Jefferson National Forest Clinch District Ranger Jorge Hersel is watching over the tower project. Photo by Stephen Igo.
HIGH KNOB — Originally at over 4,160 feet above sea level, one of the most iconic lofty spots in Southwest Virginia expects to be roughly 16 feet higher than it was, once builders finish topping its new, slightly higher terrestrial elevation with a new observation tower.
Construction began in July for a new tower atop High Knob, the mountain crest of local Wise County lore that has hosted generations of first dates, marriage proposals, outdoor weddings, family reunions, wild youthful excursions, assorted mild-mannered mischief and occasional miscreants.
Of that last, the two men convicted of setting the old tower ablaze and burning it to the ground on Halloween of 2007 are still in prison making restitution, Jefferson National Forest Clinch District Ranger Jorge Hersel said. He figures it will take a while because they can’t be making much while serving time behind bars and, in any case, $500,000 is a whopping bunch to help pay back.
That’s the total cost to build a new, fancier, fireproof version.
“That’s why I specified stone, steel and concrete,” Hersel told construction worker Perry Stallard. “There’s a real good reason for that.”
Stallard is the sidekick of Mark Gardner, owner of Mark’s Heavy Hauling & Excavating in Norton. Gardner’s outfit is the subcontractor doing the site preparation for what will, by mid-November — if all goes according to plan, and the weather has been playing havoc with the plan — feature a brand new tower of bedazzling design.
“In business since 1997, right out of high school,” Gardner said. “We do construction work, all sorts of construction work. Heavy equipment, all sorts of road jobs, site preparation, mine reclamation. You name it. We do it all.”
Not that the new tower could ever fully replace the quaint charm of the tower that burned. That one, built in 1977 by the Flatwoods Job Corps Center, an adjunct program of the U.S. Forest Service, will remain a fond memory for locals for decades to come.
But there were at least three other versions before that one, Hersel said.
“There have been at least four (towers) we know of. We’ve found an old, grainy photograph of what looks a lot like a log cabin. And then there were two wood, brattice-sided firewatch towers that were actually manned and equipped with radios,” he said. “And then there was the 1977 one that burned, and of course that’s the one people remember most.”
Lots of memories went up in smoke along with the tower in 2007, Hersel said. Although it was a constant burr under the Clinch Ranger District’s saddle up to that point, the old tower bore countless carved initials, declarations of love and other ‘I Was Here’ type messages from, it seemed, just about everyone who was, well, there at one time or another.
“I met a fellow who told me he carved the initials of himself and his wife,” Hersel said, “and then came back, however many years later, and carved the initials of himself and his second wife.”
The project’s main contractor, DOT Construction out of North Carolina, sent project superintendent David Holloway, assisted by Glenn Fonseca, to ramrod the project and get it completed before winter sets in. And on High Knob, it sets in rather fierce.
Summer hasn’t been a picnic atop High Knob for that matter. Holloway’s main foe, so far, has been rain. Fog is a close second.
“One morning last week I was driving up here and literally had to hang my head out the window of my truck and still, I could hardly see the asphalt,” Holloway told Hersel. “And that was looking almost straight down, too.”
After a previous near two weeks of almost daily rains, the sun smiled on High Knob this past Wednesday. That day, Holloway was a man closer to the sun than most in Wise County, and nearly in heaven when it comes to that.
“Tomorrow we’re going to hit it and git it,” he said. “We’re working 7 (a.m.) ’til 7 (p.m.) or ’til dark if it comes to that. We’ve just had so much rain. Just give me two days! I need two good days of sunshine and I can start my footers.”
USFS Architect Melissa Ayers is seriously camera shy but, as contract administrator of the tower project, has overall supervisory command.
“I think the site work in this location is the biggest challenge,” she said. “It’s just so remote. Just getting the concrete and other materials up here will be a challenge. And we’re moving a lot of dirt. I believe we’ve had 160 truckloads of dirt brought in so far. That’s (over 1,600 cubic yards and counting) probably the most dirt we’ve moved on one of our projects. The thing is, we have to rebuild the mound the tower will sit on.”
The additional upward nudge in elevation to High Knob will require another survey by the National Geodetic Survey, Hersel said. That’s a federal agency that does mapping and charting and defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity and orientation of any particular spot in the U.S., and plants elevation markers at places like High Knob.
So after this project, the NGS will have to plant a new marker to replace the old one. One reason for all the new fill dirt atop “The Knob” is to help accommodate a handicap accessible ramp to the new tower’s observation deck, something lacking in all previous versions.
While it has taken six years to get to the point of reconstruction, Hersel said it most likely wouldn’t be getting rebuilt even now if not for the people of the region making it happen. Outrage that followed the 2007 act of arson transformed into a grassroots movement to build a new tower, and that evolved into a formal citizen-based group organized by former Congressman Rick Boucher to spearhead the project. More than 600 individuals and organizations made the reconstruction possible.
“The project is a little over $500,000, and a majority of that is coordinated grants and donations, including corporate donations and funding from local governments, that sort of thing,” Hersel said.
“But it was the High Knob Enhancement Corp. that was able to get the money that’s made it possible to rebuild the tower. Otherwise, we may not have been able to rebuild the tower as quickly as we have. It’s difficult to find funding these days, and I want to express my appreciation for all their hard work.”
Hersel also wanted to express a warning to the public to avoid the temptation to rubberneck the construction site. Being a construction site, and all the federal and state regulations that accompany that status, means it is off limits to all but authorized personnel.
“We’ve had a lot of people coming up to take a look, and everyone needs to know they have to keep away from this area,” he said.
Deft at the controls of a bulldozer and other heavy equipment, Perry Stallard qualifies as authorized and then some. The only unauthorized personnel the workers care to see, and sometimes do, come in the form of an occasional bear or deer, he said.
When Hersel lightheartedly inquired if any of the workers had seen or heard “Bigfoot, or that Wood Booger, whatever they call it,” Stallard and the others snorted and sneered. The Southwest Virginia version of a ’Squatch, a most recent fable of television infamy, prompts hoots of derision atop High Knob.
Construction workers are not the flight of fancy type, it would seem. But they can be loyal to “The Knob.”
“Well, it’s a historical event,” Stallard said of having a hand in the reconstruction of High Knob Tower. “My father-in-law (Ray Herron) was a part of this when it started, and he’s 84, and I’m proud to be a part of it now. He lived for years down at the base of this mountain in Hoot Owl Hollow, and walked up this mountain to go to work. So, yeah, I’m real proud to be a part of it, too.”