6,600 feet up a mountain in a small wood box, three hours by foot from the nearest dirt road, the rest of the world a million miles away, no conversation with friends, loved ones, anyone, really, except yourself. On blisteringly hot afternoons, the day after a thundershower, a wisp of smoke twists above the forest miles away and the lookout leaps into action, plotting the location on a map. Using a signal mirror, or, if equipped, a telephone cable, they signal authorities below: A fire! It was a lonely, slow life occasionally spiked with excitement; a fire lookout in Massachusetts once said: ““There are two types of days in the fire tower . . . days you are so bored that you want to jump out the window, and days that are so hectic that you want to jump out the window.”
This was the life chosen by Hallie Daggett, the first woman hired by the U.S. Forest Service to work as a fire lookout. She held the post in the Eddy Gulch lookout, atop Klamath Peak, west of Mt. Shasta in California’s Klamath National Forest, from 1913 through 1927. Naturally, being the early 20th century, her supervisors were surprised to employ a woman in the role, let alone even field the application.
The man who hired her was essentially at a loss when considering her candidacy. There’d been only three applications, two men and Daggett’s, and the men were completely unfit for the role. Her supervisor, in writing to a colleague about his dilemma, reported she was “no gentleman.”
“She has all the requisites of a first-class Lookout…The novelty of the proposition which has been unloaded upon me, and which I am now endeavoring to pass up to you, may perhaps take your breath away, and I hope your heart is strong enough to stand the shock. It is this: One of the most untiring and enthusiastic applicants which I have for the position is Miss Hallie Morse Daggett, a wide-awake woman of 30 years, who knows and has traversed every trail on the Salmon River watershed, and is thoroughly familiar with every foot of the District. She is an ardent advocate of the Forest Service, and seeks the position in evident good faith, and gives her solemn assurance that she will stay with her post faithfully until she is recalled. She is absolutely devoid of the timidity, which is ordinarily associated with her sex as she is not afraid of anything that walks, creeps, or flies. She is a perfect lady in every respect, and her qualifications for the position are vouched for by all who know of her aspirations.”
I hope your heart is strong enough to stand the shock. The shock of learning a woman who grew up hiking, hunting, fishing, and riding in that very forest would warm to the idea of being employed as a lookout. Lol.
Daggett was born in 1878 in Liberty, California, which is now a ghost town. Her father ran a mine near Mt. Shasta, and she learned how to handle herself in the wilderness as a little kid. Mining was good for the family’s finances and her father John became California’s Lieutenant Governor. Daggett was for a time a society woman, educated in the Bay Area’s finest schools.
Still, the forest called to her.
When she was hired as a “fire guard,” the term for lookouts in 1913, she was paid $840 per year. Once a week her sister would bring mail and supplies by horse, linger for a bit, then plod off, leaving Daggett alone once more. Loneliness, which often spells the end of fire lookout careers, was not a problem for Daggett. “I never felt a moment’s longing,” she said when asked if she missed family and friends in bustling San Francisco. As evidenced by her retaking her position as the lookout for the next 14 years.
The Eddy Gulch lookout was a rough hewn cabin when Daggett was in charge, in 1958 it was rebuilt into a small room elevated on steel legs. That same year, a woman following in Daggett’s footsteps, Nancy Culbertson, took over and served as a lookout for 30 years.
Information on what happened to Daggett after she ended her career with the Forest Service is scant, but she lived out the remainder of her days in a cabin in Siskiyou County, California, not far from where she was posted, in the mountains where she get grew up. That cabin still stands in a park in Etna, California, with a small memorial dedicated to Daggett.
Words by Justin Housman