The History of Tower Hill From Fire Detection to tourist attraction

Early Fire Detection

The construction of fire lookout towers and their network system was established within the Parry Sound area during the 1920s. Before this, forest fire detection and patrols were conducted by individuals going out on foot and by canoe. During the early 1920s, with the establishment of the Ontario Forestry Branch in Parry Sound, the development of cabin cruisers as a means of transportation for forest fire control began to arise. These cruisers would patrol Georgian Bay for smoke, going out for days at a time.

Ontario Forestry Branch boathouse photographed in 1927.
A Bird's Eye View

Between 1922-1925 there was a shift towards aircraft patrol, due to the added advantage it gave airmen when trying to detect potential forest fires. Instead of trying to find fires from the ground, forestry rangers were now able to get an aerial view. However, due to the materials used to construct the aircrafts, as well as the high cost of fuel, this patrol system proved to be somewhat ineffective.

Article from April 20, 1922 issue of the Parry Sound North Star.

The planes used for patrol were not decommissioned immediately and instead were used to develop maps of the area. Aerial cameras were mounted on the nose of each plane and directed downwards to capture the landscape as they flew overhead.

A New Method of Detection

Determined to solve the issue of inadequate patrolling methods a fire tower detection system was developed within the area. This system proved to be very effective because it allowed the Forestry Branch to pin point the location of the forest fire in a safe and timely manner.

Early fire lookout tower constructed with wood. The location of this tower is currently unknown.

The first fire lookout towers erected by the Ontario Forestry Branch had standard plans for their construction. The towers stood at a height of 80 feet and were equipped with a standard sized octagon shaped cabin that sat at the top of the structure. They were created using metal or wood and had ladders going along the outside of the tower, which allowed you to climb to the top and enter into the cabin through a trap door at the bottom. Construction on the towers began in 1927, and by the end of the year the West Parry Sound District had 10 large steel towers and 17 small wooden towers, similar to the those pictured.

Fire Lookout Tower believed to have been located in Still River.

In order to determine the position of the fire, Rangers would have to get a compass bearing on the smoke. This was done by reading a map of the area that could be found in every cabin attached to a table. The table had an azimuth ring around it that supported a long metal instrument called an alidade, which rotated 360 degrees around the map.

This is the original alidade that was used by Forestry Ranger's operating the Tower Hill Fire Lookout.

The center of the alidade signified the location of the tower. Using the arm of the alidade, Rangers would be able to determine the compass bearing that they would then relay to the main headquarters in town. With two or more towers communicating the bearings of the smoke, the office would determine where the bearing lines crossed on the map and figure out the exact location of the fire.

A Place to Call Home
Ontario Forestry Branch cabin that would have been inhabited by Rangers during the fire season, ca. 1920s. No location noted.

Most towers were also equipped with a small cabin on land which would have been inhabited by the Rangers during fire season. The season began in May and went through to October, and because each ranger had to report back to the head office every hour of daylight, most men made these cabins their homes.

Ontario Forestry Branch cabin located on Tower Hill. This cabin still stands to this day, although is no longer in use by the Ontario Forestry Branch, known today as the Department of Lands & Forests.
The Hill before the Tower

When the land on what we know today as Tower Hill was purchased it was called Westgarth’s Hill. The 3.5 acres of land was acquired by a gentleman by the name of Charles Alonzo Phillips shortly after the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway line through Parry Sound. Phillips would hold the land until it was seized by the Town of Parry Sound in 1924 due to unpaid taxes.

The 3.5 acres was then purchased by Mr. Joseph Lee of McKellar who decided to sell the property in 1926, to the Ontario Forestry Branch. After the Forestry Branch acquired the property they established an experimental reforestation plantation in an attempt to reforest the area after the logging boom. During this time, 22,000 trees of varying types were planted on the 15 acres of land that made up the hill.

Erecting a Tower on the Hill

The first lookout structure erected on Tower Hill was built in 1927 and opened to the public in 1928, the same time the decision to change the name from Westgarth’s Hill to Tower Hill was made. Due to the location of this tower, it was developed with the intention of being the central tower to all others in the area.

Tower Hill Fire Lookout Tower during the early stages of the Hill's development.
The Towermen

Chief Forestry Ranger, Peter McEwen, was responsible for the development of the tower as well as the organization of an effective system of forest protection for the area.

Individuals such as Peter Touffet, Bill Taylor, Ernie Beaumont, Peter Gregoire, Colin McInnis and Charlie MacDonald all assisted in the towers construction. The men worked endlessly transporting materials, moving boulders, anchoring steel bolts, pouring heavy cement and finally, erecting the steel frame.

Ontario Forestry Branch employees, taken in 1929. From left to right the men are Colin McInnis, George Knight, Jack McArthur, Peter McEwen, Bill Taylor.

The fire lookout tower that was built on Tower Hill was unique not only for the fact that it was located in the heart of a settlement but also for its design. Unlike the other towers, it was designed to serve as a public observation tower as well as a fire lookout tower. Peter McEwen rationalized its price tag of $1,175 (double that of the others) in a letter to his superiors with the words:

“Being a tourist town, we naturally want to attract tourists to this tower in order to get them interested in Forest Protection, and to do this have a stairway built in the tower and they are allowed to climb to the observer’s cabin. "

Notice the stairwell winding up the Tower through the centre of the steel frame as opposed to a ladder mounted on the outside.

Over the course of the next 40 years, the tower would be manned by such individuals as Charlie MacDonald who was the first towerman, Frank Robinson, Bill Cubitt, Alex Robertson, Matt Wilson and Lloyd McLennan.

Charlie MacDonald, the first towerman for the Tower Hill Fire Lookout Tower.
Charlie MacDonald pictured with his wife Eva and children Ian, Norma & Phyllis (2 sons absent).
Developing Tower Hill

Over the short term of his tenure as District Forester (1927 to 1934) Peter McEwen worked slowly and steadily “under the radar” at creating his garden.

In 1929, he convinced the town’s PUC to split the cost of a water line in order to protect the plantation from drought, and in 1930, he spent $600 to build a 16' x 30' bungalow with a kitchen and living room. He designed the cabin himself taking great care to have the building harmonize with the grounds. At the time, it was much more attractive than the accommodations provided for most tower men.

Ranger cabin designed and built by Peter McEwen on Tower Hill grounds.

Come 1931, the installation of a fishpond was underway, as well as the construction of a model of the tower and sundial with the motto "It's later than you think".

Photograph of the fishpond located next to the ranger cabin on Tower Hill.
The model of the tower was actually a bird house!
Charlie MacDonald photographed standing at the sundial on the grounds.
View of Ranger cabin, fishpond and gardens taken from the top of the Tower on Tower Hill.

The hard work of the numerous men that dedicated a part of their lives to the care and development of this area was not lost on visitors, who helped spread the word and draw people to the Hill.

May 30, 1935 article from the Parry Sound North Star notes that the Mayor of North Bay had heard many people about the beauty of Tower Hill's rock gardens - "Thus fame does travel"!
The End of an Era

The tower network system reached its peak in 1935, with 64% of all fires being detected by towermen. During this year the towermen achieved their best record, sighting smoke 100 times and discovering 18 bush fires.

In 1954 the Ontario Forestry Branch, today known as the Ministry of Natural Resources, installed antennas on the tops of all fire lookout towers in order for rangers to communicate with aircraft and marine patrol. This system was set in place until 1962, when the radios were controlled remotely from the main office in town. This meant that the rangers no longer had to man the towers during the fire season.

In 1960, 25 towers were manned in the district, but this number steadily declined over the years to only 4 towers manned in 1968. By 1966, advancements in technology caused for the decline in the tower network system, and the decision was made to decommission the tower as a fire lookout. Come 1972, there was not a single tower in operation within the district.

Out with the Old, In with the New

After the Tower Hill fire lookout was decommissioned in 1966, it was used solely as a tourist attraction until 1973, when it was deemed too unsafe to climb and closed to the public.

Article from the August 2, 1973 Parry Sound North Star.
On April 25, 1974, the North Star reported on the removal of the octagonal cabin at the top of the tower.

It was not long after its closure that a new tower was soon erected in its place. By April 1975, the construction of the new steel structure was underway.

Article taken from the April 29, 1975, issue of the Parry Sound North Star.

The tower that replaced the old fire lookout took on a new look. It was still designed for locals and tourists to enjoy, but this tower had a few more safety features, such as gradual staircases and protective fencing.

The Opening of the Observation Tower

The new tower opened to the public in a ceremony held on August 18, 1975. The Hon. Leo Bernier, Minister of Natural Resources, welcomed upwards of 200 guests who looked on as he officially declared the tower to be open!

Front page of the August 21, 1975 North Star recounts the ceremony for the opening of the new tower.

Some notable Parry Sounders in attendance were the Mayor of Parry Sound, Vincent Dunn; Lorne Maeck, M.P.P.; Adrian Steenkamer, president of the Parry Sound Chamber of Commerce; Meth Adamson, Councilor & Ralph Peck, District Manager of M.N.R.

Front page of the August 21, 1975 North Star.
Parry Island Chief, Flora Tabobondung, was one of the many notable people in attendance at the opening ceremony. She is pictured above receiving a book on Ontario's Centennial History "Renewing Nature's Wealth".
Unveiling the historic plaque that commemorates the old tower and the achievements of the men who helped create, build & maintain it.
A Tourist Attraction For All

Since the new tower opened 46 years ago, Tower Hill has developed into a great outdoor retreat for all. Individuals from all over the world travel to Parry Sound, making sure to stop and enjoy all that the hill has to offer.

This article from July 28, 1988 recounts a families vacation from Guelph and Whitby to Parry Sound. They tell the North Star that the tower and gardens have become "a family thing. The park is great. It's fantastic!"

The 96 foot tall observation tower cannot get all the credit for drawing people to the hill. The gardens, first created by Peter McEwen and maintained by the forestry rangers, have always contributed to the beauty and allure of this favourite spot. So much so, that in 2011, the garden and surrounding area received a heritage designation.

Preserving the Heritage Garden

It was not long after the area was designated as a heritage property that a dedicated group of volunteers took on the duty of restoring and maintaining the garden. The Tower Hill Gardeners, with the support of the Town of Parry Sound, Parry Sound & District Horticultural Society & West Parry Sound District Museum, began their work on Tower Hill in 2012, and over the last 9 years have been working endlessly to create the amazing spot we all know and love today.

Within the 9 years this volunteer group has been gardening, they have installed a Lilac Walk, developed informative historical plaques, created fun natural activities for children, and have given visitors more opportunities to stop and smell the flowers. The Tower Hill Gardeners labour of love has created one of the most beautiful places in the district, and for that we thank them for all their hard work and dedication.

To learn more about the Tower Hill Gardeners visit their website!

A Place of Beauty

Since opening in 1927, Tower Hill has become more than just a tourist attraction. It is truly a place of beauty. There is no better place to get a 360 degree view of the town of Parry Sound, experience the expanse of Georgian Bay, and enjoy the peace & tranquility of the area, all while being surrounded by a beautiful Heritage Garden.

From hundreds of tourists visiting the Hill annually in the 1920s, to over 10,000 visitors nearly a century later (In just July & August alone!), this amazing place has given family and friends lasting memories that will be cherished & shared for years to come.