Where towers once stood: Remembering Minnesota's majestic fire towers

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2013 - 7:19 PM

Thousands of fire towers once presided over Minnesota’s treetops, especially in the North Country. Today only a fraction remain.

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This vintage photo shows the Chippewa National Forest headquarters in Cass Lake, Minn. Its redwood fire tower was dismantled and removed in the late 1940s, although the original building survives.

Photo: Provided by David Quam,

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Even now, years after her duties as a fire lookout for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have ended and years, too, after most Minnesota fire towers have been abandoned or torn down — yielding to modern fire detection by airplane or cellphone — Karoline Monson can sense the dryness in the air this early fall, the lack of rain, the danger.

And she sometimes misses the days when she climbed the 130 steps of the fire tower that soared 100 feet over Pequot Lakes, Minn., and scanned the forest in all directions, looking for smoke.

Today, the state’s best-known fire tower stands next to the DNR Building at the State Fair, rising atop the midway like a refurbished relic, a curio for fairgoers who frolic on it as if it were a back-yard play set.

But for Monson and the hundreds of other lookouts who once stood guard atop these North Country perches, ever alert for budding infernos, theirs were serious jobs.

“I did it for 15 years,’’ she said.

Remarkably, enveloped in a 7-foot-by-7-foot box for hours on end, Monson never was bored.

Particularly not that day.

“It was the late ’80s, and one morning I climbed the tower steps like I always did, one after another, 130 of them,’’ she said. “When I got to the last four steps, where you open the door to get up into the tower, I laid down my equipment and prepared to climb up …’’

“Which is when I saw the bear. I had no idea how he got up there or what he was going to do to me, but I never came down those steps so fast. I hollered to God that I knew I was going to stumble or that the bear was going to eat me. But when I got to the ground, the bear was still up there.’’

The bruin, it turned out, was a pet of the local police chief.

But the chief was out of town, and the only other person the bear liked was the chief’s pregnant wife.

So, after being more or less deputized and armed with a bagful of the bear’s favorite treats — marshmallows — the mother-to-be lumbered up the 130 steps and coaxed the bear back to earth.

“To this day,’’ Monson said, “I still get asked about the bear in the fire tower.’’

Rise of the fire towers

Nationwide, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association (www.firelookout.org), more than 6,000 fire towers have been dismantled or abandoned, and only about 800 of the country’s remaining 2,500 towers are staffed.

In Minnesota, fire towers at one time stood guard over every 8 square miles of the state’s northland. Today, only a dozen or so remain in use and then only periodically.

Many of the state’s early towers were constructed of wood and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. Later the lookouts were fashioned from steel

  • related content

  • Reaching 65 feet high, and providing excellent views of the fairgrounds, the DNR State Fair fire tower is the best known in the state. Only a dozen or so fire towers remain in Minnesota.

  • If possible, locations of fires spotted from fire towers were triangulated, using sightings from three towers, so that crews could be directed to the fires' exact locations.

  • Also at the fair, this panoramic photo re-created the view from atop a fire tower in northern Minnesota.

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