A man on a ladder is working on the top of a tower.
The Water Tower in Essex is undergoing restoration. Seen on Friday, July 28. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On a good day, you can see Mount Mansfield from the top of the Fort Ethan Allen Water Tower, an iconic structure in Essex that’s visible from Route 15.

But it has been almost 15 years since Ann Gray, treasurer of the Essex Community Historical Society, has climbed up there.

“We used to open the tower and take people up to see the view from the top but the stairs were deemed unsafe and we are not allowed to do it any more,” Gray explained in a recent interview. 

If all goes well with a multi-year restoration effort being spearheaded by the historical society, members of the public will once again be able to glimpse the state’s highest peak from the 80-foot-high tower. 

The tower was the first structure built at the fort in 1893. It still encases a 62-foot steel water tank that was used to store enough water — 50,000 gallons — to supply 8,500 men and 1,800 horses, starting when the fort was a United States Cavalry post and extending to its final use as a U.S. Air Force base, according to historical society research

An old photo of a water tower next to a train track.
A photo of the Fort Ethan Allen Water Tower from 1907 in the Library of Congress showing the original weathervane. Courtesy photo/Essex Community Historical Society.

Decommissioned in the 1960s and closed to the public in 2009, the landmark structure is undergoing a significant renovation thanks to the fundraising efforts launched by the historical society in 2016. The society has raised $36,000 in grants to restore the unique stone and slate tower, and the town government contributed the remaining $123,000 for the first phase of the work, according to town officials.

Gray said she is thrilled that it’s finally happening.

“There were some dark days when we thought we would never get the money that we needed to do this,” she said.

The first phase of work began in June, and a new slate roof and a replica of the original weathervane went up last month. The recent rains forced a pause in construction but the phase is expected to be complete this month.

“It’s been an honor to work on this project. The most challenging aspect was of course gaining access to the roof,” said T. Jeff Spencer of Stewardship Slate LLC, a Burlington contractor that has been working on the historic restoration since June. 

A red brick building with a clock tower in the background.
The Water Tower in Essex is undergoing restoration. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The company used two 120-foot boom lifts to complete the roof work, which ended up being cheaper than the original plan to erect scaffolding from the ground, he added.

Originally constructed with local Vermont stone at a cost of $19,066, the tower forms a unique gateway to Essex and is the first thing people see when they come into town. It is one of only two such towers in the Northeast — and the one at Sackets Harbor, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, is smaller, according to Gray.

The remainder of the restoration project is expected to cost about $250,000 and will involve fixing the interior, exterior and the metal staircase inside, according to Tom Yandow, facilities manager in Essex.

“Ever since the water tower closed in 2009 to the public, there has been an ongoing endeavor to refurbish it through many years of saving through our capital projects fund, which is where the majority of the money has come from,” he said. 

The capital project fund was started by Dennis Lutz, the former public works director.

While the project is still years away from completion, the organizers hope that one day the public will once again be able climb the 103 circular wooden stairs that go between the water tank and the stone wall to view the scenic Champlain Valley.

The next step is to raise more money to fix the wooden stairs and masonry inside. 

“We’re feeling good about it,” Yandow said. “I think it is a step in the right direction to get the public in there for the expansive scenic views it offers.”

VTDigger's Chittenden County editor.