Tower's Historic Fire Hall

Sustaining Membership Drive

The Tower-Soudan Historical Society is moving ahead with plans to preserve the historic old fire hall located at 504 Main Street.  The building, which is the oldest public building north of Duluth, housed the 1891 horse-drawn steam fire pumper James Tippet while in service at the turn of the 20th century.   According to the National Register Nomination it is “the oldest community fire hall on the Iron Range.”  A $258,000 grant request to the Minnesota Historical Society Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund has been submitted for Phase 1 of the historic restoration project.

Community support is a requirement of all grant funding agencies. It’s important to note that TSHS is working with Architectural Resources Inc on the construction documents and scope of work of the overall project which will be restored over at least 3 phases of work.  Phase 1 includes stabilizing the building with foundation, roof, doors, and window repairs/restoration; and exterior masonry repair/restoration. Total estimated cost is $281,000. This phase will weather-proof the building and keep it safe from further deterioration.

Phase 2 focuses on interior masonry repairs and restoration with an estimated cost of $130,000.  Phase 3 estimated cost of $267,000 will modify the heating and ventilation system and bring the electrical system to current State code standards, build out toilet rooms and frame a utility room, improve lighting, and repair the metal ceiling. 

It’s important to take steps to preserve the building which has been vacant for more than 8 years.  Planning began in June 2014 when officers of the TSHS met with IRRR legislators to assess their interest in assisting TSHS with the purchase of the building.  IRRR recognized the importance of historic buildings and their significance to the fabric of a community and transfer of understanding of the stories of the past to future generations. 

Minnesota Historical Society awarded a grant to TSHS to commission a building acquisition feasibility study which was completed in August 2015.  With the assistance of the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) the building was purchased by TSHS in December 2015.  Architectural Resources Inc of Hibbing completed the construction documents and scope of work in 2017.  Approval of the documents by Minnesota Historical Society was made in April 2018.  Minnesota Historical Society awarded TSHS funds from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to complete this important pre-construction work.  IRRR provided Culture and Tourism funding support for this project as well.


Sustaining Membership

Project phases will be completed depending on the amount of funding awarded by the Minnesota Historical Society and as other funds become available. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation require support of the communities served by the project. Therefore TSHS is launching a Sustaining Membership drive to demonstrate to the funders the community support for the historic fire hall construction phases, as well as its maintenance. What does it mean to be a Sustaining Member? Becoming a sustainer means your annual pledge will automatically roll over every year. Pledges of any monetary size can be made for any period of years that you choose.  Our TSHS goal is to achieve 5 year pledges to support the restoration of the historic fire hall.


National Register of Historic Places

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of historic properties recognized by the Federal Government as worthy of preservation for their significance in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. The National Register was created in 1966 and is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our significant historic places under the provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Park Service provides oversight for the program under the Secretary of the Interior.

The Tower fire hall was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 17, 1980. Its significance for placement on the Register includes architectural, community planning, politics/government and social/humanitarian areas. The building, built in 1895, also housed the city hall, and town jail. This masonry structure includes a dug 30,000 gallon cistern in the basement. The cistern was used for storing water for firefighting before the municipal water supply was built. The building was also used as the Tower City Hall and jail until 1935. The building housed the fire hall until 1965 when a new fire hall was constructed. 

Many will remember the building as the “Rec Building” when it was used during the 1960’s and 1970’s as a community space for Brownie and Cub Scout meeting, Girl Scout and Boy Scout meetings, teen dances, birthday parties, dance lessons, Home Craft meetings, rummage sales, Women’s Club and Rebekah meetings, and much more.  


Tower Soudan Historical Society

Founded in 1963, the Tower-Soudan Historical Society was established as a community-based nonprofit after a steam locomotive 1218 with tender and railway passenger Coach 81 were gifted to the City of Tower in July 1962 by the Duluth  Missabe and Iron Range Railway Company (DM&IR).

Mrs. Theresa Jeffrey was the organizer and visionary for an organization that would focus on preserving the rich history of the Tower-Soudan and Lake Vermilion region.

Our mission: “The Purpose of the Tower-Soudan Historical Society shall be the collection, preservation and dissemination of knowledge about the history and the prehistory of the Tower-Soudan area and to relate it to the history of the State of Minnesota”


TSHS has also been an integral preservation resource seeking to keep the area’s history “alive and accessible.” TSHS with support from the Saint Louis County Historical Society and through membership contributions and private donations operates The Depot Museum and Historical Center. TSHS is housed in the Tower Depot, which was built in 1915, on an acre of land at the city’s western entrance and gateway to Lake Vermilion. The train depot and the passenger car Coach 81 were later donated to the city by the DM&IR. U.S. Steel donated the Man Car, which was used at Minntac to transport miners to their worksites in the early years. The Caboose was purchased by the city in 2001. Since 1963 the TSHS had occupied the historic train Coach 81 as its museum site. In 2006 the museum collection was moved into the adjacent depot facility when the city and TSHS entered into a lease agreement for use of the train depot as a museum and historical center.

The train depot and train cars are owned by the city. An original homesteader’s cabin is located on the historical center grounds. The depot museum holds an irreplaceable collection of significant artifacts, photos, and documents tied to pioneer exploration and mining, logging, early settler and Native American settlements, and Minnesota history relating to the Tower-Soudan and Lake Vermilion area.


The Tippet Steam Fire Engine

In 1891, after a series of dangerous fires, City of Tower officials decided to purchase a modern fire engine built by the Ahrens Manufacturing Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio. Named after an early Tower resident and politician, Steam Fire Engine James Tippet, was delivered in 1892 and served Tower and surrounding areas until retirement in 1928. 

Steam Fire Engine James Tippet was coal or wood fired and operated at 50-90 psi steam pressure using a double cylinder vertical engine and pump design made of gun metal which was considered state of the art in its time. The steam engine driven pump could produce a constant flow of water at more than 600 gallons per minute with a throw of nearly 200 feet .  Tippet weighs around 8000 pounds and was pulled by a team of two horses which were hired on-call along with a teamster driver from a local livery stable. On arrival at the fire, the teamster would lead the horses away while the Engineer would tend the engine and pump and a Stoker would shovel coal into the furnace of the boiler.

Steam Fire Engine James Tippet was first housed in a wood shed which also held the city offices and jail until the building was destroyed in a disastrous fire. During this fire, jail occupants were pressed into duty to push the James Tippet into the street, thus saving the engine from the flames.  In 1894, city officials started to build a modern brick fireproof building to house all municipal departments. It was completed in 1895.

 A 30,000 gallon cistern was dug under the new fire hall building to supply fire extinguishment water for town areas until modern city wells and water mains were installed in the 20th century.  Water from area rivers or lakes could also be used in rural areas.  Although a hose cart accompanied the engine to fires ladders were most likely supplied by building owners. 


When a water system was extended to Tower in 1928 there was no further need for the steam pumper and it was retired.  It was displayed under a shelter for a number of years in the 1950’s but due to vandalism was moved to an enclosed storage building in the 1960’s.  The Tippet will again be housed and properly displayed in the fire hall upon completion of the restoration project.


How You Can Help

Anyone – and we hope everyone – who wants to support TSHS fund raising efforts for preservation of the historic fire hall can commit a pledge or send a donation   When you commit as a Sustaining Member your membership will automatically continue for the period of time selected unless you wish to change or cancel it.  TSHS is a 501 (c) (3) organization.  All funds will be dedicated to the historic fire hall restoration.  Some funds will serve as the cash match to larger grant requests as required by our funding agencies. 

Do you have questions or wish to get a pledge card?  Please contact any board member:  President Doug Workman, Vice-President Nancy Larson, Secretary Linda Erspamer Folstad, Treasurer Diane Meehan; Board member Cookie Bonicatto, Corrine Kotzian Hill, Mary Shedd, Desirae Larson, Barb Burgess, and Pauline Housenga.  You may also call the Tower-Soudan Historical Society office at 218-753-5021.

Check out the TSHS website at   A Pay Pal option for donations is coming very soon!   Pledges can be mailed to Tower-Soudan Historical Society, PO Box 465, Tower, MN 55790.  Your ongoing support of any amount will be appreciated.