Grass-roots effort reopens Pequot Lookout Tower
Senior Reporter, Brainerd Dispatch
Once its lofty perch provided an early warning against the destructive force of forest fire.
Now, for those people without a fear of heights, the historic fire tower near Pequot Lakes provides a panoramic view of the fall foliage.
The last few warm sunny days and potent fall color attracted people to make the verticle walk. But it wasn’t long ago the future of the Pequot Lookout Tower was in question. On June 30, 2011, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) closed the tower and constructed a chain-link fence around it with a locked gate. The public access was in limbo. But a grass-roots effort with Save Our Fire Tower Today or SOFT-T brought together volunteers to retain the tower.
Rod Nelson, Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association board member, took a lead role in bringing people together to reopen the tower. Recently Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede noted fellow Commissioner Doug Houge was part of the effort by donation of wood materials to help refurbish the tower.
Their efforts paid off.
DNR Forestry representatives checked the work and agreed to reopen the tower to the public this fall. The SOFT-T group is still working on several projects and is welcoming volunteers for cab level railings, pathway steps, refurbishing other accessory structures, weatherproofing of a tower history display and general site cleanup.
And the Pequot Lakes Area Historical Society established a separate account for those interested in supporting the project financially.
The tower is a link to the days when the high perches and watchful eyes of foresters dotted the landscape. Now it remains a silent sentinel. Those who make the trek up are looking for the view and colorful leaves instead of telltale smoke. Their hearts pump from the climb instead of the adrenaline of a front-line warning system to save homes and lives.
The tower, just east of Pequot Lakes on County Road 11, reportedly played a valuable role in fighting a large fire in the area in 1958.
The tower is owned by the state and managed by the DNR’s management resources division. The Pequot Lakes fire tower was constructed in 1934-35 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal put three million young men to work across the nation during the Great Depression. The Minnesota DNR reports most of its fire lookouts were constructed as part of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act of the 1930s.
“It was said that at one time, there was a fire tower every eight square miles in the northern counties of the state,” the DNR reported, adding the towers were used during World War II to spot airplanes. The towers were often constructed on a rolling hill and some were as high as 130 feet with cupola style cabs on steel girders. Early fire watchers climbed a vertical rung ladder without a safety cage. The DNR notes there was little in terms of creature comfort in the “crow’s nest.” The Pequot tower has a 7 foot by 7 foot cab atop the tower. The DNR noted the towers’ taper design made them strong and wind resistant.
“The fire towers that remain today are glimpses into Minnesota’s past, but in many parts of the northeastern United States, the ‘urban wild land interface’ problems are resurrecting the value of these older lookouts,” the DNR reported. “Many have been restored through private initiatives and community spirited projects for use by the public.”
The Forest Fire Lookout Association provides more information on lookouts across the country at www.firelookout.org as does firetower.org with the National Historic Lookout Register (NHLR), which includes the Pequot Lookout Tower with an elevation of 1,334 feet is the state’s second listing on the registry. For more information go to NHLR.org or firelookouts.net, or www.paulbunyan.net/mnfiretower/ or paulbunyanscenicbyway.org.