Elk River water tower advances in quest for historic designation

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

A 92-year-old water tower in Elk River is a big step closer to being named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Elk River's water tower at Jackson and Fourth was built in 1920.

The State Review Board voted unanimously Tuesday, March 27, to move the nomination forward.

“These are great small-town icons. They’re fantastic,” Bob Claybaugh said of the Elk River water tower. Claybaugh is a historic architect who chairs the State Review Board.

The water tower is located at Jackson Avenue and Fourth Street near downtown Elk River.

With the State Review Board vote, the water tower nomination now goes to deputy state historic preservation officer, Barbara Mitchell Howard.

“Should she agree the nomination meets the criteria and the nomination is in proper form, she will sign the nomination and forward it to the National Register office in Washington, D.C., where it again will be reviewed,” Claybaugh said. The process is lengthy, but designed to subject each property to rigorous evaluation, he said.

The State Review Board had voted on the water tower nomination during a meeting at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul after hearing a recap of the water tower’s history from Denis Gardner. Gardner is the National Register historian for the state of Minnesota.

Five letters of support were also read. They were from Elk River Heritage Preservation Commission Chair Lance Lindberg, Elk River Mayor John Dietz, Sherburne County Historical Society Executive Director Michael Brubaker, Joshua Fox of the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River and Erin Hanafin Berg of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

Hanafin Berg noted that the Preservation Alliance had named the Elk River water tower one of the 10 most endangered historic places in Minnesota in 2011. “We are extremely pleased to see that the community has pursued National Register designation,” she wrote.

The water tower is owned by the city of Elk River and was nominated for the National Register by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission.

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of America’s historic places.

A sign near the chamber office alerts motorists that they are entering historic downtown Elk River. The water tower is visible in the background.

Gardner said the water tower was built in 1920 by the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Co.

“The elevated tank is what is known as a hemispherical bottom, a name derived from its design which includes a half-globe-shaped bottom,” he said.

The design was common from the 1890s to about 1940, he said.

The water tower was part of an effort to protect Elk River from fire.

The village of Elk River was incorporated in 1881. Before the water tower was built in 1920, the community relied on a water tank and a length of hose belonging to the Great Northern Railway.

“The Elk River water tower was the community’s response to fire, which devastated the business district in 1898. The town experienced additional fires in 1902, 1903 and 1915,” Gardner said.

Insurance companies threatened to increase fire insurance premiums if the community didn’t install adequate fire protection and, ultimately did raise premiums. That spurred Elk River to update its fire protection system.

Denis Gardner

“The adequate fire protection included the creation of a permanent fire department, including a motorized fire truck, as well as a modern reserve water supply system which is represented by this tower,” Gardner said.

There are five water towers of this type in Minnesota in the National Register, Gardner said. All five are on the Iron Range at Ironton, Trommald, Deerwood, Cuyuna and Crosby. No one knows how many others are left, because no study has been done, he said.

The Elk River water tower is historically significant because it provided a ready reserve of water for protection against fire, Gardner said.

“It is also significant for its engineering, representing a specific type of water tower — the hemispherical bottom — which replaced the earlier flat-bottomed type,” Gardner said.

In his letter of support, Fox of the Kelley Farm said the water tower is a significant link to Elk River’s past.

When the water tower was built in 1920, many buildings were constructed of wood. Lanterns with open flames were commonly used for lighting. The combination often had catastrophic results, and community development was hampered by the fires that often spread throughout the community, Fox wrote.

Construction of the Elk River water tower, and others like it, helped stabilize communities and enable economic progress. Water towers greatly enhanced fire departments’ abilities to quickly put out fires and keep them from spreading.

“When built, it was a great technological leap forward for the community, and today it stands as a landmark in the city of Elk River,” Fox said in his letter.

Gardner said the tower was originally painted silver with a red lid and Elk River in black letters on the side. It was painted with the current logo and color scheme in 1984. A member of the State Review Board wondered if the original color scheme would be re-established.

Rebecca Haug, staff liaison to the Elk River Heritage Preservation Commission, said that has been discussed but it would depend on funding.

Another State Review Board member said of the water tower: “I think it’s particularly important in a place like Elk River that has been a small town, and still is in a lot of ways, but is also growing rapidly. It kind of anchors the community.”

The National Register of Historic Places can include districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects. These places must meet criteria in order to be listed in the National Register.

Since its inception in 1966, more than 80,000 properties have been listed in the National Register.