Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Fort tower goes up, up, up


Contractor Dave Ricke restored a bit of the original Fort Seward skyline Tuesday, erecting a 60-foot tower modeled after one built for the U.S. Army base in Haines about 110 years ago.

Ricke’s crew stacked four pre-constructed additions atop each other and on the existing 25-foot tower of the fort’s historic fire hall, recreating the obelisk-shaped landmark once used to dry out fire hoses.

“They stacked up nicer than Legos,” said Judy Heinmiller, who grew up in the fort and arrived with coffees just after 8 a.m. to witness history in the re-making. “I expected a lot of shimming and wedging to make things fit.”

The original tower lasted about 30 years. For reasons unknown to local historians, it was shortened to about half its original height.

Ricke’s crew started about a month ago with an architectural design by resident Larry Larson endorsed by engineer Stephanie Yard. They built the tower in hoisted sections – rather than using scaffolding or another method – because Phyllis Sage, the firehall’s co-owner, had access to a boom truck, Ricke said.

Building the pyramidal sections and making sure they fit over each other just right involved a lot of calculating, said Ricke’s wife, Kirsten Amann.

Weather also was a consideration. Connecting sections in wind or rain 50 feet in the air could have added considerable difficulty, and such concerns scratched a plan to put up the tower Monday. Besides calm winds, slightly overcast skies Tuesday meant workers also weren’t squinting into the sun. “The weather cooperated,” Ricke said.

A few small glitches included adding another “jib” at the last minute to make the truck’s boom tall enough and the apparent rupture of a fitting or line that spurted hydraulic fluid on a tower section near the top.

But the sight of the tower up at the end of the day left Sage immediately speechless. “I don’t have any words. It’s pretty awesome.”

Sage grew up in a house next door to the fire hall when the building was an operating fire station, full of equipment. She now runs a bed and breakfast in the house. She and partner Joanne Waterman bought the fire hall two years ago.

Their first plan was to remodel only the garage section of the building. The idea for restoring the original tower came from Waterman, who said this week, “If you’re going to save it, why not take it back to what it was?” The new tower section is sided in cedar, similar to but not an exact match to its original redwood planks.

Sage said she’s hoping their investment in the property will inspire other property owners in the neighborhood. Maintaining the fort’s aging, wooden buildings is costly, compounded by damage from fierce winter weather that batters the National Historic Landmark.

“That is one of our hopes, that everyone will step up, and take care of their things a little better,” Sage said.

Heinmiller said the tower matches recent efforts to restore and revitalize fort buildings, noting there were state historic officials in town to talk about the barracks building. “We don’t get much cool construction here. We don’t have that many unique projects.”

Former Sheldon Museum curator C.J. Jones also spent hours watching construction. At day’s end, she scaled interior ladders to look out the hatch on the assembled tower’s peak.

Restoring a section of the fort to its original look is exciting, she said. Jones said she’s not aware of any photos that were taken as the fire hall was being built. Historic construction work indicates the garage came first and the tower was added later, Waterman said. A copy of fort blueprints recently acquired through the family of local history buff Norm Smith Sr. may cast some light on the matter, Jones said.

Restoration work included a beefed-up, cement foundation under the tower. Building designer Larson said “seismic hold-downs” connect the building to its reinforced, concrete foundation, anchoring the structure against earthquakes and strong north winds from Skagway.

Some passers-by Tuesday speculated the first tower may have blown over but Larson said some charred materials in the building suggest there had been a fire.

Building co-owner Sage said because of a fire marshal requirement for an expensive sprinkler system, she and Waterman can’t put anything like an observation deck in their new pinnacle. “It’s six stories of cold roof.”

For now, the remodeled garage side of the old fire hall will be leased as commercial office space, but other recently suggested uses include a Fort Seward museum; Sage and Waterman still have some old firehall equipment that could be put up as memorabilia.

Some in the crowd of bystanders suggested an antique firetruck now used mainly to advertise the fire department barbecue picnic be parked under an awning nearby.

Using a hydraulic lift, Ricke’s crew was planning to add red-painted trim boards to the tower as well as siding between the sections hoisted Tuesday.

The tower is 16-by-16 feet at its base and about 6-by-6 feet at the peak.