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Round Tower, Fort Snelling

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Color image of the Round Tower at Historic Fort Snelling, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathunder.

The Round Tower at Historic Fort Snelling, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathunder.

The Round Tower has been a symbol for Fort Snelling since its construction in 1820. Though the U.S. Army originally built it as a defensive point for the fort, the tower has served many different functions over its long history.

The Round Tower was built during the initial construction of Fort St. Anthony (later renamed Fort Snelling). It featured limestone walls over twenty-five feet high with musket slits that faced both outside and inside the fort. These could be used to defend against an enemy that breached the fort’s walls and suggest that the tower was designed as a last-ditch point of defense.

The tower’s original flat roof could accommodate mounted cannon for defense. Troops mounted a twelve-pound field-artillery piece during the U.S.–Ho-Chunk War of 1827. The fort, however, was never attacked and its cannons never fired in conflict. In the 1830s the tower’s interior was used for storage. By 1839, the fort’s flagpole had been placed on the tower’s roof.

During the Civil War, the army added a conical roof made of sheet iron to the tower for ordinance storage. Round Tower lore states that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, founder of the Zeppelin airship company, quartered in the Round Tower at Fort Snelling during the war as a German military attaché sent to observe Union Army operations. It is said he launched his first balloon flight from the top of the Round Tower. While Zeppelin claimed to have travelled through St. Paul during this time, there is no evidence to support the connection to the Round Tower.

In 1869, a fire gutted the tower and prompted a restoration of the badly damaged building. The conical roof was removed for an open-air weather deck once again. Embrasures were added to the parapet, giving the tower a crenellated, medieval look, and the musket slits were widened into windows. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, the army used the tower, at times, as a washhouse, guardhouse, prison room, and coal storage room.

In 1904, the post quartermaster covered the tower, which he was using as an office, with stucco. A public outcry over the building’s changed appearance and cracking of the stucco led him to soon remove it.

After World War I, the tower continued to be used as offices and living quarters. It was converted into a family residence by the 1930s and quartered Thomas Marcum, the post electrician whose wife ran a beauty shop there.

The Marcums moved out in 1937 when the post commandant, Brigadier General Campbell B. Hodges, decided to convert the tower into a museum of Minnesota history under the supervision of the Minnesota Historical Society. Marion Snelling Hall, the great-granddaughter of Colonel Josiah Snelling, gave her support for the renovation.

With the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, the Round Tower Museum opened on May 30, 1941. The interior walls featured a mural by Richard Haines. Its panels depicted scenes of American occupation of the region, beginning in 1805. The terrazzo floor contained an inlayed diagram of the fort as it appeared in 1840.

The museum displayed rotating exhibits, including belongings of Josiah Snelling donated by Hall. Hall gave her consent for the remains of Josiah’s daughter Elizabeth, touted as the first white child born in Minnesota, to be moved into a crypt in the wall of the museum. In 1965, Elizabeth was reinterred in the Fort Snelling Chapel.

In a ceremony on June 7, 1946, Governor Edward J. Thye removed a stone from the round tower to be sent to Australia and included in a war memorial building in Brisbane. The Australian government requested stones from each of the forty-eight states to honor American troops.

In 1956, the Minnesota Highway Department proposed building a highway through a part of the old fort site known as the lower post. The highway’s cloverleaf would have encircled the round tower, cutting off access to it. Public concern sparked a successful movement to reroute the highway and restore the lower post. A team of archeologists excavated the Round Tower in 1965 and restored it to its 1820s appearance the following year. It has since stood among the restored and reconstructed buildings of Historic Fort Snelling, run by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Clouse, Robert Alan, and Elizabeth Knudson Steiner. All that Remains: A Study of Historic Structures at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Archeology Department, 1998.

Fridley, Russell. "Fort Snelling from Military Post to Historic Site." Minnesota History 35, no. 4 (Winter 1956):178–192.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/35/v35i04p178-192.pdf

Gilman, Rhoda R. “Zeppelin in Minnesota: A Study in Fact and Fable.” Minnesota History 39, no. 7 (Fall 1965): 278–285.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/39/v39i07p278-285.pdf

Historic Fort Snelling. Round Tower.
http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/plan-visit/what-do/round-tower

Johnson, Loren. “Reconstructing Old Fort Snelling.” Minnesota History 42, no. 3 (Fall 1970): 82–98.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/42/v42i03p082-098.pdf

Nute, Grace Lee. The Fort Snelling Round Tower: An Interpretation of the Richard Haines Murals. MN: N.p., [1941].
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10612137&return=

Osman, Stephen. “A New Flagpole for Historic Fort Snelling.” Minnesota History 60, no. 6 (Summer 2007): 212–217.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/60/v60i06p212-217.pdf

Osman, Stephen. Fort Snelling Then and Now: World War II Years. St. Paul: Friends of Fort Snelling, 2011.

P16
Marion S. Hall and Family Papers, 1807–1962
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers of the great-granddaughter of Josiah Snelling including news clippings and correspondence relating to The Round Tower Museum.

P2394
Fort Snelling Research Materials, 1860–1974 (bulk 1923–1946)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/P2394.xml
Description: Papers related to the history and operation of Fort Snelling compiled by a Minneapolis newspaper reporter, including newspaper clippings relating to the Round Tower Museum.

“Parade to Mark Nisei Exercises: Snelling Graduates Final Class here.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 7, 1946.

“Snelling Stone Removed.” St. Paul Dispatch, June 7, 1946.

“Three Ceremonies Mark State’s Part in War.” Minneapolis Star Journal, June 7, 1946.

United States Department of the Interior, Historic American Buildings Survey Certificates, 1934, 1939
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Certificates and related correspondence issued by the Advisory Committee of the Historic American Buildings Survey concerning the historical and architectural importance of the towers at Fort Snelling.

Related Video

Related Images

Color image of the Round Tower at Historic Fort Snelling, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathunder.
Color image of the Round Tower at Historic Fort Snelling, 2010. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Jonathunder.
Watercolor painting of the interior of Fort Snelling, c.1853. Painting by George F. Fuller.
Watercolor painting of the interior of Fort Snelling, c.1853. Painting by George F. Fuller.
Black and white photograph of an exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.
Black and white photograph of an exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.
Black and white photograph of African American troops and officers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry standing by the Round Tower, c.1887.
Black and white photograph of African American troops and officers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry standing by the Round Tower, c.1887.
Oil painting of Round Tower by moonlight, c.1888.
Oil painting of Round Tower by moonlight, c.1888.
Black and white photograph of the round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of the round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of women with parasols by round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of women with parasols by round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of men and women with parasols standing atop the round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of men and women with parasols standing atop the round tower, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of a reunion of First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, posed in front of Round Tower, 1902.
Black and white photograph of a reunion of First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, posed in front of Round Tower, 1902.
Color scan of a Round Tower postcard, c.1905.
Color scan of a Round Tower postcard, c.1905.
Color scan of a Round Tower postcard, c.1910.
Color scan of a Round Tower postcard, c.1910.
Black and white photograph of the Round Tower covered in vegetation,1915. Photograph by C. J. Hibbard.
Black and white photograph of the Round Tower covered in vegetation,1915. Photograph by C. J. Hibbard.
Black and white photograph of the Round tower covered in vegetation,1935. Photographed by Norton and Peel.
Black and white photograph of the Round tower covered in vegetation,1935. Photographed by Norton and Peel.
Black and white photograph of the round tower, 1936. Photographed by A.F. Raymond.
Black and white photograph of the round tower, 1936. Photographed by A.F. Raymond.
Black and white photograph of Mrs. Thomas Marcum, wife of the post's civilian electrical engineer, seated in her living room in the Round Tower, 1937.
Black and white photograph of Mrs. Thomas Marcum, wife of the post's civilian electrical engineer, seated in her living room in the Round Tower, 1937.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Round Tower Museum, 1941.
Black and white photograph of the interior of the Round Tower Museum, 1941.
Black and white photograph of the he Round Tower covered in vegetation, c.1942. Photographed by Norton and Peel.
Black and white photograph of the he Round Tower covered in vegetation, c.1942. Photographed by Norton and Peel.
Black and white photograph of an archaeological crew and mechanical equipment near the Round Tower, 1958.
Black and white photograph of an archaeological crew and mechanical equipment near the Round Tower, 1958.
Black and white photograph of a crew excavating in the Round Tower at Fort Snelling in preparation for restoration, 1965. Photographed by Terry Garvey.
Black and white photograph of a crew excavating in the Round Tower at Fort Snelling in preparation for restoration, 1965. Photographed by Terry Garvey.
Color image of the restored Historic Fort Snelling. Round Tower, c.2008
Color image of the restored Historic Fort Snelling. Round Tower, c.2008
Color image of restored Historic Fort Snelling, c.2008.
Color image of restored Historic Fort Snelling, c.2008.

Turning Point

In 1937, post commandant, Brigadier General C. B. Hodges begins to convert the Round Tower into a museum, transforming it into a space for public history under the supervision of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Chronology

1820

Colonel Josiah Snelling, Lieutenant Robert McCabe, and the Fifth Infantry Regiment begin construction on what will become Fort Snelling, including the Round Tower as a last-ditch point of defense.

1861

The army adds a conical sheet-iron roof to the tower and uses it to store ordinance.

1869

A fire burns the tower, prompting a renovation that features an open-air roof with embrasures in the parapet and musket slits widened into windows.

1904

The post quartermaster covers the tower with stucco, only to remove it the next year.

Early 1930s

The post electrician Thomas Marcum and his wife use the converted tower as their residence.

1934

The U.S. Department of the Interior certifies the Round Tower as a historic building.

1937

Thomas Marcum and his wife move out of the tower to make way for the conversion of the building into a museum.

1941

The Round Tower Museum opens on May 30 and features artwork and artifacts relating to Fort Snelling and Minnesota history. It closes after the start of World War II and remains closed for most of the war.

1946

Governor Edward J. Thye removes a stone from the Round Tower on June 7 to be included in a war memorial in Brisbane, Australia.

1946

Fort Snelling is decommissioned on October 14.

1956

The Minnesota Highway Department proposes building a new highway through part of the old fort site, which prompts a successful movement to reroute the highway and restore Fort Snelling’s lower post to its 1820s appearance.

1965

Archeologists excavate the Round Tower and surrounding area.

1966

The Minnesota Historical Society restores the tower to its 1820s appearance.