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Brainerd historic water tower represents city

Brainerd’s historic water tower was built over a four-year period from 1919 to 1922. The iconic structure near the downtown area has come to represent Brainerd even though it is not used to hold water anymore and it is in disrepair with ongoing efforts to save the landmark structure.

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A red sun caused by smoky haze starts to set Friday, July 30, behind the historic Brainerd water tower. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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Brainerd’s historic water tower is unmistakable to those who have seen it, and the landmark’s connection to the city of Brainerd and its past is undeniable.

The historic water tower, which celebrated its 100th birthday in December 2020, sits on the corner of Washington and Sixth streets in downtown Brainerd. The structure has become a city icon, welcoming passersby to Brainerd and representing the city on its official seal.

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A chalk water tower celebrates Brainerd's 150th anniversary Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, during the Sesquicentennial Bash at Gregory Park in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Among the state's more than 1,400 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, there are at least 11 water towers, “nominated to the list because of their engineering, public-works, architectural and community-planning significance,” according to author Marilyn Ziebarth.

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Brainerd's tower was erected after World War I and was one of the first constructed with poured-in-place concrete, according to Ziebarth, and it was built to the design specifications of St. Paul engineer L. P. Wolff. It served continuously until 1958.

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Lightning illuminates the sky beyond the historic Brainerd water tower Friday, July 17, 2020, as a line of strong thunderstorms moved across the state. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

“The 141-foot, 300,000-gallon edifice, erected next to the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks in conjunction with a new water-pumping station and wells, made Brainerd's system one of the most modern and efficient of its time,” Ziebarth wrote.

Back in 2018, the city council set aside $300,000 for the tower — the cost estimated to tear it down if funds couldn’t be raised to save it.

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“We’ve raised about $67,000, plus we’ve got some grants,” said Paul Skogen, chair of the Save the Historic Brainerd Water Tower Committee. “We're trying to get it over $100,000 for our purposes, and then the grant is with the city of Brainerd for $161,000, plus or minus.”

The committee was originally given two years — until October 2020 — to raise the money to fund what was thought at the time to be $1.6-$3 million worth of renovations.

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The estimated price tag of adding a synthetic rubber roof and catch basin for drainage, along with restoring the windows and steel staircase, tuckpointing the brick around the windows and relocating the flagpoles, is $324,086.

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“It was the first all-concrete elevated tank used by a municipality in the United States. It came to be widely known from being pictured on postcards, maps and letterheads,” according to the “Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).”

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The tower served until 1959 when a new 1,000,000-gallon tank was constructed at a cost of about $175,000, according to the publication. It was drained in 1960.

“The base was poured and the scaffolding built for the bowl in two months, from mid-August to mid-October of 1919. The bowl was poured the following spring, and stuccoing applied that summer,” according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society.

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Historic Brainerd water tower Wednesday, April 8, 2020, at sunset. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Ziebarth wrote, “Pipestone's water tower is a near twin of Brainerd's … and it remains an important feature of the town skyline.”

The Pipestone water tower was constructed in 1920 and was also designed by Wolff, the engineer behind Brainerd’s water tower, according to Ziebarth, and the Pipestone water tower was 140 feet tall, had a capacity of 150,000 gallons and served continuously until 1973.

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The city council began talking about the tower’s future in 2018, a discussion prompted by large chunks of stucco falling to the ground. A small piece of fallen stucco that symbolizes its need for repairs was included in a time capsule, which is planned to be opened on Brainerd’s 300th anniversary.

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The larger-than-life manmade landmark has been dubbed “Paul Bunyan’s flashlight” by some because of its resemblance to the illuminating handheld device, while others have voiced their concern that it is a safety hazard and think it’s an eyesore.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Related Topics: HISTORYBRAINERD HISTORY
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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