N.S. council begins effort to restore Mowry Fire Tower, allocates $62K

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Atop a 586-foot hill believed to be the highest point in town stands a steel tower, once used as critical tool for locating fires in the region, and dispatching those who would fight them.

And although Mowry Fire Tower still holds antennas relied on by everyone from the town’s Department of Public Works to the local bus company, no one maintains the accompanying building, which has fallen into disrepair over the past several decades.

That may soon change following a decision by the Town Council this week to allocate funding for repair and restoration of the structure.

Built in 1956, the 65-foot-high tower is in the National Historic Lookout Register, and is one of just three such forest fire towers still standing in northern Rhode Island. The location reportedly boasts long views in all directions, offering sights from Narragansett Bay to Worcester, Mass. and beyond on clear days.
According to North Smithfield Emergency Management Agency Director Col. Peter Branconnier, the structure is badly in need of repair.

“The tower is in very, very, very poor condition,” Branconniere said during discussion of the tower with councilors on Monday, April 5. “One of the walls is practically coming off that tower right now. We’re trying to come up with a game plan to at least hold it together until something is done.”

This week, Town Councilors allocated $68,382 for the work, added to a previous budget of $2,500, with high hopes that other sources of funding can also be found.

“We want to get that tower back up into decent shape,” Town Council President John Beauregard later told NRI NOW. “We have very important things up there. We have antennas that we rely on, but believe it or not nobody maintains that building.”

North Smithfield Heritage Association President Richard Keene noted that a tower was first built at the location – the summit of Woonsocket Hill, once erroneously thought to be the highest point in Rhode Island – in 1923.  The structure was named after Ariel Mowry, a resident who lived near the location and would often use it for observation. At the time, it was one of only five such fire towers in the state, using an alidade sighting mechanism to determine the direction of potential blazes.

“They used a telephone to report fires to forest wardens and landowners,” Keene said. “More communications have been added to the tower since then.”

The current structure was erected in 1956, and Primrose Fire Department installed a radio on the tower in late 1970s.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management maintained it until 1990, when the tower was sold to the town of North Smithfield through a recreation grant, along with 5 acres of land.

“After that point very little work was done,” Branconnier said.

Local fire departments and emergency management also still rely on the tower, and Branconnier noted that the state has a generator, shelter and communications system at the location.

“They’ve done some work in cutting trees down,” he said. “They’re on board to do something with it.”

Branconnier said that in addition to repairing the tower cabin, radios need to be moved into the climate-controlled shelter, and a new security system should be installed.

“I gave the town administrator a game plan for what we’re trying to do up there,” he said. “It’s a prime spot for communications.”

“As of right now, it’s in tough shape. It’s been through hurricanes, wind storms and bad winters,” Branconnier said. “We constantly have broken windows that I’m fixing.”

The initiative to allocate funding for the eventual restoration work was brought forward this week by Councilor Kim Alves, who asked board members to move money from other municipal reserve accounts.

Branconnier said he’s hopeful the state will also help pay for much of the needed work. Historic grants and other sources could also become available.

Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski said that he talked about the structure with Sen. Jack Reed during his recent visit to North Smithfield.

“When I was discussing the Mowry Tower with him, it struck a lot of interest,” Zwolenski said. “It serves several communities in northern Rhode Island.”

Zwolenski noted that the town could qualify for funding as part of President Joe Biden’s recently announced infrastructure plan.

“If there’s any way we can look into putting 5g up there, it would go a long way toward maintaining that tower in the future,” he said. “We’re going to have to take a look at the deed.”

Councilor Paul Vadenais noted that the first step will be to come up with a price for repairs.

“I think that we’re going  down the right path by identifying funds,” Vadenais said. “The next big part is we need to know what the cost is. We could find out that we need $200,000 to do it. Get the structural engineers up there. We need to look at this and identify funds that we have.”

“If we have to do it in stages we can,” Alves said.

Keene noted that a restored tower could occasionally be opened for supervised tours. 

“I highly encourage the town to preserve the tower, which holds a unique place in our local history,” Keene said.

Branconnier agreed.

“It’s something that is a prime recreation spot, if we wanted to do that,” he said.

The initiative to move funding into an account for restoration was unanimously approved.

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