SPECTACULAR VIEW AWAITS THOSE WHO RELIVE THE CLIMB OF THE DORSET TOWERMEN
For more than 50 years, visitors have enjoyed a 360-degree view of 860 square kilometres of sparkling lakes and vibrant foliage from its observation deck, a full 142 metres (465 feet) above Lake of Bays. The tower was built in 1967 and was an immediate hit with residents and tourists, alike, with 11,000 visiting in that first season. It’s a fascination that has only increased in the decades since.
Today, more than 25,000 people visit the tower park each year, from local families and groups from area camps to organized car clubs and out-of-country visitors. On a single day in the fall, the site can be visited by as many as 600 vehicles as well as another 700 people who choose to walk up to the tower park instead. While there, they can climb up to the tower’s observation deck, enjoy the view from other lookout points, and pause to have a picnic lunch or grab a snack from the gift shop – which also features local artisans.
“It’s a really different type of tourist attraction,” says Susie Ament, the Dorset Scenic Lookout Tower Co-ordinator for the Township of Algonquin Highlands. “And it also has quite a historical factor to it and people really enjoy that, too.”
Although the tower resembles those that at one time dotted the landscape to watch for signs of wildfires, it was built specifically as a lookout with a nod to the history of the fire tower – and others like it – that once occupied the site.
In 1928, a fire lookout tower was built at the top of the ‘mountain’ in Dorset. It stood 25 metres tall – a full five metres shorter than today’s scenic lookout tower.
Towermen, who worked on contract in shifts during the fire season – from April to October 6 – accessed the deck by climbing a ladder up the side of the structure. (Today’s tower has a less heart-stopping series of stairs, 118 in all.) During dry conditions, the towerman would stay in the tower all day. On rainy days, he would cut portages or keep the phone line – which was strung through trees from the Dorset office of Ontario Lands and Forests to the area fire towers – cleared of brush.
It might have been a lonely job, if not for those phone lines and the later VHF, or very high frequency radio, that replaced it in the 1950s. Although their main purpose was to report fires, the towermen sometimes used the lines to communicate with one another.
According to the Dorset Heritage Museum, the towerman that most people remember was its last: Ferg McGuire.
“Towermen were encouraged to have a hobby, woodcarving, musical instruments, or reading,” the museum website recounts. “Ferg used to talk to the towerman at Oxtongue Lake, Tom Paris, …(and) the towerman at St. Nora Lake, Hugh Lester, had a hobby of playing the guitar. It was not uncommon for Hugh to broadcast a live music show over the radio to Tom and Ferg.”
McGuire climbed down from the tower for the last time at the end of the season in 1961, the year the tower was taken out of service. It was dismantled and parts of it can be seen in the exhibit at the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre.
Those who climb the scenic lookout tower today can get an appreciation for both the history – imagining what it might have been like to spend day after day as a towerman stationed high above the trees – and for the expanse of wilderness that still exists.
“The only even remotely urban sighting that you can see up there is the little town of Dorset. The rest is all forest and lakes,” says Ament. “A lot of our out-of-country visitors are totally impressed with the vastness of our wilderness.”
The tower is an icon for Dorset and the surrounding area, she adds, and visitors who come for the view have a positive economic impact for the surrounding restaurants, retailers, marinas and lodging.
The township is working on historical and geographical inter-pretive signs to provide visitors with more information about the original purpose of the site.
For the remainder of the 2019 season, the Dorset Scenic Lookout Tower is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Sunday, September 15, and then daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Thursday, October 31. In November, the tower switches to a weekend-only schedule and will remain open, weather permitting, until November 17.
A vehicle entrance to the Dorset Scenic Lookout Tower is located on Highway 35, just to the north of the village of Dorset. Visitors can get to the tower one of three ways: drive up to the tower park, leave a vehicle at the base of the mountain and walk up the road to the park, or hike the trail from behind the Dorset Heritage Museum to the top of the mountain.
Ament says the most common comment staff hear from visitors is they didn’t know such a unique tourist attraction existed, where you can climb a tower to see the view. And what a view it is.