokemon GO' stop and also hosted a geocache – drawing people to trespass in the dangerous tower. An important piece of Raleigh history, it's important to look, but not touch.
Newspaper articles from the era show Tilley climbing the 182 steps each day and explain how she felt about working in an office over 120 feet above the ground. Sometimes, she said, the tower office would sway in the heavy winds.
"I figure if these towers made it through Hurricane Hazel, they'll make it now," she laughed in one interview.
She began working in the tower alongside her husband, according to her son Jerry Tilley. When her work began, she and her husband worked as a team. She'd spot the fires and send him out to fight them.
However, even after her husband died, Tilley carried on the work. It was more than a job: It gave her family a home and a sense of purpose.
"The forest service to me isn't like a business," said Tilley in an interview. "It's more like we're just one big family."
Tilley won an award for 45 years of devoted service spanning from 1950 to 1995.
Eventually, Tilley had to retire and leave her home, which was property of the NC Forest Service. The wide-open fields gave away to neighborhoods and shopping malls. The fire departments grew and expanded to manage the highly-developed area. Cell phones allowed communication to occur faster than ever. Fire towers were simply no longer needed in this part of Raleigh.
But still the tower stands, a reminder of the Raleigh that Tilley once knew. Right beside it: A little house where so many memories were made. Hopefully, the tower and house will continue to stand as a reminder of that era.
"It wasn't the forest service to us. It was home," says Roberts, who was happy to visit grandma's house once again and see just how much – and how little – time had changed.