From 1991 to 2010, nearly two decades, the tallest structure on Earth was located somewhere north of Fargo, North Dakota. You may not know this, but there’s no reason you should because nobody really cared. The world didn’t care and America didn’t care and Fargo didn’t care. Maybe the only people who were concerned were the newscasters of KVLY TV who appreciated that their TV mast could broadcast their signal over such a long range, and the members of the federal agencies that decided that no American building should go higher than its peak.
When people talk about the tallest structures in the world, they usually want to talk about towers. The Petronases, the CN, the Sears, the Tokyo. They are massive freestanding skyscrapers, and they impress people. The KVLY-TV mast is supported by guywires, which means it impresses nobody. The KVLY-TV mast is approximately the height of the Chrysler Building stacked atop the Chrysler Building. The Chrysler Building was once the tallest structure on Earth, but hasn’t been since 1931. If the KVLY-TV mast were laid down on its side, it would take Usain Bolt over a minute to run from end to end. He is the fastest man in the world. The KVLY-TV mast was once the tallest structure in the world, but it no longer is. Burj Khalifa now stands nearly 700 feet higher. It cost 3,000 times as much money and took 73 times longer to build. It is a tower and people are impressed.
If you drive near Fargo on Interstate 94, maybe on your way to the Twin Cities or maybe on your way away from them, you might remember that the KVLY-TV mast lies in the distance. If you don’t remember it’s out there, you won’t get a chance to see it. There aren’t any signs leading you in the direction of America’s tallest building. There aren’t any billboards. You can’t see it from Fargo, 50 miles to the south. If you take a detour up north on Interstate 29, it will eventually creep into view, but you may not realize that you’re seeing the tallest structure in the western hemisphere. When you exit the highway to get closer, you will wander aimlessly through the corn fields, and you may end up in a census-designated place called Blanchard. It is 4 miles to the east of the KVLY-TV mast. It is home to 26 people. There are approximately 9 streets. If you ask the people in Blanchard for directions to the KVLY-TV mast, they may not be able to help you. They may not understand why you’d even ask. The residents of Blanchard are not proud of the KVLY-TV mast, although they are probably not ashamed of it either.
If you are excited when you finally find the driveway to the KVLY-TV mast, you may end up disappointed. It is a short dirt road, most notable for the fact that its presence on a map slightly interrupts the grid of North Dakota farmland. When you turn your car into the driveway, you will receive no fanfare. You may fear that the farmer whose land surrounds the tower will chase you away, pitchfork in hand. It is an unfounded fear. You’ll park your car at the base of the tower. The base is a small unmanned concrete structure. There is not a gift shop. You cannot buy a decorative spoon or a shot glass with a drawing of the KVLY-TV mast. A small plaque over the door lists the call signal, the nearby cities, a phone number with a North Dakota area code, the height of the mast, and the year it was built. The significance of the height is not mentioned. If you had stumbled upon the KVLY-TV mast by chance, and if you were not already well-versed in the heights of supertall structures, you may not know that the words “2063’ TOWER” had any importance.
Seeing the full height of the KVLY-TV mast is impressive, but not as much as you might hope it to be. It is so narrow that you’ll have no context for height by the time your eyes reach the top. If you take photographs, they will make it look no different from any other transmission mast. After a few minutes you will grow bored and you will leave. Driving away, you will notice another transmission mast to the south. It is the KXJB-TV mast. It is 3 feet shorter than the KVLY-TV mast. It is the second tallest structure in North America. It is of no interest to anybody.
When you arrive where you were headed, maybe to the Twin Cities or maybe away from them, you may want to tell people what you saw. Most people will not be interested, and fewer will be impressed. You’ll think that perhaps some day you’ll take your children to see the KVLY-TV mast. They’ll be bored as you drive dozens of hours and thousands of miles from some east coast city just to see Fargo, North Dakota’s least beloved tourist attraction. You will rack your brain trying to find the location again. They will cry “are we there yet?” and even when you arrive they will not believe that they are there, because they will not believe that you took them so far for something that they are so unimpressed by. You will remember the day that you saw it the first time. You will be middle-aged and you will take a moment to silently reminisce about your youth, and your children will not care.
But before that day, you will pass by Fargo again, incidentally. You’ll think about the KVLY-TV mast as you drive east or west on Interstate 94, but you won’t be able to see it. Even if you could, you wouldn’t recognize the narrow, faraway line for what it is. This time, you won’t stop driving.