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Scott Canon, The Kansas City Star (McClatchy Newspapers), Published January 05 2010

North Dakota loses claim to world's tallest structure

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Stack these in your brain: The greatest of the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument.

Pile a half-dozen basketball goals on top and you’ll stand level with the wire, girders, electronics and chutzpah that for a generation has constituted the KVLY-TV tower in eastern North Dakota.

And you would reach only to second place.

With the topping off of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai this week, North Dakota’s 2,063-foot-high Plains monument to Huntley and Brinkley, Carson and McMahon, and Sam and Diane unceremoniously became only the second-tallest man-made structure on the planet.

“Well,” said Doug Jenson, the chief engineer of the NBC affiliate that operates the tower, “what are you going to do?”

The tower was built in 1963 as the only way to send out the TV signal long distances in a region that makes Kansas look like the land of vertigo. There are no tall buildings and no mountains on which to mount a broadcast antenna, so the TV folks brought a mountain of steel to North Dakota.

At the time, it was ballyhooed as a space-age marvel of engineering and sheer size. Piercing the sky about 10 miles south of Mayville, N.D. – the closest hamlet of any real size – it broadcast a signal that bridged Fargo and Grand Forks. It feeds television to just 240,000 households, but it covers an area 1,000 square miles larger than the combination of Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“People came from quite a long ways to see it,” Jenson said.

And why not? An elevator that doesn’t even reach the top takes 20 minutes to reach its zenith. A baseball dropped from the top of the tower would reach the ground in only slightly less time than it takes to air a Tide commercial. If the thing were plopped in the Grand Canyon, it would still peek 563 feet over the rim.

But the novelty faded. Another tower was erected five miles away that was just 3 feet shorter. About a decade after the KVLY tower was erected, a TV tower in Poland eclipsed its height by more than 100 feet.

North Dakota reclaimed its bragging right of tallest again in the 1990s, when the Polish structure tumbled down. So when the Dubai behemoth stretched up to a purported (the precise altitude is still to be verified) 2,684 feet, news stories made what was to many readers the first mention that the North Dakota folks ever held the tallest title.

And Jenson concedes a TV tower just doesn’t capture the public imagination the way an office building can.

“Besides,” he said, “once you get over 100 feet, it all seems like a long way down.”