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.

hide

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,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

 

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

Minnesota’s Great Hinckley Fire of September 1894 had warned of the size, intensity and speed that drought-parched forests can incinerate, particularly when loggers leave vast slash piles and other debris in their wake.

More than 400 people died in that conflagration, including apparently, for the trivia-minded, Thomas P. “Boston’’ Corbett, the Union soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

Not many years later, forest fires in Idaho, Montana and Washington consumed 3 million acres of virgin timber, killing 85 people.

In response, by the late 1930s, more than 5,000 fire towers had been built nationwide.

In Minnesota, the towers replaced “tree lookouts’’ that were little more than boards placed high atop pines or other tall trees that offered critical vantage points. And fire towers here generally were more statuesque than those in Western states, where shorter lookouts could be erected on mountaintops and other lofty vantage points.

“Also, towers out West often had beds in them and some sort of small living quarters,’’ said David Quam of Bemidji, who has been fascinated since childhood with fire towers. “In Minnesota, a cabin often sat at the base of the tower, or near it, where lookouts lived when they weren’t watching for fires.’’

Refining fire-finding

Tinder dry as northern Minnesota is now, the region’s most dangerous fire season usually is spring.

That’s when snow melts, leaving a vast landscape of dry grass beneath bare-limbed trees; conditions that are ripe for fire, particularly on hot, windy days with low humidity.

In peak fire seasons, DNR and Forest Service pilots, and contract pilots, often crisscross the northern part of the state, looking for fires and using precise Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to report smoke or flames.

More primitively, a century ago, tower lookouts in some parts of the country reported fires in Morse code, using a heliograph, a device that reflects sunlight in two mirrors.

Later, two-way radios were used.

But spotting fires was only part of a lookout’s job: Pinpointing their locations also was important. Aiding that effort in 1911 was an invention by William Bushnell “Bush’’ Osborne Jr., a young Forest Service employee stationed in Oregon.

Osborne’s brainchild, an alidade — or Osborne Firefinder, as it also came to be known — allowed lookouts to determine exact compass readings of smoke detected from their towers.

Continually refined by Osborne over the next 25 years, the invention remains the most widely used fire plotting instrument in the world, according to the Forest Service.

“In Minnesota, when we had a lot of towers Up North, lookouts in three different towers could sometimes spot the same fire and, working together, triangulate its exact location,’’ said Curt Cogan, DNR forestry enforcement coordinator stationed in Brainerd.

“Today, with everyone having cellphones, most of our fire detection comes from the public,’’ Cogan said. “Even the aircraft part of fire surveillance isn’t used as much as it was even five years ago. Flying aircraft is expensive, and oftentimes we hear of fires from the public even before pilots report them.’’

In at least a handful of Western states, where cellphone reception can be problematic in mountainous areas — decreasing the chance citizens can report fires — cameras and high-tech smoke-recognition software are being employed, further reducing the need for human lookouts.

In some of those states, writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Norman Maclean once served as lookouts, perhaps scanning the horizon as much for inspiration as smoke.

Now, courtesy the Forest Service, vacationers can “camp out’’ in some of the same towers, reducing to mere playtime what once was critically important, a not uncommon American tradition itself worthy of literature.

Yet whatever the number of remaining smoke spotters, and wherever their stations, they’ll likely work 1,000 fire seasons before encountering what Karoline Monson encountered at the top of her tower:

A bear.

“I hollered to God,’’ she said.

 

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424

 







 

  • 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.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Tennessee 7 1st Qtr 4:00
Jacksonville 0
Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
New York 28 2nd Qtr 8:30
Chicago 36
New Orleans 12 1st Qtr 4:31
Houston 12
Milwaukee 9:00 PM
Sacramento
Oklahoma City 9:30 PM
Golden State
Florida 1 3rd Prd
Philadelphia 1
Colorado 0 3rd Prd 19:32
Pittsburgh 0
Toronto 1 3rd Prd
Carolina 2
Washington 2 3rd Prd
Columbus 2
Anaheim 1 2nd Prd
Montreal 0
St. Louis 9:30 PM
Los Angeles
Edmonton 9:30 PM
San Jose
St Thomas (TX) 61 FINAL
Rice 72
Stony Brook 48 2nd Half 2:31
Canisius 46
Temple 82 FINAL
Delaware 62
FIU 58 FINAL
Long Island 69
Lehigh 65 FINAL
Quinnipiac 80
South Alabama 54 FINAL
Richmond 65
Seton Hall 85 2nd Half 3:35
South Florida 61
Ga Southern 76 FINAL
Stetson 67
Yale 57 FINAL
Vermont 56
Cleveland State 54 FINAL
Virginia 70
Wright State 69 FINAL
Western Carolina 56
Nicholls 40 2nd Half 11:40
Louisiana Tech 60
Morgan State 31 2nd Half 12:11
Rider 44
Idaho State 45 2nd Half 8:30
South Dakota St 45
Oakland City 16 2nd Half
Austin Peay 35
Eureka 26 2nd Half
Bradley 43
Appalachian St 32 2nd Half
Charlotte 27
Connecticut 25 1st Half 0:20
Duke 30
Southern Miss 14 1st Half 4:13
Jackson State 33
Coastal Carolina 41 2nd Half
Ole Miss 28
Montana State 15 1st Half 10:23
South Dakota 15
LSU 8:00 PM
UAB
Ohio 8:05 PM
Evansville
CS-Dominguez 9:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Walla Walla 9:00 PM
Idaho
DePaul 9:00 PM
Oregon State
Nevada 9:00 PM
Pacific
Portland State 9:00 PM
San Francisco
CS-Bakersfield 9:05 PM
Utah State
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Niagara 76 FINAL
Cleveland State 58
High Point 59 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 81
Towson 64 FINAL
Wake Forest 74
Presbyterian 50 FINAL
Charlotte 66
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Bradley 59
Northwestern Coll 58 FINAL
Drake 102
Vanderbilt 67 FINAL
Marquette 80
Temple 78 FINAL
Howard 48
Southern Miss 66 FINAL
Ole Miss 68
UMBC 55 FINAL
Rider 67
Miami-Florida 74 FINAL
UCLA 67
St Mary-KS 51 FINAL
South Dakota 115
William & Mary 71 FINAL
Wofford 51
Troy 82 FINAL
Evansville 94
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
USC 96
St Francis-PA 52 FINAL
Duquesne 92
Indiana-Southeast 45 FINAL
IUPUI 95
Delaware State 52 FINAL
Detroit 74
Tenn Temple 48 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 68
West Virginia St 58 FINAL
Radford 52
Fairfield 47 FINAL
Seton Hall 79
Dartmouth 44 FINAL
New Hampshire 60
Ball State 47 FINAL
Pittsburgh 59
Trine 45 FINAL
Western Mich 81
Jacksonville 59 2nd Half 1:14
Tennessee St 62
Tenn Tech 38 2nd Half 8:23
Lipscomb 46
Samford 9 1st Half 9:39
Tulane 11
New Orleans 21 2nd Half
Tulsa 35
Incarnate Word 26 2nd Half
TX-Pan American 28
Ark-Little Rock 15 2nd Half
South Dakota St 29
CS-Northridge 11 1st Half 11:14
Northern Ariz 18
Santa Clara 8:00 PM
Oregon
(19) Oklahoma St 8:00 PM
Weber State
Washington 8:00 PM
San Diego State
Cal Poly 8:00 PM
New Mexico
(10) Louisville 8:00 PM
Grand Canyon
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close