Nicollet Tower: 96 steps to a three-state view

by Austin Kaus on August 12, 2014 · 0 comments

“You need to go to Nicollet Tower.”

That’s what a friend said when I took over this position, so I headed north last weekend to see exactly what this tower was all about.

WHY SHOULD I GO?: What it’s about is beauty and history. The tower’s namesake was Joseph N. Nicollet. Nicollet (prounounced “nico-lay”) was a talented French professor and astronomer who left his home country after being passed over for academic honors and going broke. (For a full history, please click here.) He came to this area with “the bold but informed plan of mapping the great valley of the Mississippi River” even though he was 52 by the time he ended up at the spot where the tower stands today. From 1836 to 1839, Nicollet explored areas of what is now North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. (For a map of his expeditions, click here.) Sadly, Nicollet died before his report to the Senate could be published or a tower would be erected in his honor.

However, a Sisseton banker named Harold L. Torness became enamored with the story of Nicollet and spearheaded a $335,000 fund-raising campaign to build the tower that has stood since its completion in 1992. Seven people provided all of the funding for the tower. Not a dime came from federal, state or county funds.

When I arrived shortly after 8 a.m., I was immediately sold on the entire project. The Douglas fir pillars held aloft a magnificent wooden structure built with bolts and steel. No nails. (For more on the construction materials, click here.)

Only 96 steps and a couple of very surprised pigeons later (look, pigeons, I wasn’t expecting you either), I was at the top. The view was stunning. From the top floor of the tower, you can gaze out over portions of South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. The view captures three states, six counties, 11 communities and the Continental Divide. The beauty of the view, though, makes it hard to think about borders.

There’s a certain peace that comes from being alone with a beautiful South Dakota view. This one is no exception. The various shades of green of the trees and grass provided a landscape that almost shifted before your very eyes. The sounds of a babbling brook near the tower made the scene all the more serene.

So, my friend was right. I did need to go to Nicollet Tower. I hope you can do the same.

HOW DO I GET THERE?: You can find the tower by taking Exit 232 off of Interstate 29 and then driving west through Sisseton on Highway 10.

WHAT DOES IT COST?: There is no admission charge for the tower or the Interpretive Center.

WHEN CAN I GO?: The Interpretive Center is open mid-May through mid-October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. The tower is open for ascent from sunrise to sunset.

ANYTHING ELSE I NEED TO KNOW?: As I said before, I surprised the feathers off of some pigeons as I rounded the last flight of stairs. Another friend that had visited the tower said his arrival to the top floor accidentally ruffled the feathers of a rather unimpressed and annoyed owl. Be aware that you might be surprising some birds if you’re the first up the stairs for the day. It’s a great view. Can you blame the birds for wanting a piece of it?

BONUS EXPLORATION: That brook I mentioned? It’s easily accessible by vehicle or foot. Instead of turning left into the tower’s parking lot, continue on the entry road. You’ll be taken down to a bridge where a shallow creek gently runs over naturally-scattered rocks. The road is nearly one lane, so you’ll want to be cautious about where you park/walk. Still, the trip is an easy and worthwhile addition to your visit to the tower.

For a more in-depth addition to your trip, head over to Sica Hollow State Park. It’s a beautiful park with a fascinating history that deserves its own blog entry. (Spoiler: Native Americans saw the gurgling reddish bogs as the blood and flesh of their ancestors.)

For more information on the Joseph N. Nicollet Tower and Interpretive Center, head over to the official web page here.

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