Minnesota’s fire towers: Steel sentinels standing guard over the state’s forests

Fire Towers :: Photo via Minnesota DNR

Once numbering around 150, only a small handful of fire towers remain in Minnesota today // Photo courtesy Minnesota DNR

Autumn travel in the Northland offers an abundance of adventures and breathtaking fall scenery, but few can top the thrill and view of climbing one of the remaining fire towers that once guarded Minnesota’s forests.

Standing at an average of over 100 feet in height, these steel sentinels once numbered around 150 in Minnesota (by the end of their effective era in the mid-1950s, there were over 5,000 forest fire towers across the United States.) Today only a small handful remain standing as testaments to a bygone era of Minnesota.

The main mission of the fire towers, and persons who staffed them, was to act as the first line of defense in detecting and plotting fires in areas under the purview of the United States Forest Service (USFS).

Photograph of Towerman Carl Oyen Sighting Smoke Through Osborne Fire Finder on Skibo Lookout Tower

Fire spotter Carl Oyen sighting smoke through an alidade on Skibo Lookout Tower // Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Towers were staffed during the fire season, from early spring until autumn, by men and women, who each morning climbed to their positions high above the treeline to watch for signs of smoke. Multiple towers were needed across across USFS-managed forests to accurately determine the location of fires. To accomplish this, the fire lookouts utilized an “alidade,” a device made up of a brass sighting mechanism that rotated around a 360-degree map mounted on a pedestal in the center of the fire tower. If smoke was spotted, the lookout would take a reading by aiming the pointer at the smoke and then would call in the heading from the compass rose to the nearest ranger station. As soon as multiple towers had called in their information on a fire, the ranger would triangulate the fire on a fire map and send out ground crews to battle the blaze.

At the peak of the fire tower age, from 1930s until the early 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the majority of the fire towers of which can still be seen and climbed to this day. Established in 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, CCC was a program focused on putting unemployed, single men to work as part of the President’s “New Deal.” The men of the CCC were put to work by the US Forest Service to construct steel fire towers and their service cabins to replace older fire lookouts. These towers were relied upon until the 1950s, when airplanes began to be effectively able to combat and spot forest fires.

Photograph of Fire Guard Raymond Thompson

Fire spotter Raymond Thompson // Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR

However, many inaccessible and remote locations across the United States and Canada still to this day rely upon fire towers and their wardens to detect and warn against forest fires. Many of the decommissioned fire towers still standing have been revitalized as tourist destinations and sightseeing locations offering one-of-a-kind vistas. In the western reaches of the United States tourists can even reserve fire towers as lodging.

St. Croix West Area

St. Croix West Area Tower // Photo by northcentral, CC 2.0

In Northern Minnesota, the list of accessible fire towers include the 100-foot high Aiton Heights Fire Tower at Itasca State Park that has stood since 1940 and can be climbed in groups of six at a time. Near Grand Rapids, the Minnesota Historical Society’s Forest History Center’s 100-foot lookout tower is open daily for climbing and programing on the role of fire rangers from June 11 through Labor Day, as well as Saturdays and Sundays after Labor Day. Additional fire towers can be found at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, Big Bog State Recreation Area just north of Waskish in northwestern Minnesota, and the St. Croix State Park in Hinckley, Minnesota.

Perhaps lesser known but very much worth a visit is the Elba Fire Tower which stands high above Whitewater State Park outside the southeastern Minnesota town of Elba, Minnesota (population 155). From someone who has personally made the journey up every one of the 637 steps from the base of the tower’s hill, and the 135 steps up the actual tower, the view is well worth the climb. Atop the 1933 CCC-constructed tower, the fall panorama, featuring views of the rolling Whitewater River Valley, farmlands with over 250 silos, and Elba’s picturesque St. Aloysius church, rivals that of any fire tower in the state.

Aiton Heights Fire Tower Itasca SP Paul Weimer WEB

The video from Aiton Heights Fire Tower in Itasca State Park // Photo by Paul Weimer courtesy of Minnesota DNR

So when the fall colors roll across the land of sky blue waters, be sure you have a stout head for heights, bring water, and most importantly, your camera whenever you set out to climb these venerable guardians of the forest.


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