Investigators are still unsure what sparked the fire in Crossville, Tennessee
It took about 15 minutes for the world’s largest treehouse—a 97-foot-tall wooden structure in Crossville, Tennessee, to be reduced to a pile of ash. The building was built in the early ’90s by Harold Burgess, who said in an interview that he had been called by God to raise the framework: “If you build a tree house, you’ll never run out of material.” And so he did. Over the next two decades, the attraction known as the Minister’s Treehouse was built with rough lumber, much of it donated by the community. The house was supported by an 80-foot white oak tree and stretched up to five stories to include 80 rooms, including classrooms, bedrooms, and a kitchen. A snaking staircase linked the floors, and in true Southern tradition, there was a large wraparound porch. The interiors married quirkiness with spirituality, showcasing an intricately carved pulpit with wooden pews, a towering cross, and a hand-carved Bible. Below the structure was a manicured lawn, with the word “JESUS” spelled out. The treehouse served as a gathering place, since it hosted church services, and as a popular tourist attraction.
In 2012 state fire marshals shut down tourism at the treehouse, citing that the building did not have a load distribution system, had uneven flooring and fall hazards, exceeded code, and lacked a registered design professional, among other violations. Burgess obliged with a sign that read, “Closed by the state fire marshall. File your complaints with them.”
Derek Carter, a captain at the Cumberland County Fire Department, was on the scene when local police officers called in to report the fire. “It was basically a pile of rubble when we pulled up. The fire was so intense we had to park 500 yards away,” says Carter. He estimated that the structure took 15 minutes to burn and firefighters contained it upon arrival.
Macy Leatherwood is from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and took a family vacation to Cumberland Mountain State Park in December of 2018. “The highlight of the trip was the Minister’s Treehouse—it was so huge and so unique,” says Leatherwood. She could only see the house from the fence but still got a beautiful view, and was devastated to hear the news about the fire—especially because it was destroyed so quickly after a man spent years building it. “It will definitely be a cherished memory of a family trip, and I’ll never forget that treehouse.”
Captain Carter also visited the treehouse as a tourist before it was closed to the public, and while he was off-duty at the time, he said it was clear that the structure was “a deathtrap.” He concluded, “It was very cool, but also very dangerous.”