WISE — Investigators hoping to track down the person or persons who destroyed a Wise County landmark on Halloween morning are pursuing leads, and authorities are asking the public for help in providing more leads.
The High Knob Observation Tower burned to its stone foundation on the morning of Oct. 31. The structure provided a spectacular view of the surrounding area of the Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch Ranger District, and even into four other states on clear days.
Arsonists torched a restroom facility at Hanging Rock Recreation Area soon after the tower fire was set, and investigators are confident the fires were set by the same culprit or culprits, who managed to enrage the local citizenry in the process.
“The investigation is ongoing, but there is nothing new to report right now,” Clinch District Ranger Ron Bush said Tuesday. “We’re just following tips and leads as they come in, but we have nothing of real consequence right now.”
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement investigators out of Roanoke and district offices in Wise are coordinating the probe with local authorities, Bush said.
“We sure would appreciate if somebody might have seen something they took note of and didn’t think it extraordinary at the time would give us a call. You never know,” Bush said. “The most un-obvious thing might break the case.”
Bush said a woman in Maryland with ties to the area — Jessica Voss — is in the process of launching a fund-raising effort to rebuild the tower. Bush said USFS officials in Wise and Roanoke are wading through a jungle of federal regulations to figure out how to accept and apply donated dollars for such an independent effort.
As easy as it is for the federal government to take your money in taxes, Bush said trying to give money to the government for a specific purpose is apparently rather complicated.
“We’re looking into ways to (accept donated dollars) from an organization for a specific purpose or project,” Bush said. “If someone chooses to donate money we are looking into how it can be used appropriately.”
Donations flow into the federal Treasury just fine, Bush said. It’s getting it back out for an intended purpose that may literally require an act of Congress to accomplish.
Still, Voss and Gary Meade are in the process of establishing a High Knob Tower restoration fund (rebuildthetower.org) and getting their effort registered as an official charitable organization.
Bush said Jefferson and George Washington National Forest officials haven’t begun to place an estimate on replacement costs yet, but the price tag would be considerable.
“I’m sure it will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we’re nowhere close to an estimate of what it would take, and that will be down the road before we try to calculate a number,” he said.
An observation structure of one sort or another has stood on the High Knob site, elevation 4,165 feet above sea level, since the 1930s. The structure destroyed by arsonists on Halloween was built by the Flatwoods Job Corps Center in the late 1970s and refurbished in the 1990s.
The eight-sided, three-story structure featured a bottom fieldstone foundation story, with two upper stories built of wood. The second story at one time featured a visitors center, and the third story had a lookout and observation deck that Clinch Ranger District personnel still occasionally used to scope out the sprawling national forest.
For locals, the tower served as a source of pride and as much of a landmark as the mountain it graced. Pilgrimages to High Knob Tower were practically a requirement of citizenship in Wise County.
Bush said the tower area has been cordoned off since the fire, and the public is asked to refrain from taking a closer look until the ruins can be removed and the area made safe. He asked anyone who thinks they may have information about the fires at either spot to call district headquarters in Wise at (276)328-2931.