During the early 20th century, forest fires ravaged Maryland, impacting both people and wildlife, and costing uncalculated dollars worth of damage annually. Not only was marketable timber lost, but so were emerging sprouts and seedlings. Moreover, scorched soil slowed forest recovery. Charged with controlling this scourge was Maryland State Forester F. W. Besley, and the dedicated group of forest wardens whom he recruited to address the challenge.
Beginning in 1906, Besley sought out hardy men who were pillars of their communities to teach wise forestry and to mobilize manpower when forest fires erupted. Most of these forest wardens were volunteers.
As Belsey notes, "The best tools with which to fight a fire are the rake, hoe, shovel and axe." To that simple arsenal wardens later added backfire torches and portable 5-gallon water tanks that were carried on their backs.
Besley erected a network of fire lookout towers across Maryland. Staffed by dedicated men and women (often supported by whole families), the towers and their operators made fast detection of fires possible. Modern techniques have antiquated these sentinels but some still stand in testimony of the role they once played.
Thayerville fire tower, a survivor of Besley's network, is located at the top of this trail. You are invited
to hike the trail and takek a closer look.
Besley believed that political consideration had no place in forest management - a view that was echoed throughout the Maryland Department of Forestry. As the famous Garrett County Forest Warden Abraham Lincoln Sines wrote, "Politics do not fight fires. I never ask a man his politics or his religion. Fighting forest fires is a hard job and takes the best men in both parties."
[text with photos, left to right] 1. Garrett County volunteer fire warden J.H. Sims and Mike Tasker, March 1928
2. Fire crew, Patapsco Forest Reserve, May 1928
3. "Manning" fire towers was often a family responsibility. Here Kitty Shortall sends her warden husband John his lunch at Long Hill Tower in 1951.
4. The Woodlawn fire tower, in Cecil County, Maryland, March 1935.
5. Fred W. Besley (1872-1960), Maryland's first state forester, 1906-1942.
6. Abraham Lincoln Sines (1864-1954), Garrett County's first resident forest warden.