Experience scenic vistas from an unusual site, downtown Salt Lake City.
When describing the role of fire lookouts in the Intermountain West, one typically pictures scenic vistas atop remote woodland mountaintops. Lookouts rarely serviced urban areas, so imagine how odd it would have been to encounter a Forest Service fire lookout in the middle of a metropolitan area. As unusual as this sounds, one lookout station did operate in the center of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, for roughly a decade.
Completed in 1912, the Walker Bank Building is a sixteen-story skyscraper in downtown Salt Lake. At the time of its construction, the building was the tallest structure in the Intermountain West. In the decades following Utah’s statehood in 1896, Utahans considered the construction of impressive infrastructure such as the Walker Bank an important step in the modernization of Salt Lake City.
During the 1930s, the city faced a water crisis. The Great Salt Lake itself is far too salty to use as drinking water, so most of the city’s water came from streams and rivers in the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley. Grazing and wildfires had led to erosion that damaged the watersheds the city relied on. Determined to fix the issue, Wasatch National Forest began placing more emphasis on fire suppression. In 1939, the Forest Service and Salt Lake City Water Department banded together to establish a fire lookout to protect watersheds in the foothills around the Valley. Due to its height, the Walker Bank Building had an impeccable view of the region, so with permission from the bank, Wasatch National Forest set up a small lookout station atop the building.
The lookout itself consisted of little more than a small alidade table which was a map with a sighting device affixed to it for pinpointing spotted fires. From beneath a three-story steel tower advertising the Walker Bank and Trust, urban forest rangers surveilled the surrounding foothills for twelve hours daily. In 1941, The Times of San Mateo, California, reported that the Walker Bank Building had the only fire lookout in a downtown area in the entire country. In 1943, a fifteen-year-old named James Sarvis took on the lookout position. Despite his age, Wasatch National Forest at the Salt Lake Tribune credited him with the protection of the city’s valuable water resources. Sarvis returned to the post several times.
Wasatch National Forest has no records of the lookout being occupied after 1948, but the Walker Bank Building still exists. Now known as the “Walker Center,” the building is currently owned and operated by Wells Fargo.