Lady Lookouts on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

My name is Anne and I'm a field ranger on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. I’m researching Pacific Northwest fire lookouts and the women who staffed them during World War II. I’d like to share that research, and a mystery, with you.

During World War II, women on the American home front stepped into a variety of positions usually filled by men, who were fighting overseas.  In many cases, the jobs had never or only rarely been assumed by women. These roles included National Forest Fire Lookouts, or “lady lookouts,” as they were sometimes called in the press.

After the Great Fire of 1910 destroyed 3 million acres of woodland in Idaho and Montana, the US Forest Service established fire lookout stations throughout the forests it managed across the country.

The stations consisted of small glass-walled cabins or towers with 360-degree views, built on high peaks in isolated, and rugged terrain. Lookout buildings were usually constructed from prefabricated kits. These kits, along with all necessary supplies for staff, were brought in by mule, horse pack trains or carried in on foot.

Those who were fire Lookouts had to be self-sufficient.  They did all repairs and upkeep on their towers.  They chopped wood and hauled water for cooking, bathing, and laundry.  They were also on their own when it came to dealing with any animals or strangers that might pose a threat.  Lookouts might remain at their posts for weeks or months at a time, with only occasional visitors.

Hallie Daggett became the first female fire lookout in 1913 in California. Despite Forest Service concerns that women were unsuited to the rigorous and isolated life of a fire lookout, Daggett thrived in her position for 14 years. Helen Dowe became the second female lookout in 1919. Solo lady lookouts like Daggett and Dowe remained rare, but husband and wife lookout teams became more common during the Depression-era.

One husband and wife team on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest was Nel and Fred Bannister, who staffed the (now gone) O’Farrell Lookout.  Nel Bannister helped train women to serve as lookouts during World War II. More than 80 women in the Pacific Northwest trained to become lady lookouts and their duties expanded to include enemy plane spotting to detect aircraft incursions.

Far from feeling frightened, isolated, or bored, in interviews the women described themselves as too absorbed in their work and in the forest around them to feel scared or lonely.

Dora Hunt and Maxine Hipkoe, two of Nel Bannister’s trainees who were stationed at the Norse Peak lookout, described being fascinated by the ever-changing weather and observing the multitude of animals visible from their lookout.  In a report, they stated that “contrary to the expectations of our friends and families, we did not spend a lonely summer on an isolated Lookout.”

Many of the women were teachers like Dora and Maxine, or college students like Caroline Newberger Canafax, all of whom served on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

It was during my research into the women who served on Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie (MBS) that I uncovered a bit of a mystery.

One of the most popular photo albums in the US Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Flickr account (https://flic.kr/s/aHskk9cL8q) is the Fire Lookouts album. I spent a great deal of time looking at the historic photos, trying to identify lady lookouts who had served during World War II.

Some of the most attention-grabbing photos star three women and feature handwritten captions.  The photos were identified as being taken in 1943 at the Sun Top Lookout, located on the Snoqualmie Ranger District.

The majority of the women in the photos were unnamed, as was the caption writer.

Who were they? What were the names of these women, painting the Sun Top Lookout together? Who was the older woman chopping wood, identified as “grandmother" in those handwritten captions? And what was the name of the granddaughter who had written them?

No one on the MBS staff knew. It seemed like the identities of the Sun Top Lookout women might be lost forever. But there were a few clues to follow…

                                                                Lady Lookouts Chopping Wood    Grandma and Me    Lady Lookouts Plane Spotter

 

 

 

 

 

Hire letters for a lookout named Virginia Olmsted were included in the Fire Lookouts album. She was identified in a handwritten photo caption as the photographer. Another woman was identified in a handwritten caption as Caroline Neuberger now Canafax, stationed at Kelly Butte. A third woman, Jean Rich, was identified in a newspaper clipping which also appeared in the album.

I ruled out Virginia Olmsted and Caroline Canafax as the caption writer, because most people don't refer to themselves in the third person!

I thought Jean Rich might have written the captions, but I couldn't be sure. I didn't want to use the handwritten caption photos in my research project without confirming who was in them and who had authored the captions.

Reluctantly I set the photos and the mystery aside, moving on with my fire lookout research. But the Sun Top women stayed in my mind.

As I was winding up my research, I did one last Google search that turned up an article I’d missed.  Called “First Ladies,” it was about Washington State women who were trailblazers in the outdoors.  Skimming through the article I came to an entry on Pamela Bobroff.

Pamela shared memories of serving as a plane spotter at a fire lookout during World War II.  She accompanied her mother and grandmother… who was responsible for chopping wood.  I remembered the “Grandmother chopping wood” hand-captioned photos.  I Googled “Pamela Bobroff” and found her obituary… which listed her full name as Pamela Olmsted Bobroff.  Olmsted, the same as the hire letters in the album.

Mystery solved!

Pamela Olmsted Bobroff was the caption writer.  Pamela was 13 when the family served their first season in 1943.  She recalled hauling water and raising the flag at the lookout. Her mother, Virginia Boutelle Olmsted, was a high school teacher who served summers as a fire lookout and plane spotter while her grandmother, Mrs. Robert Boutelle, did the cooking and the wood chopping.

Both Virginia Olmsted and Mrs. Boutelle were trained in plane spotting by Nel Bannister. Pamela and her family were the only three-generation lookout team in Washington or Oregon.

Pamela said the three summers she spent at the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie lookouts were “the best time of my life.” Perhaps it’s Pamela’s joy, shining through in the photos and handwritten captions, that really makes the photos stand out.

As an adult, Pamela Olmsted Bobroff became a public health educator and a mountaineer. Caroline Newberger Canafax, who was featured in the photos captioned by Pamela, earned a master’s degree in education from The University of Washington.  In addition to a long career with the Seattle School District, Caroline was also a lifelong peace activist.

Nel Bannister and her husband Fred continued working as a team after leaving the Forest Service. They owned and operated a photo studio and camera shop for 25 years.

The age of the fire lookouts and their solitary vigils is ending. With the advent of technology like satellite images, infrared devices, and live streaming cameras, most fire lookout posts are no longer staffed. Many of the prefab towers with their stunning views have been converted to vacation rentals.

But if you find yourself looking out over the forest from Sun Top or Kelly Butte, pause for a moment to think of the lady lookouts who marveled over the same view and helped protect it so that decades later, you can enjoy it too.

For more information and additional photos:

Lookout Towers – Pacific Northwest: https://flic.kr/s/aHskk9cL8q

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Historic Photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHsknCprJq





https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/home/?cid=FSEPRD810211