Tower Power

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series about fire towers in Missouri.)

Throughout the rivers and hills of the Ozarks that people travel, they find various ways to find enjoyment.

Some hunt and fish while often a drive in the fall with the trees changing colors provides enjoyment.

This is the view from Shannondale Tower a few years ago. The tower is normally closed now.

For one group, it is the forest lookout towers that have caught their attention.

Among the conservation people the towers have always been special. Chris Polka and Bob Frakes, although never having worked in conservation, have spent decades visiting, documenting, and uncovering the stories behind these forest sentinels.

Counting Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Forest Service sites, along with a few private towers, there once were hundreds of towers in Missouri. Today, 70 or so remain standing. This leaves the historic sites to be documented and a few mysteries found along the way.

Both Polka and Frakes have found the towers to be a hobby for a lifetime.

Polka grew up in suburban St. Louis and still works there as a technology guy. It was while attending the University of Missouri-Rolla that the Ozarks caught his eye. His original interest was hiking, which he still enjoys today. 

While hiking the Clifty Creek Natural Area in Maries County, he noticed a picnic table at the Freeburg Towersite and pulled in for a snack.

Since the steps were not blocked or the tower fenced, he surmised that climbing was allowed.

Polka recounts this was not only the first tower he climbed, but the second and third and fourth, all in the same day. It seems open heights made him nervous, and several attempts were needed to come up with a successful climbing strategy.

For Frakes, his tower interest began at Mudlick Tower in Sam A. Baker State Park. He often spent much of the summertime at his grandparents’ farm south of Patterson. It was on one of these visits, and at a young age, that he visited the park and the tower there.

He recalls he did not make it all the way up but did “clear the trees to feel the breeze.” Later, on a Current River canoe trip, he spotted the Shannondale Tower, made his way up, and took in the view that hooked him on a lifetime hobby.

The Pilot Knob fire tower, south of Rolla. There are numerous Pilot Knob- type around the state, named in refer- ence to the hills (knobs) on which they sit, but this is the only tower of that name. “On the hot July day that I took this, an intense thunderstorm — more flash than rain — was rolling through the area,” said Chris Polka. “I made the relatively short hike up the hill and eyed the lightning carefully. The tower sits in a clearing, easily the highest object in any direction, so I didn’t push my luck approaching it. After the storm moved on, I climbed the tower and was happy to find that not only was the cab open, but the Os- borne Fire Finder was there as well. The storm left everything a little wet, but the post-rain view of the steamy valleys was worth the wait. Very few towers — I think five at most, maybe none by now — have their cabs unlocked.”

Both Polka and Frakes would now have many common features in their tower hunting. One of these would be the work of conservationist Jim Lyon.

Lyon had already undertaken the lengthy project of indexing the towers of Missouri by range and township, agency, size, and dates. For both of them, this list would help to organize their tower efforts. To this day, both view with much gratitude this effort on his part.

Polka and Frakes also turned to Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) highway maps, which for many years contained symbols for “forest lookout towers.” At times the towers proved to be right next to the road, but often were gated and required hikes of miles to find. Often, a tower could be seen miles away but not up close.

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Using the original paper map he still keeps in his car, Polka began to make real progress. As he visited standing sites, he pinned the towers on a Google map for online reference.

Frakes, now joined by his wife who had been bitten by the tower bug, made somewhat slower progress. Living in Illinois, they planned stops as they drove in and out of Montauk and other parks.

Nice days brought the chance for “tower runs” here and there, but the sites further away were hit and miss.

It was about this time Frakes’ path crossed that of Emery Styron, who published the River Hills Traveler at that time. In November 2010 he did a piece on Bob and Brenda’s tower travels titled, “The Power of Towers.”

Styron included an email address. This turned out to be a very good idea, as Polka contacted Frakes to share tower information. As Frakes noted, “It became obvious I was the amateur and Chris the pro.”

By this time the Google Maps project that Polka had been working on now contained all the standing towers in the state, along with links to pictures. It was this, according to Frakes, that kicked his tower search into a higher gear, allowing him to plan and make real progress.

Frakes said he began to finish the standing tour about the time he retired from 34 years as a history and geography teacher, which allowed more time for projects. He only has a handful of standing towers in the southwest corner of the state to visit.

“This tower is a bit of an anomaly. While one might expect that they all come with a view, the tower at Roaring River State Park is shorter than most of the trees around it, a clue that the land must have been timbered when the tower was built,” said Polka. “Any other tower eclipsed by its neighbors like this would likely have been neglected and removed by now, but this tower is made completely of iron and steel, right down to its decking. Its durability has likely meant its survival.”

With more time on his hands he began to document former sites for footings, geodetic markers, etc. He also located some sites that were planned but never built, and various “mysteries” — footings showed that could not be identified, or lookout tags on topography maps that didn’t match anything.

Polka would equate it to a treasure hunt to find and identify an unknown site. Towers also showed up that had been moved by individuals who, for whatever reason, could not see them go.

The site has also added a layer for lookouts that are not towers, such as pole towers or crow’s nests.

At this point, Polka hit on the idea of adding “layers” to the Google map to accommodate the new information. There were also columns added for information or visits. It has grown into a large collection of information that the public is welcome to visit.

The most direct way is at It can also be found at the FFLA site by going to Towers/Worldwide Inventory/Missouri. Visitors will find many links to pictures and other information. There may even be some “drone documentation” in the future, so check back in.

Roaring River State Park tower.

Both agree there has been many side stories along the way. Exploring towers in regular cars could always get interesting. Frakes recounts his many battles with hornets, wasps, and vultures.

He also vividly remembers the fall of 2011 near Steagall Tower when a mountain lion ran right across the road in front of the car. He described it as the “thrill of a lifetime.”

Frakes and Polka also agree that beyond the towers, the best memories of “towering” have been the wonderful people of Missouri they have met along the way.

(Part two of this series on Missouri fire towers will appear in the March issue of the River Hills Traveler. Questions or comments? Chris Polka can be reached by email at or Bob Frakes by email at

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