When Jen Woodworth looked across Millinocket Lake with the morning sun a week or so ago, her eyes caught a glint atop Trout Mountain that she had not seen before. A new 80-foot observation tower, extending some 30 feet above the tree line, glistened with the sunrise. Instead of looking at Katahdin rising beyond to the north, her eyes kept going back to the tower, which she said “blazes like a spotlight, especially in the morning.”
Woodworth, whose family owns the historic Rhodora camp where the American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church painted Katahdin hundreds of times for 20 years in the late 1800s, was angry and appalled. She posted about it on social media and contacted the Nature Conservancy of Maine to express her concerns. A week later, the Nature Conservancy responded by announcing it would spray the portion of the newly built galvanized steel tower above the tree line with a solution to dull the shine. The Nature Conservancy is hiring a contractor to do the work, which should be completed shortly, said Nancy Sferra, director of land management for the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“We didn’t anticipate this being an issue. We have never put up a fire tower before. It was a learning experience for us,” Sferra said. “We reached out to the person who built the tower and he has suggested a solution to spray on the tower that will dull the galvanized paint. We are hoping that will take care of it. If we let it sit for a year, it would dull on its own, but that is not a solution.”
The new tower, which replaces one that had been there from 1931 to 1977 and was removed for safety reasons, is the latest chapter of an ongoing narrative about development on the edge of Baxter State Park “and other sacred places,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore: The North Woods and board secretary of Friends of Baxter Park. “How do we protect the places that are just outside the borders of the places we have preserved,” he asked. That question takes on a different dimension when longstanding views of iconic places are threatened by development, including development intended to help people appreciate nature in different ways.
The construction of the tower and other initiatives aimed at giving people access to Maine’s North Woods also raises questions about whose views and outdoor experiences matter more – those of the hikers using the trails today or the painters, writers and other artists who have drawn inspiration and inspired others with their dramatic renderings of the Maine woods and mountains for generations, including Church and Marsden Hartley, and those who still do, like the contemporary painters David Little of Portland, Evelyn Dunphy of West Bath and Marsha Donahue of Millinocket.
St. Pierre predicted the issue would become more pronounced in the years ahead as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument begins building its infrastructure. It’s also a timely discussion this weekend, which marks the 100th anniversary of Percival Baxter’s first summit of Katahdin, the event that, more than any other, led to his vision to create the park, St. Pierre said. Even with the apparent resolution of the tower’s glare, St. Pierre said the construction of the tower concerns him about the future of Baxter’s vision and the preservation of longstanding “viewsheds” with cultural significance.
“I do not want to see the Nature Conservancy or anybody else building towers on the edge of Baxter State Park so we can peek in,” he said. “That is not what Henry David Thoreau was talking about when he described the view of Katahdin and the light reflecting off the lakes. What would he have said about the light reflecting off the tower?”
He credited the Nature Conservancy for responding quickly to concerns, but questioned the need for a tower at all. “Is this setting a precedent? What is going to happen when somebody wants to put an even taller and more visible tower potentially in the national monument or somewhere else on the edge of Baxter State Park. Right now, they are planning a substantial welcome center at the national monument. Depending on how that is done, it could be great or it could be an intrusion if it’s built with shiny things that are reflected in the sunlight, like this tower was.”
Church, a Hudson River School-style painter considered to be one of America’s finest interpreters of majestic landscapes, made hundreds of paintings and sketches of Katahdin over the 20 years he owned his camp, which he named Rhodora, on Millinocket Lake. He purchased the camp as part of a larger farm because of its expansive views of Katahdin. Second only to his elaborate mansion and sprawling estate at Olana, New York, his rustic camp in the woods of Maine was elemental to his practice as an artist and his view of the mountain was the key to it.
The Portland Museum of Art is currently showing Church’s “Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp,” which he painted in 1895, as part of the bicentennial exhibition “Stories of Maine: An Incomplete History.”
Dunphy, who has seen photos of the new tower, called it an “eyesore” and said she would find it distracting as a painter. Donahue, who owns North Light Gallery in Millinocket, agreed. “I am against putting anything on these mountains up here, but it’s hard to stem that tide. I believe in the old adage, ‘God owns the top of the mountains,’ ” she said.
Little, who had not seen photos and was not aware of the tower, didn’t like the idea of new construction impeding his view or the historic view that inspired Church, and said he would find work-arounds if he found it distracting. “If it’s a big intrusion, either put it in or take it out or soften it down so it’s a different color but still looks like a structure,” he said.
The observation tower is part of the Nature Conservancy’s Trout Mountain Preserve and was installed in response to community feedback, Sferra said. With day access to Baxter filling up quickly and reservations hard to acquire, the tower offers another hiking option with 360-degree views. “When you get to look at the most iconic mountain in Maine, surrounding lakes and other mountains, it’s a great opportunity for folks to get out into the woods. This gives people another destination,” she said.
Trout Mountain has an elevation of 1,427 feet and appears as a soft rise on the southern slope in front of Katahdin, which is about 7 miles to the north behind Trout Mountain, when viewed from the lake. The Nature Conservancy acquired the mountain as part of a 3,564-acre purchase from Great Northern Paper in 2000. It’s an ecological reserve, which means the Nature Conservancy conducts no active timber management, allowing natural forces like wind and ice to shape the forest.
The new observation tower replaces a former fire tower that was erected on Trout Mountain in 1931, more than 3o years after Church last painted Katahdin from his camp. He sold the camp to his son in 1898 and died two years later. The tower is intended for recreational purposes only, and serves no role in fire prevention, Sferra said. The Nature Conservancy purchased the tower from a businessman in New York who buys and restores fire towers. This one was originally 120 feet and came from Alabama, Sferra said. It was built in the 1940s or ’50s and in use until 2017. “We purchased the middle 80 feet. He still has the bottom and he still has the top,” she said.
The new tower, which is not yet open to the public, has an open observation deck, instead of a cabin with a roof that is common with fire towers, to allow unimpeded views of surrounding mountains and lakes. It’s the reward for hiking a 3.5-mile trail the Nature Conservancy had just begun to mark last week. Though people have hiked it already, the trail is not open yet, Sferra said. She discouraged people from seeking it out until it’s marked. Additional signage and a kiosk will be installed in coming weeks, she said, and etched-metal panels describing the 360-degree views will follow on top of the tower.
The Nature Conservancy had discussed restoring the tower at Trout Mountain since soon after acquiring the land in 2000, she said. The tower project cost about $200,000.
In an email, Woodworth said she was satisfied with the resolution as proposed by Sferra, and eager for the day when the morning spotlight will disappear. “She assured me that they are going to deal with the glare issue, asap! We’re very happy to hear that. It was definitely a shock to see it that first morning,” she wrote.