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Zephyr Cove lookout seen as historical

Nevada’s last surviving fire lookout tower has made the history books for sending as well as receiving signals.

The 68-year-old Zephyr Cove Lookout Tower, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, was recently named in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s registry.

It makes the list with Woodrow Wilson’s house – home of Washington, D.C.’s only presidential museum – along with aircraft pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio.



With the advent of fire air patrols, civilian fire detectors, increased operation costs, improved roads and fire trucks, firefighters manning lookouts turned into a thing of the past.

In 1997, the 14-by-14-foot lookout tower became a host site for Pacific Bell Wireless antennas to provide radio signals around the Lake Tahoe Basin.




The telecommunications company had been looking for a site in an existing structure to help absorb the explosive demand in wireless technology without disrupting the natural character of the Lake Tahoe environment.

“When you look at it, you wouldn’t know microwave dishes are in it,” said John Maher, the Heritage Resource Manager for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Management Unit. The unit also manages the Angora Lakes Lookout Tower.

PacBell pays the Forest Service more than $2,600 a year to lease the structure, which sits on a 1.1-acre parcel owned by Zephyr Cove Properties. The Forest Service inspects the building via right-of-way easements on the property and uses the building with the Tahoe Douglas Fire District quarterly.

“It’s good for (the Forest Service) because PacBell maintains the building,” Maher said.

The unconventional usage has turned out to be a win-win situation. PacBell accommodates Lake Tahoe cellular-phone users who are among the 76 million reported in the United States. According to the FCC, an estimated 98,000 people call 911 every day from mobile phones.

The Forest Service has concentrated efforts on gaining additional revenue over the last five years to help fund its operations.

Forest Service management deemed the transformation as “an excellent opportunity” because the tower needed repairs. PacBell Wireless paid $20,000 to upgrade the structure, after a series of permits allowed for its usage.

The company secured permits and approvals from the Lake Tahoe Management Unit, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Douglas County’s building and planning departments.

The contractor installed three antennas, mounted on pipes, each attached to a 1-square-foot base, bolted to the floor.

The microwave dishes, mounted in the same way, take up about 6 square feet of floor space each. A chain with warning signs ropes off the dishes and antennas from the rest of the room, so visitors won’t risk exposure to unsafe levels of radio waves.

The square tower stands 29 feet high and has a roof shaped like a pyramid. Drivers heading east on U.S. Highway 50 near Round Hill Square can catch a glimpse of the pyramid-like structure..

Banks of windows extend all the way around the top floor, which served as the observation room. An exterior wooden catwalk with a railing provided further vantage points for spotting fires.

Fire prevention and detection was a priority in the Lake Tahoe region in the early 20th century, as the area developed into a vacation-resort hotspot. Lookout towers were built on peaks and mountains, with an observation radius of about 30 miles.

The Forest Service manned the tower until 1954, when the Nevada Division of Forestry took it over and staffed it into the 1970s.

In 1955-56 and 1958, the first NDF employees stationed at the lookout were Leonard and Margaret Hoff, Idaho school teachers who came to Tahoe in the summer. The tower was furnished with a bed, table, refrigerator, stove and sink upstairs. Downstairs, there was a water heater, bunk beds, bathroom and shower.

In more recent times the U.S. Forest Service has used its fire lookout towers as overnight lodges for visitors seeking wilderness accommodations.

“This one wouldn’t be a candidate,” Maher said.

It’s not on Forest Service land, and residents of the Zephyr Cove Heights subdivision surrounding the structure “would never go for it,” he explained.

It serves a different public service now, Maher stated.

Mountainous areas have natural impediments to cellular service and may require cell sites be established in each valley where coverage is needed.

Moreover, the restoration of the tower protects a local, and now national, treasure on the South Shore.

The Mapes Hotel in Reno made the National Trust’s list of “most endangered” historic sites before it was imploded last Super Bowl Sunday.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, chartered by Congress and signed into legislation by President Harry Truman in 1949, is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historic buildings and revitalizing communities through education and advocacy.


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