Brainerd's most famous water tower doesn't hold a drop of water. Yet visitors and city residents who've grown fond of the odd-looking tower at Washington and Sixth streets hold many years' worth of memories of the unmistakable, white, structure.
The all-concrete landmark has been dry since 1960 but still towers above the intersection of Highways 210 and 371. The tower is 129 feet tall from its crown-like top to the ground level where the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce office wraps around the structure like a Christmas tree skirt.
Since 1919, when construction was begun on the water tower, it's drawn appreciative looks from passers-by and has long been used as a reference point for bewildered tourists. Along the way, the water tower has become as ubiquitous an icon for Brainerd as Paul Bunyan, who sits about a mile to the west. The tower is incorporated into Brainerd's logo and is seen on both the city's letterhead and on its squad cars. The tower has even been linked to the famous lumberjack's lore, having been described at one time or another as Bunyan's flashlight, his golf tee or a hitching post for Babe the Blue Ox.
Two Brainerd Dispatch staffers recently had the chance to climb the 170 or so stairs of the tower's interior stairway that lead to a fenced-in ledge which encircles the tower.
Today, the former First National Bank building still stands but the large windows are gone. The Ransford Hotel and the Iron Exchange buildings are now parking lots. (Dispatch Photo by Nels Norquist)
While Cliff Waltz, senior engineering technician for the city, seemed to take the climb in stride, Brainerd Dispatch photographer Nels Norquist and I were both visibly winded when we reached the top of the winding interior stairway. Norquist, laden with a heavy camera bag, at least had an excuse to be short of breath.
There was a collective gulp that could be heard when Waltz explained the next part of our climb involved stepping out of a window onto an outside stairway that led up to the enclosed ledge.
Our destination was a narrow observation ledge that was surrounded by a concrete railing, 90 feet above the ground.
Brainerd's landmark water tower stands at 129 feet tall. It has not held water since 1960. (Dispatch Photo by Nels Norquist)
Ninety feet may not sound very high but think of 30 yards on a football field. Ninety feet is high enough that when brisk winds are snapping the three flags at the top of the tower and you're climbing a narrow, outside stairway you don't spend any time gazing at the scenery.
The time to appreciate the view came later, when Waltz led us to the enclosed ledge that surrounds the tower. Once there I clutched the chest-high concrete railing as a baby would grasp his security blanket. After a few deep breaths we were ready to look around.
The view was as breath-taking as the climb. It was the ultimate "big picture" look at Brainerd with familiar landmarks in every direction.
The former Nash Finch building (right), then the Brainerd Grocery Co. wholesale grocers building and now known as First Impression printing, 401 Front St., remains a landmark. In the lower left, the former Brainerd opera house, 509 Front St., was once a popular downtown destination. (Photo courtesy of Crow Wing County Historical Society)
To the northeast were the church steps my bride and I scampered down one cold November night after exchanging wedding vows. The hospital where my daughter was born overlooks north Brainerd's Gregory Park and classic homes that date back to the 1800s.
The once-bustling railroad yards stretched out to the east, a sign of the industry which first put Brainerd on the map. In the same direction, the functioning Brainerd water tower, could be seen looking like a dumpy-looking little brother when compared to the regal perch we enjoyed.
The incessant traffic of South Sixth Street made its north-south trek through downtown. Looking toward the Crow Wing County Courthouse made one think back to the commissioners who wisely preserved the green space that surrounds the All Veterans Memorial between the courthouse and the Brainerd Post Office.
A view from the top of the tower shows some familiar buildings when compared to the early 1920s photograph. The Crow Wing County Courthouse remains a landmark. Today, the North Star Apartments building can be seen standing above the treetops. (Dispatch Photo by Nels Norquist)
Having soaked up the panoramic view of Brainerd there was one more part of the tower to explore before winding our way down. We climbed back inside the tower and Waltz led the way up a 20-foot ladder to a hatch which was at the bottom of the tower's bowl. Looking up as Waltz opened the hatch, a brilliant blue patch of sky and a U.S. flag looked as if it were a view at the end of a long, dark telescope.
Once inside the red, brick-covered bowl that formerly held 300,000 gallons of unfluoridated water, some small signs of deterioration could be seen in the form of chipped bricks. Slightly frayed edges of the flag could also be seen. Waltz said the wind is so stiff at the top of the tower that he or other engineering department employees change flags four times a summer. The flags aren't flown during the winter.
There was one last opportunity available to me on my trip to the top of the tower. Waltz offered to steady a freestanding, 40-foot ladder if I wanted to gingerly peek over the crown-like top of the tower. Darn it all, though, I had just about run out of time and needed to get back to the office. Maybe next time.
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