A little over a week ago, PAM blog staple Kate Scott wrote a piece on forest fire lookout towers. This led us to two thoughts. First, “it’s some great writing on an interesting topic, so we should repost it.” Done!
I’ve recently become sort of enamored with forest fire lookout towers. Scattered in state and national forests and parks (and sometimes elsewhere) throughout the country, these structures are a unique resource type. They also point to a particular phase in the conservation movement in the U.S., and many fire lookout towers were built during the Great Depression by members of the CCC.
Weeks State Park Fire Tower, Lancaster, NH / High Knob Fire Tower, Pike County, PA
Although frequently fairly utilitarian and simple in nature, fire lookout towers come in many shapes and sizes, and numerous towers were built with a distinctive style. The Crane Flat(1931) and Henness Ridge (1939) towers, both located in Yosemite, are two examples of towers built in the National Park Service Rustic style. The Weeks State Park Lookout Tower (1912, pictured above) in New Hampshire is an interesting variation.
As aerial reconnaissance and other methods of spotting fires became more effective, many towers became obsolete and have fallen into disrepair. If you’re interested in learning more about fire loookout towers, check out the Forest Fire Lookout Association (FFLA). The FFLA is a membership-based organization that works to document and collect histories on towers across the country. And for a listing of historic lookouts, head here.
Second thought: “There have to be some fire lookout towers in Minnesota.” There are! Thanks to sites like this, we can confidently say there are a good number of fire lookout towers still standing in our state. And just as Kate said, sources note that “most of Minnesota’s forestry fire lookouts were constructed during the era of the 3 C’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps.”
But there was a third thought, and while it involved towers, it had little to do with preventing forest fires. Instead, it dealt with a much rarer breed of tower: the airway beacon.
Airway beacons were essentially lighthouses for airplanes. At one point in our history, hundreds of airway beacons lit up the sky to guide pilots to airstrips, but advances in GPS and other technology has long rendered them obsolete. Still, high above the Mississippi River, in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul, sits the Indian Mounds Park Airway Beacon. It’s one of the last of its kind.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Built in 1929, St. Paul’s airway beacon was used to guide mail to the Twin Cities’ other airport, Holman Field (which itself has a WPA-era administration building on the National Register of Historic Places.) It stands 110 feet tall, and was refurbished in the 1990’s — through a joint effort by groups including the FAA, State Historic Preservation Office, City of St. Paul and Indian Affairs Council. Along with a few towers in Montana, St. Paul’s airway guide appears to be a rare survivor of a forgotten era.
Fortunately, we’ve kept it around, and much like its forest fire sisters, it’s a great piece of Depression Era technology still towering above the trees.
Update: Tom Kremer, of Bemidji, saw this blog post and provided some well-deserved context on Minnesota’s remaining fire lookout towers:
“Minnesota indeed has fire lookout towers, but the state sells and removes about one a year. There are several of us active in researching and recording the remaining standing towers and historical towers in Minnesota. I think the fire tower would make an interesting preservation project. There are 5 state parks with towers, a few towers in private hands, and several reservation towers. The state claims about 48 standing towers in various states of disrepair.”
In addition to clearing that up, Mr. Kremer also provided a few links to help to learn more about our fire tower history, and hopefully help preserve these interesting — and historically valuable — structures.