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Fire tower removed at Chimney Rock site

Whether traveling U.S. 160 or Colo. 151 in the vicinity of Chimney Rock, passersby familiar with the area will likely notice something missing. There, a few hundred yards southwest of Companion Rock, appears ... an empty ridgeline.

In fact, since 1940, an obtrusive U.S. Forest Service fire tower has shared the upper mesa with the massive natural pinnacles and the prehistoric Chimney Rock Great House Pueblo. That is, until recently.

The Forest Service began dismantling the fire tower in September, after deciding to remove it permanently for a variety of reasons. Piece by piece, its myriad components were removed from the main structure and a stone column (added in the mid-1970s) that once served to support a viewing platform and large spiral staircase.

As workers steadily expunged the tower’s sundry materials, they assembled them in bundles for eventual airlift by helicopter. By the end of this month, all the bundles will rest alongside Chimney Rock Archeological Area’s main entrance road — east of the visitor’s cabin — until final elimination from National Forest lands.

Contractors are also removing a non-functional restroom at the upper parking area, while utilizing some of the tower stones to reconstruct portions of a nearby wall. Several of the stones will facilitate ongoing stabilization work at the Great House Pueblo, while many others will eventually adorn areas near the interpretive cabin at the lower parking area. Meanwhile, a concrete patio will soon fill the space formerly occupied by the restroom.

Aside from its meddlesome appearance amid such natural splendor, the fire tower blocked views of Chimney Rock and Companion Rock as seen from the Great House Pueblo. Further, it disrupted views of astronomical alignments considered significant in the development of the greater Chimney Rock area during the prehistoric Pueblo II period.

The Chimney Rock Archeological Area is considered the northeastern outlier of the Chacoan system 93 miles to the south. Construction techniques used in developing the Great House and other area kivas are consistent with those found throughout Chaco Canyon.

Archeologists say the construction and role of Chimney Rock Great House Pueblo in the larger Chaco Region have been interpreted based upon a single tree cutting date of A.D. 1076 from the East Kiva ventilator, and 13 tree cutting dates of A.D. 1093 from Room 8. Both A.D. 1076 and A.D. 1093 correspond with major lunar standstills, when the moon rises between the massive pillars of Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, just east of the pueblo.

In the late 1980s, Dr. J. McKim Malville, professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado, connected Chimney Rock to the practice of archaeoastronomy (ancient astronomy). He theorized that the Ancestral Puebloans probably used Chimney Rock’s pinnacles in the observation of lunar standstills. Such events, which occur on a regular cycle every 18.6 years, presumably bolstered the esoteric knowledge and power of Chaco Canyon priests.

During a February Environmental Assessment (EA) of the fire tower removal project, the Forest Service determined that its undertaking was necessary in order to enhance visitors’ abilities to view astronomical alignments and improve the overall setting of prehistoric sites within the Chimney Rock Archeological Area. While Chimney Rock is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the fire tower “represented an intrusive presence” at the site, particularly when viewed from the Great House Pueblo.

The Chimney Rock Archeological Area lies within the Pagosa Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest. In District Ranger Kevin Khung’s absence, acting District Ranger Paul Blackman rendered the official decision to remove the fire tower from Chimney Rock. In the process, he analyzed all aspects of the project, including any potential downsides to tower removal.

While, as Balckman reported, the tower afforded tourists safe shelter during violent summer storms, visitor safety could be assured through other means. Among others, they include delaying or canceling tours during storms, educating visitors of the risks and best practices in outdoor activity as skies threaten, and utilizing preemptive measures to detect when volatile weather conditions approach.

Above all, the latest “Forest Plan” suggests district managers “ ... manage exceptional historical and archaeological sites for increased public use and visitations, while still protecting the values of the site, and make historical and archaeological sites available for study by agencies involved in research.”

The intrusive presence of the fire tower, in Blackman’s view, dramatically impaired certain archaeo-astronomical alignments, including lunar standstills, and those marking the summer and winter solstices, and fall and spring equinoxes.

And, as Forest Service Archeologist Wendy Sutton said, the primary concerns in deciding to remove the tower were to restore and maintain prehistoric settings of the site, particularly in respect to astronomical alignments and views of Chimney Rock and Companion Rock from the Great House Pueblo.

With the tower gone, those alignments and views have been restored, and the site as viewed by passersby traveling local highways appears as it did some 70 years ago.

chuck@pagosasun.com