The Spite Towers of Irish Hills

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Standing atop a small knoll along the highway between Detroit and Chicago, the Twin Towers of Irish Hills in Lenawee County, in Southeast Michigan, was a beacon to weary travellers when it opened in 1924. The top of the towers are 1,400 feet above sea level, making them the highest point in southeastern Michigan. On a clear day visitors can see for seven miles around the beautiful green Irish hills and its many surrounding lakes.

The towers have an interesting history. In the early 1920s, a new outfit called the Michigan Observation Company was erecting 50-foot tall towers all around the state in order to boost tourism. It came to Irish Hills in 1924, and seeking to erect a similar tower in a high ground property next to the highway, it approached the property owner, a man named Ed Kelley, with an offer. But Ed Kelley wasn’t interested in commercializing his property, so he refused.

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Photo credit: Notorious4life/Wikimedia

The determined company contacted Kelly's next-door neighbor, Edward Brighton, who owned the adjacent hill. Brighton agreed to the deal, and within months a fifty-foot tall wooden structure with a twenty-four feet square base was erected, just six feet away from Ed Kelley’s property. The observation tower opened with a gala celebration. During its first weekend more than 1,200 visitors ascended the stairs to enjoy the stunning views of the rolling landscape.

Ed Kelly was not pleased. To get even with the Michigan Observation Company, Kelly decided to build an almost identical tower on his own property just twelve feet away from the opposing structure. Only, his tower would be taller. The new tower went up in less than sixty days, and it was ten feet taller than the original.

The Michigan Observation Company responded by adding a second observation platform on top of their existing tower, raising its overall height to 64 feet. The company also named their tower “The Original Irish Hills Tower.” Mr. Kelly, not to be outdone, made his four feet taller bringing both towers to level. At this point, the Michigan Observation Company made it clear to Kelly that if he kept up the competition, they would demolish their wooden tower and erect a tower out of steel so large that Kelly’s efforts would be for naught. This ended the vertical one-upmanship. Instead, both started finding ways to bring visitors to their respective attraction.

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The Michigan Observation Company with its superior resources had the advantage. Within a few years, they added a pet zoo with alligators and a half-dozen monkeys, an arcade, picnic grounds, a gas station, a large restaurant, and a golf course. Gradually, a little community developed around the twin towers. A bus station opened, and by 1929 up to 52 buses a day stopped at the site, allowing travellers to climb the observatories, use the rest rooms and grab a quick lunch.

Despite the success, the Michigan Observation Company decided to exit the business in 1947 and sold the original tower to Frank Lamping. Mr. Lamping tried to acquire the second tower from Mr. Kelly, but once again Kelly rebuffed Lamping’s offer. Mr. Lamping eventually did manage to buy Kelly’s tower, but only from Ed Kelly's heirs. He then connected both structures at the base, making them into one unit.

The towers continued to attract customers until the summer of 2000, when it was closed to the public due to lack of patronage. The towers were intended for demolition, but thanks to a fundraising effort by the owners, the twin towers are now undergoing repairs.

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Photo credit: erika dot net/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Sometimes-Interesting / Lighthouse Digest

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