The Devil's Head Trail hike is short yet strenuous, goes through lush forest and leads to the Devil’s Head Fire Lookout Station where the views are spectacular (and worth the 143 stairs you must climb to the top). Located in Pike National Forest, the lookout station is typically manned by a single person who lives in a small log cabin from May until October. It is this person’s responsibility to spot smoke and alert the fire department of any potential forest fires. Inside the station are photographs and memorabilia of past fire lookouts, one of whom was Helen Dowe. Dowe is commonly cited as the first female fire lookout in the country but she was, in fact, the second. So who was it that paved the path for Helen?
Prior to World War II, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) hired very few women for professional positions. The first, Dr. Eloise Gerry was hired in 1910 as a scientist in the Forest Products Laboratory. Dr. Gerry's research on southern pine trees and the production of turpentine gained her considerable respect in the field and her contributions are still relevant today. Dr. Gerry recalled in the Journal of Forest History, "I must admit the Forest Service did not want a woman, but as it happened there wasn't any man willing to come and do the work." The agency vowed that she would be an exception to the rule, that women would not hold high-level positions and that they would never hold positions that took them into the field.
However, in 1913 another exception was made when Eddy’s Gulch Lookout Station in Klamath National Forest, California, did not have a fire lookout for the approaching fire season. The story goes that the assistant fire ranger, M.H. McCarthy, had only three applicants. Regarding the first, he declared, “I could not conscientiously recommend him, even in a pinch,” and the second applicant had bad eyesight (a much-needed skill in this position). The third applicant was Hallie Morse Daggett and McCarthy stated that, though she was “no gentleman, [she] would make a first-class Lookout" (The Forest Service and the greatest good : a centennial history).
Daggett was one of the most effective lookouts in the Klamath National Forest and, of the forty fires she reported in her first season, less than five acres burned. Every day she climbed a twenty-foot pole to take weather readings in winds up to fifty miles per hour! Men in the field expected her to give up on account of wildlife and the loneliness, but Daggett continued as the fire lookout every season for fifteen years. Daggett inspired women across the country, including Colorado’s first female fire lookout, Helen Dowe.
Prior to becoming a fire lookout, Helen Dowe was an artist for the Denver Times. She began her tenure as a fire lookout in 1919 and continued until 1921. During her first season as the lookout, she was assisted by Nina St. John from Ottawa, Kansas, and the next season by her aunt. Helen is said to have been one of the most effective lookouts in Colorado, preventing numerous forest fires.
After marrying J. Burgess, who managed maps and surveying for the Rocky Mountain region, Helen continued to work for the USFS. She began by working with her husband and his survey crew and then moved on to become a topographer with the agency.
The USFS continued to hire women, but it was limited and primarily for clerical positions. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the agency was forced to discontinue their position on not hiring women for field positions: “The fieldwork of the Forest Service is strictly a man’s job because of the physical requirements, the arduous nature of the work and the work environment.” While the Civil Rights Act opened many doors for women, some positions, such as a smokejumper (a highly specialized firefighter), remained off-limits as late as 1981. If you are interested in learning more about the USFS and women in the field, or would like to see the resources cited in this post, come visit us at the Western History and Genealogy Department.