A Missed Opportunity: The Witch’s Hat Is Closed for Another Year!

The view from Tower Hill -- at the base of the Witch's Hat. Imagine the view form the observation deck above. (Talia Smith)

The view from Tower Hill — at the base of the Witch’s Hat. Imagine the view from the observation deck above. (Talia Smith)

For years my “To Do in Minneapolis” list has included a climb that I have never made. And it’s not something I can do just any old day. We get one evening a year and that’s it. And once again I missed my chance. I wasn’t paying close enough attention that the Prospect Park/Pratt School Ice Cream Social was May 31. The night of that neighborhood party is the one time a year that the Witch’s Hat Tower on Tower Hill Park is open for climbing.

The climb would have been especially gratifying this year because it was the tower’s 100th birthday. The City of Minneapolis built the water tower on the hill, with the park board’s permission, in 1913. As explained before, the park was already named Tower Hill, at the request of neighborhood residents, when the Witch’s Hat water tower was built.

Since my earlier post on the Witch's Hat, I found this stereopticon image of "Cheever's Tower" dated 1858. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Since my earlier post on the Witch’s Hat, I found this stereopticon image of “Cheever’s Tower” dated 1858. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The Witch’s Hat tower was designed by Frederick Cappelen, as noted on a plaque that was put on the tower in 1999. I have a complaint about that plaque.

Cappelen is described on the plaque only as a “Norwegian architect.” Concise, but really misleading. Yes, he was Norwegian by birth, but he had immigrated to the United States at the age of 23 in 1880. He went to work for the City of Minneapolis in 1886 as a bridge engineer and in 1893 was elected Minneapolis’s City Engineer. He left that office in 1899, but was elected City Engineer again in 1913 and held that title until he died of complications from appendicitis in 1921. So, although Norway-born, he lived nearly his entire adult life in Minneapolis and during much of that time was a city employee.

The graceful arch of the bridge was the world's longest concrete span at the time it was completed in 1923. (Mulad)

The graceful arch of the bridge was the world’s longest concrete span at the time it was completed in 1923. (Mulad)

Cappelen’s greatest achievements in Minneapolis had nothing to do with the Witch’s Hat. He was the designer of the Franklin Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi, which was completed after his death. At that time, the bridge was the longest concrete-span bridge in the world, with a central span of 400 feet. The bridge’s official name is F. W. Cappelen Memorial Bridge.

Cappelen was also a key figure in designing the city’s water distribution system from the 1890s into the 1900s. He was so well-known as a bridge designer and a water works designer that his obituary was included in both the Proceedings of the Society of American Civil Engineers and the Journal of the American Water Works Association.

Cappelen was a Public Servant

Here’s my complaint about the plaque. I have no problem with identifying him as a “Norwegian architect” despite the fact that he was as American as everyone else in the city. My problem is with not identifying him as a public employee, as the City Engineer, a description that has far more to do with our memory of him than that he was Norwegian by birth.

The omission of his status as a public employee is part of my larger complaint that too many people praise everything in the private sector and disparage everything and everyone in the public sector. Too many people have such blind reverence for business methods and profit motives that they cannot distinguish between public and private good and the sometimes vastly different challenges involved in each. Some public problems cannot be solved by methods designed to maximize private profits.

I have also witnessed first-hand brilliance, stupidity and sloth in both government and corporate worlds. I have known very successful business people whom I would not trust to walk my dog around the block for fear that they’d screw it up somehow — or sell my dog before they made it back. I have known public employees with whom I would trust my life.

I have no tolerance for people who assume that someone who gets his or her paycheck from a government entity is incompetent and that everyone who works for a profit-making enterprise is more industrious and resourceful.

I have as much tolerance — none — for those who assume the only reason we have parks at all was a conspiracy of capitalists to enrich themselves. This myopic view, in my recent experience, seems particularly prevalent among people writing doctoral dissertations and some of those advising them.

To emerge from our present political quagmire, we have to be better than those extremes.

If there is a valuable lesson in Minneapolis park history it is that a great variety of people, with disparate philosophies and political views, have worked together on issues of the common good and achieved marvelous results. They included “capitalists” who looked beyond self-interest and profit, and they certainly included talented and dedicated public servants — like Frederick William Cappelen, City Engineer.

I’m sorry I missed again a chance to climb the tower he imagined 100 years ago. I’ll have to settle for a walk over his bridge.

David C. Smith

NOTE (6/6/2013): abockheim raises an excellent point in a comment on the post I linked to above about the identity of the tower that led to the naming of Tower Hill. Can anyone shed light?

An illustration of the view from Cheever's Tower in 1857 by Edwin Whitfield from the digital gallery of the New York Public Library.

An illustration of the view from Cheever’s Tower in 1857 by Edwin Whitefield. The lithographer was W. Endicott & Co. (Digital gallery of the New York Public Library.)

Here’s the link to the above illustration. I can’t picture this view from the campus or Tower Hill.

© David C. Smith 2013


6 comments so far

  1. […] by the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. I have already written about the tower here and here and here. Today I’m just providing proof of my climb with photos and a few brief […]

  2. […] people have pointed out my error in the location of Cheever’s Tower in yesterday’s post. No one has yet come up with an explanation of the tower that caused Tower Hill to be given that […]

  3. Connike Sullivan on

    Great picture of the Cheever Tower in 1858! I’m confused, though, about what it’s doing in a piece on Prospect Park’s Witch’s Hat tower. Cheever’s Tower was on the Mississippi River, on University Hill (about where Wulling Hall is today on the U of MN’s East Bank campus). It had disappeared long before Tower Hill was even part of Minneapolis.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Connie, I got a similar comment on the other Tower Hill piece I wrote, which I noted at the bottom of the article. My question then is, what tower was on tower hill. The hill was named that years before the water tower was built. Any ideas?

      • Connie Sullivan on

        David, You can see a remnant of the Whitefield view from Wulling Hall on the East Bank, on the East River Road. Just downriver from the curve where the U’s steam plant used to be, where the bike/pedestrian bridge crosses the river to the West Bank. Best to stand on the river road for the view.

      • David C. Smith on

        Thanks. I’ll try to get over there this weekend.

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