“For good or ill, Shoreview is known as the home of the TV towers,” former Shoreview Mayor Bill Ferrell told the late, great Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer in the early 1990s. “Even the pine trees on Shoreview’s official logo are mistaken for TV towers.”
Sure enough, Shoreview’s official logo remains a grove of pine trees. It’s the sort of logo you find on water towers in a lot of suburbs and smaller towns. In fact, Shoreview’s official logo does grace the local water tower. But no one notices Shoreview’s water tower, because it is, like everything else in Shoreview and the surrounding communities, dwarfed by three 1,400-plus foot aerial FM radio and television towers located nearby.
Mayor Ferrell’s comments are colored by ambiguity, and perhaps understandably so, as the towers do have a tragic history – more on that later. But still, the ambiguity strikes me as interesting. After all, every single town, municipality and village in the entire metro area, without exception, has pine trees. There is only one town, however, with three towers that are each roughly the same height as the IDS tower stacked on top of the Wells Fargo Center, and that town is Shoreview. That seems to me a lot more spectacular than a grove of pine trees.
The three aerial FM radio and television towers are just north along I-694 in Shoreview, the suburb just north of Arden Hills and Roseville on the St. Paul side of the Twin Cities. Telefarm Towers are the pair to the west, and KMSP Tower is to the east. They’re about 1,400 feet each – KMSP reaches 30 feet higher than the Telefarm Towers. These three structures are taller than any other object in the metro area. From the early 1970s through the late ’90s, in fact, when KXLI built a taller broadcast tower in Big Lake to broadcast infomercials and religious programming, these three towers were the tallest objects in the state. You can see them from miles away, slowly materializing out of the ozone when you travel toward them on I-35W or 694 on a clear day, and the red safety lights pulsing through clouds or fog or the night sky. They’re used by a wide variety of radio and television stations in the metro area, including KMSP-TV, KQRS, and Cities 97 at the KMSP Tower, and WCCO, KSTP and KARE at the Telefarm Towers. Maybe in terms of aesthetic attractiveness they fall short of something like the Fernsehturm Stuttgart, the famed red-and-white German television tower that became a beloved local symbol and tourist attraction for the city. After all, the Shoreview towers don’t have public observation decks or cafes on the top, and only phone booth-sized elevators that are emphatically not publicly accessible.
These towers do cut quite a figure on the landscape, however, and like any bravura feat of engineering, they deserve to be seen up close.
Telefarm Towers and KMSP – collectively known in the local vernacular as “the Shoreview towers” – are about a mile apart, and you could almost walk from one to the other along a network of public/private trails. Almost, but not quite. Between the two sites there is a stretch of private residential areas that prevent Gramsie Road from connecting both. The Telefarm Towers sit on a block of private land that nonetheless has a few trails that look like they get a little bit of use from nearby residents. Maybe their dogs really enjoy the radio frequency emissions. KMSP sits right in the middle of a county park, and, in fact, one set of guy wires that hold it aloft terminate on a jetty in the middle of a marshy lake.
Both towers house squat, quasi-brutalist ’70s-era buildings underneath, and the property in each case is surrounded by barbed wire fences and posted warnings against trespassing. For that matter, a number of signs also caution that RADIO FREQUENCY (RF) EMISSIONS may exceed FCC Uncontrolled General Population exposure limits. “Some parts of the human body (e.g., eyes, testicles) may be harmed if exposed to incident radiation levels significantly in excess of the recommended levels,” reads the FCC guide on the subject. So you’ve been warned.
But the towers are so massive that they must be held in place by complex systems of guy wires that stream down from all points on the tower, for hundreds of feet beyond the footprint of the tower. This is the part that should be seen up-close to really appreciate the scale. Though the tower bases themselves are quite compact, considering the size, the guy wires soar over your head, and are themselves supported by secondary and tertiary systems of wires, a perfect balanced system of tension that makes it possible for the towers to rise so high. These wires are invisible from a distance, but close-up, they create a cross-section of taut diagonal lines cutting across one another against the sky. The effect is almost musical, like an enormous stringed instrument.
Of the two, the surrounding area around KMSP is the more pleasant (or at least pedestrian-friendly), situated as it is within the boundaries of Vadnais-Snail Lakes Regional Park, a part of the Ramsey County parks system. The trails leads right up to and past the tower, and though the immediate area under the tower is fenced in, most of the area underneath the wires around the tower is publicly accessible. On a weekend afternoon, you can find a few families making the walk around the base, with probably a few eager future broadcasters in tow.
There’s no historical interpretation near either tower, which is a little odd, because Telefarm Towers is the site of a notable disaster in the state’s history. On the morning of September 7, 1971, while being constructed, the tower suddenly collapsed – “bent like spaghetti,” according to eyewitnesses. Six workers – many of them from Oklahoma and brought in by the contractor to work on the project – fell to their deaths, while a seventh was killed on the ground. A number of other workers and WCCO engineers on the ground barely escaped.
The cause was never definitively established, but the city of Shoreview was cleared of offense. After the new towers were built, Mayor Ferrell made a trip to the top himself (rosary in hand) to personally demonstrate the sturdiness of the new towers. In his conversation with Don Boxmeyer, Ferrell mentions that the tower disaster is still associated with Shoreview in the course of everyday conversation. No doubt it’s still discussed in the community, 45 years later. Currently, there is no memorial to the deaths on the site – or, in fact, signage of any kind.
Since the towers loom so large in the community – both physically but also historically – I thought for sure that, despite the lack of any representation of the towers on the Shoreview logo, a depiction must turn up in a few places. In fact, it does. Most notably, the Trader Joe’s on the other side of I-694 has not one but two murals inside depicting Telefarm Towers. By the customer service desk, an employee created a three-dimensional wall-mounted sculpture of the towers, bloop-bloop-blooping radio frequencies from high atop them to the entire metro area.
A quick trip to the Shoreview City Hall and Community Center revealed a few others. In the lobby of the Community Center, an uncredited framed photograph depicts the Telefarm Towers at nightfall, red and white against a deep blue sky.
The other notable depiction is in a display case for the SESCA, or the Shoreview-Einhausen Sister Cities Association. The seal of the organization depicts a shield split diagonally – on the lower portion is a drawing of the City Hall in Einhausen, Germany, with a rooster on top. On the Shoreview side is a placid lake with a loon, ringed by a forest. Peaking up over the tree line is, yep, the two Shoreview Towers. As a graphic representation of Shoreview, it’s vastly superior to the logo on the water tower.
There are quite a few artifacts from Einhausen around the City Hall and Community Center complex, including a sculpture of Einhausen’s old City Hall, a pleasant-looking medieval building. What physical representations of their community, I wondered, have the people of Shoreview sent to the people of Einhausen?
At least a few pictures of the Shoreview Towers, one would hope. After all, it’s just a quick, hour-and-a-half trip up the Bergstrasse and the Rhine River from Einhausen to Stuttgart and the Fernsehturm Stuttgart. The people of southern Germany must appreciate an attractive television tower.
Special thanks to Dr. Andy Droel for his assistance.