Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Just before the hardest part of winter set in over Macon County, Jeff Johnson Timber Frames installed the first phase of the rebuild on the historic Wayah Tower. In November, the first phase of the project was installed, leaving the remainder of the project to be completed as weather permitted before Spring.

Last Thursday, despite a wind chill that took your breath away, Jeff Johnson and his staff, along with help from the forest service, were once again atop Wayah Bald completing phase two of the restoration project.

As thousands of acres of forests were ravaged by fires in October and November of 2016, Wayah Tower, along with the nearby historic Jones Cabin, were the first structures affected by the wildfires. Nearly a year to the day the Camp Branch Fire claimed the roof on the Wayah Bald Fire Tower, volunteers gathered to erect beams to support the new roof for the first phase, returning two months later to complete additional work.

The fire tower was first constructed in 1937, but the roof was later added by the U.S. Forest Service in 1983 during a remodel process.

Prior to last Thursday’s work on the tower, Jeff Johnson Timber Frames announced that the work was being done in memory of an employee who passed away but had put his heart and soul into the project.

“On March 6, 2015, our dear friend Bill Crocker passed away,” read the post. “During Bill’s time with us he made some beautiful caps to cover timber pockets that had to have steel in them. The last of the caps he made for us will be installed by some of his wonderful family members [Thursday] at the Wayah Bald Tower raising. Bill often enjoyed taking his granddaughters to the tower, so this will be a very special time for both his family and our team.”

Johnson said that his company’s cost for the project was $46,219.50; of that, roughly $12,000 was timber cost which was paid for by Williams Construction and the U.S. Forest Service.

Phase one of the project involved setting the principle post, setting the lower rafter and dragon plates and all the wind braces needed for the structure.

Johnson is working with Williams Construction out of Robbinsville and Sanders Crane in Franklin to complete the project.

“Wayah Bald is a historical place where people in Macon County and at least the surrounding counties have a personal attachment to,” said Mike Wilkins,  U.S. Forest Service District Ranger. “Folks love it up there and if you have people come visit,  Wayah Bald  is one of the places you always take them. We are thrilled that the crew of Jeff Johnson Timber Frames donated their time and energy to design and construct the timber frame. It has a majestic look that we are thrilled with. It is extremely well build to stand the test of time and a very harsh environment. We are very appreciative of them and thankful to the Nantahala Hiking club who donated many hours to putting two coats of stain on all the individual timbers prior to installation.”

Wilkins said there will be a dedication and ribbon cutting when the Wayah Bald fire tower reopens to the public, which he expects will be in mid-March.

“All eight or nine interpretive signs we had up there were burned completely up,” said Wilkins. “We have purchased replacements but were waiting for all the timber frame work to be done before putting up our signs so the signs would not be in the way of the crane and construction.  Most of them can now be put up.”

The Wayah Road is closed during the winter freeze/thaw period when gravel roads tend to rut up so easily. Wilkins said they normally open the seasonally closed roads on March 15, but in bad years it may be as late as April 1.

“We have a contract in place that provides for the roof andsome repairs to the concrete damaged by the fire at Wayah Bald,” he said. “We are hopeful the contractor will finish the project prior to us opening the road up after winter.”