Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Effort to Save the Irish Hills Towers, Part I

Last spring, I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about the Irish Hills Towers; specifically, how the almost-100-year-old structures were in danger of being torn down because of safety concerns. The towers were once a popular tourist attraction in the Irish Hills, a region of southern Michigan so named because the area's rolling green land and sparkling lakes reminded its settlers of their previous homes in the Emerald Isle. The towers closed in 2000, and have since become so structurally unsound that officials in Cambridge Township, where the towers are located, told the Irish Hills Historical Society that the towers would have to come down unless the Society obtained funding by August 1 of this year to repair them.

The Irish Hills Towers

Well, today is September 18, and the towers are still standing. I recently spoke with Kelly Flaherty, vice president of the Irish Hills Historical Society, who gave me an update about the towers' status. My post today will describe the history of the towers; tomorrow, I'll talk about what I learned from Kelly and will offer information about ways Michiganders can help the towers stick around for future generations.

The Irish Hills Towers are two nearly identical wooden observation towers located on U.S. 12 in Lenawee County's Cambridge Township. At 1,400 feet above sea level, the towers' topmost observation decks offered southeastern Michigan's highest vantage point; during the towers' heyday, thousands of people ascended their staircases each year for views of the Irish Hills' spectacular landscape.

The Irish Hills Towers, back in the day

If it hadn't been for a spat between a developer and an area farmer, the Irish Hills would have had only one tower. In the early 1920s, the Michigan Observation Company (MOC) tried to boost tourism across the state by building towers that visitors could climb for panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. The Irish Hills area seemed a prime location, and the company approached a local farmer, Edward Kelley, about selling his hilltop land so that MOC could build a tower on it. Kelley said no, so MOC approached Thomas Brighton, who owned neighboring land. Brighton said yes, and in September 1924, MOC opened a fifty-foot tower on the land it had bought from Brighton, mere feet from Kelley's property line.

Incensed, Kelley built his own tower, on his own property, right next to the MOC tower. For good measure, he made sure the tower was several feet taller than the original. For the next few years, MOC and Kelley got into a battle over whose tower would reign supreme over the Irish Hills landscape, with each side adding a few feet whenever the other side did so. Finally, MOC threatened to replace its tower with a metal observatory; Kelley backed off, and the battle of the ascending towers ceased, with both topping out at 64 feet. (The above photo shows which tower is which; the tower labeled "Original Tower" is the MOC's, while the "Spite Tower"is Kelley's).

The towers operated independently of one another until the 1950s, when a single owner bought the Kelley tower after purchasing the MOC tower in 1944. In 1972, the towers were joined at their tops; they remained in business until 2000, when the current owners ceased operations because the towers' upkeep became too much for them to handle.

Be sure to read tomorrow's installment for information regarding what happened to the Irish Hills Towers after they closed, and what the future holds for them.


  1. I love the Towers. They are a very important part of the Irish Hills and it would be a shame to lose them. Thank you for following this story and hopefully it will encourage others to donate. They are not a lost cause and work has begun to stabilize them. DONATE TODAY.

  2. We have donated! The Towers are an Important sight, and landmark! I hope we SAVE them! They Will attract people to our Irish Hills Area, and surrounding areas! People will spend money which will Help our economy!