Friday, January 29, 2010

The Smoke Rise Tower on Kitty Ann Mountain

The Smoke Rise Tower atop Kitty Ann MountainHave you wondered about the Smoke Rise Tower in Kinnelon?And what about Kitty Ann Mountain? Here is a tale about both from Tom Kline, St. Hubert's Chapel restorer and Smoke Rise & Kinnelon historian.

The Smoke Rise Tower on Kitty Ann Mountain

This a story that ends where it began. Last August, a group of Smoke Rise refugees gathered at the top of Kitty Ann Mountain for a reunion and a toast to friends. There we were, gathered under a dreamy moonless starlit night. The night air was warm with gentle breezes. As we talked an occasional shooting star would flicker on by as they so often do in the August sky. It was not only a reunion of friends; it was review of our childhood days in Smoke Rise, perhaps more notably our teenage years. The Smoke Rise Tower was always a magical spot, one that was endeared into each and every one of us who gathered to celebrate friendship and our joint connection to that very special place called Smoke Rise.

Francis S. Kinney constructed the Tower in 1904 as an additional diversion for his burgeoning 5000 acre estate. Contrary to what may be written elsewhere, the stone for the Tower was quarried on site. It is a distinctive sandy brown color. The structure is approximately 80 feet tall and sits on the highest point within Kinnelon. The elevation at the base is 1156 feet. From the top of the structure is a 25 mile view in almost every direction. The skyline of Manhattan is readily visible to the East, the lower Catskills to the North, the rolling Ramapos to the South and East. Rumor has it that on a clear day you can see the High Point Monument to the Northwest. I am not so sure how true that is.

View of Lake Kinnelon from the Smoke Rise Tower before Smoke Rise was developedThe New Jersey State Forest Fire Service, under an agreement with the Kinney Family, manned the structure from 1919 until 1943. It was also used to spot for enemy aircraft during World War II. After Morris Kinney died in 1945 the structure became neglected and eventually the iron staircase rusted beyond usability. There was some movement in 1963 to restore the structure in memoriam to the founder of Smoke Rise, J. Alden Talbot, who passed away on Christmas Day, 1962. This movement was very short lived.

The Tower always held both mystique and wonder. In 1957, when I was a one year old, my parents, Emmie and Charlie Kline, bought their lot on Ski Trail. We were clearly not the first to venture into this new development but we were there for an awfully long time. Our house was built the following year. It is a gorgeous lot on the edge of a ridge line that offered views of the surrounding mountains. In the winter, we could see the lights from scores of Smoke Rise homes that dotted the landscape like the lights on a Christmas tree.

Dad was sort of an oddity in the early days because, unlike many of our neighbors, he did not cut down every tree in the back yard in order to obtain the full panorama. It may be that he did not like looking across the valley into the gravel pit, which was this huge brown scar on the landscape. Instead, he cut two vistas one towards Kitty Ann Mountain and the other looking out to the northwest to Copperas Mountain. In my formative years, I would gaze across the valley from our living room, up to the top of the mountain where the Tower stood, dark and menacing. It intrigued me from my earliest days.

In those early years, I am talking about the early sixties, my brothers, who were five and seven years older, had managed to gain entry to the Tower, through a low window, and were able to ascend to the top via the handrail because the stair treads were too rusted through to be trusted. They told me their tale of the magnificent view, in every direction. This only led to my being further intrigued with this historic structure.

There were, of course, a few families that lived in the immediate area. One such family, the Hunts, lived in such very close proximity, that Mr. Ralph Hunt, could easily hear when any shenanigans were occurring at the Tower. The popular story, at the time, (circa 1965) was that some teenage ruffians had gained access to the top of the Tower and had managed to push one of the pretty massive turret stones from the top. Another teenager, who was standing precariously at the bottom of the Tower, was in perfect line to be crushed, save for his being thrown out of the way by Mr. Hunt who appeared at just the right moment to stave off the imminent catastrophe. It was shortly thereafter that the remnants of the staircase and handrail were cut out and removed. This happened about 1965.

One of my earliest friends was Byron Coley who lived at the intersection of Mountain Road and Mountain Road Terrace. I recall the Coleys installed a propane powered street lamp that burned day and night all year. The warm yellowish glow that was cast by the long gone lamp illuminated the intersection.

As young adolescents, Byron and I would venture to the Tower, lugging personalized white lunch bags that Mrs. Coley carefully packed. There at the base we would eat our lunch by the giant purple stone, which was another glacial erratic pushed here thousands of years ago from some distant place. As one of our group recalled, there was a time that you could sit atop of the massive stone and could see New York’s Skyline in the distance. The trees, having grown significantly, now obstruct this view.

The Smoke Rise Tower under construction, early 1900sThere was an interesting cast of characters that lived in the immediate area. The Coleys, the Hansens, the Hunts, the Swansons, ( who were rumored to be related to the TV dinner bearing their name) the Moorehouses, the Orlandis (who had fantastically elaborate Easter celebrations) and the Peabodys, whose home included a concrete bomb shelter, complete with bottled water and cases upon cases of canned saltines. The semi famous Smoke Rise aviator, Herb, and Emily Fischer rounded out the residents at or close to the summit.

There were always great adventures to go on at the top of Kitty Ann Mountain. We could sneak into the Moorehouses’ back yard and observe where the stone for the Tower was quarried. Hike along the old part of Mountain Road that lay off to the west of the present course. Walk out to a rock cliff to the west, to a place we called Tower rock, where a view of thousands of undisturbed acres could be seen. (Regrettably, someone came along much later and built a house there.) Hike down the east side of the mountain in search of aircraft parts. (A plane had struck the Tower in December 1948 and left miscellaneous parts strewn down the east side of the hill.) Or just sit in the tall grass and watch an occasional plane go by. In those early days, it was rare to see a jet passing by.

The Tower was quiet, somewhat obscure and like so many of the old buildings in Smoke Rise, definitely neglected. Most of the plantings around the base were so thick that a car passing by could not see the base of the building. This would become an important fact later, during our teenage years. By late summer the grass was a good two feet tall. After the stairs were removed the metal chain link door was also removed leaving a hollow cylinder. Inside, the echo of the cooing pigeons reverberated from the stone and made the birds seem much larger than they actually were. The bottom of the Tower was littered with the massive turret stones that had become dislodged from the top by lightning and vandals. A full post and rail fence which surrounded the driveway was obscured by the overgrowth.

It was this neglect that became one of our first public service causes and the beginning of my interest in historic preservation. The Tower engaged me long before I ever set foot on Chapel Island. As preteens, Byron Coley, Sanford Peabody and I, would routinely gather at the Tower equipped with rakes, loping shears, lawn mowers and the like. Our aims were to try to cut back the overgrowth so as to expose the wooden fence, keep the grass cut low, and generally try to make the place look presentable. It was an endless battle.

Now, as I pointed out, the overgrowth that separated the Tower driveway from the road was so thick that a passing car could not see through it, even in winter. As we matured (maybe) the area became the perfect spot for, well, parking. Some of you may recall first dates, first kisses, and well, parking. As the 70s rolled on the Tower also became a favorite spot for our friends to gather. A picnic table was commandeered from the beach to add to the park like setting. The tower was always the place to go to observe the summer meteor showers and other celestial events. This lasted for a short while until disgruntled neighbors, reasonably upset at the late night shenanigans, complained. This is when things started to go from bad to worse. In order to dislodge those who would park at the Tower, it was determined that a good offense would be to collect all of the turret stones from around the base of the Tower and line them across the entrance to prohibit anyone from driving around to the difficult-to-see back side. This definitely prevented obscured parking, but friends would just park by the road and celebrations continued on for some time.

Tom Kline, ascending the Smoke Rise Tower in 1975Along about 1973, Mr. George Foley had acquired all of the assets of the Smoke Rise Company, including the Tower. Mr. Ned McIntosh, who was a neighbor and friend of the Foleys, agreed to be Vice President of the Smoke Rise Company. Turns out, one of my best high school friends was Bob McIntosh. So, as we met with other friends at the Tower during our high school years, Bob and I would frequently discuss how one could best access the top of the structure. Tales of my older brothers’ ascent kept haunting me. Once off to college, Bob had met some rock climbing enthusiasts. My lifelong dream of gaining access to the top, as my older brothers had done so many years before, was beginning to become a reality. So, with the blessing of Bob’s father (as VP of the Smoke Rise Company) we obtained permission to scale the Tower. I will not elaborate on how it was done under the heading of “don’t try this at home”. However, in 1975 we ascended to the top platform on two occasions, once in the spring, when the trees were leaf bare and again during the fall at the beginning of the fall foliage.

We were the first people to be on the top in almost a dozen years and probably the last unofficial types to have been to the top since. The view was every bit as spectacular as I was lead to believe. Interestingly, the turret stones sat atop a thick piece of bluestone or slate. I was amazed at the carvings in the stone. The ledge was inscribed by previous visitors that had been there decades before. Initials such as MK 23’, RR 40’ and JJC 65’ (only kidding) were timelessly preserved in the stone.

This monumental event also corresponded with our being off to college. Although we continued to visit the Tower after the legendary ascent our visits became infrequent and eventually almost nonexistent. As we grew up and moved out the Tower came to symbolize everything about our youth: our adventures, our friends, our loves, our losses and our desires.

Sometime later, in the mid 1980s, when the first East Gate Restoration was underway, it was decided to construct a member’s entrance lane, which required a new retaining wall to be built. Unimaginably, there seemed to be a lack of stones to use for this new rock wall. At one point, a moron (every story needs at least one) decided to collect all the turret stones from the front driveway of the Tower and utilize them in the new wall. If one looks closely at the wall by the gate, the distinctive brown stones, so carefully hand squared so many decades ago, can readily be distinguished from the standard blue gray stones that are most prevalent in this area. Hopefully someday, when serious Tower restoration occurs, the stones will be retrieved from the wall and restored to their proper location on the Tower at Kitty Ann Mountain. In the interim, the lack of stones guarding the entrance to the Tower has lead to, well, parking.

So there we were again, BH, LO, KP, PD, TK and later JJC, at the place where it all started. It was a grand evening, doing what we did in our youth, sharing our stories of first loves, first dates, first friends and first parties, first cars and fast cars, motorcycles, horseback riding, camping, and canoeing. Recounting our legendary childhood adventures in Smoke Rise until the summer crickets were fast asleep. As long as the Tower stands, these tales and the memories of a lifetime will be forever preserved.

As I drove home from the Tower in the morning I realized it was a bittersweet moment. It was great seeing friends whom I grew up with and many of whom I had not seen for decades. It was sad knowing that a repeat of this re-union will likely never happen again. Well, maybe.


Thank you, Tom! What a marvelous story about The Smoke Rise Tower and Kitty Ann Mountain!

NOTE: All of the images above come courtesy of Tom Kline. They cannot be used or reproduced without permission and attribution.


John said...

Superbly told. Well done Tom.

CB Whittemore said...

OMG is right, John! That Tower holds meaning and marks a significant place in time. CB

Richard Powell said...

Great story, thanks! I have fond memories of playing around the tower with Tommy Swanson. His family was actually not the frozen food Swansons but instead, the owners of Thomas' English Muffins back then!

I recall an emergency responders drill in the 70s in which the scenario was that a passenger plane had hit the tower and the "wounded and dead" were scattered in a path down the mountain. We had quite a few volunteers playing dead and wounded on Ridge Road. As a kid on a bike, it was a blast riding around and watching the chaos!

CB Whittemore said...

Rich, I bet that was a blast! I've heard of emergency drills taking place at hospitals, but not in residential areas. How fascinating!

Thanks for sharing that and also for commenting.


mark said...

After reading this excellent article, I was inspired to drive to the tower and see it for myself. It's a shame that it's located within a community that I found out upon arrival I did not have access to. Such a treasure should be a public destination. Perhaps one day I'll get to see it for myself.

CB Whittemore said...

Mark, it is a shame. However, at least you are getting a glimpse through these stories. Thanks for reading and trying to visit the tower.


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