The Elba Fire Tower has stood sentry for more than 70 years above the Whitewater River valley, visible for miles atop the southeastern Minnesota bluff land. It’s still a lofty symbol of vigilance and public protection of a fragile landscape. But today, this landmark is mostly there to be climbed.
For kids, this delicate spindle that soars above the surrounding wooded bluffs is ideal for a race to the top. For adults, the Elba Fire Tower is a 772-step program for whatever ails you. Weary of being bound to the ground? Tired of looking up at your surroundings? Haven’t had your breath taken away in a while? A climb to the top of this National Historic Lookout is the antidote.
The view is stupendous, encompassing hardwood-forested bluffs splashed with ever-changing colors spring through fall, farmland stretching to the horizon, and flashes of several branches of the Whitewater as they snake toward their confluence at Elba. Below, the town of 152 people resembles a train set, its key features the red roof of Mauer Bros. Tavern and its counterpoint, the massive, red brick St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
The tower, managed by the Minnesota DNR, is one of the few surviving fire lookouts that were once common across Minnesota. But its purpose was different from most. Instead of providing early detection of wild forest fires, the Elba tower was built so that officials could spot fires purposely set by farmers trying to clear the steep hills for grazing. Long-term conservation efforts put an end to that practice, and planes became a better way of spotting fires anyway, so the tower was abandoned. In fact, the tower was a target for demolition about 20 years ago, when the Elba Booster Club launched an effort to save it. It received $73,000 from the Legislature, with extra funds coming from the sale of the steps up the bluff. (People can still buy one and have their name or a message inscribed for $100 through the Elba Booster Club: 1-507-932-4538).
Thousands of people make the no-cost climb every year, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
A stairway of sturdy railroad ties, built by participants in Winona County’s Sentencing to Service program, curves through the thick woods up the bluff, with benches for resting at steps 147 and 490. The stairway offers its own grand views through the trees northward along the river, but you’re not at the bluff top until you’ve cleared step 637. And that only brings you, after a short walk on a flat dirt path, to the base of the tower itself.
Here’s where kids, who’ve spent large portions of their lives joyously not in contact with the ground, leave the adults behind, dashing up the nine switchback flights of steps to the tiny lookout house at the top. Adults, after reading the signs warning people not to climb in rainy or windy weather and not to have more than six people in the lookout, will mostly grab both metal handrails tightly, try to ignore the structure’s squeaks and rattles, and slowly ascend. Best to look only at the step in front of you, not the surrounding scenery through the gaps between treads, and certainly not up the stairway.
You’ll get there, 135 stairs up. And when you do, it will make a sparkling spring afternoon, a summer sunset or a full moonrise into a well-earned reward.
“Scary!” said Samantha Carlson of Rochester, who had just climbed to the lookout one afternoon last September with Jeff Cummings of Rochester, both for the first time. Both noted that the tower was sturdier than it looks (and sounds), and Cummings, who had just moved to Minnesota from the Dolomite mountain region of Europe, said he’d be coming back with friends.
Indeed, the tower is one of many diversions in Minnesota’s southeastern foot, from trout fishing and turkey hunting to hiking, biking and canoeing. But even if a short day trip is all you can manage, the Elba Fire Tower can help you slip the surly bonds of Earth.
Bill McAuliffe is a retired Star Tribune reporter.