Fort Snelling buildings listed among most endangered

Department of the Dakota
This 1879 building is the former headquarters of the Army's Department of the Dakota. Administrators working here oversaw 20 forts as far west as Yellowstone Park.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

Being selected as one of the "most endangered" in any category would seem to be a dubious distinction, one that recognizes both value worth protecting and the threat of impending doom.

The director of the Minnesota Historical Society, Nina Archabal, focused on the sunshine instead of the gloom as she spoke of Fort Snelling's Upper Post, and the status newly bestowed upon it by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Nina Archabal
Minnesota Historical Society director spoke of the historic significance of the buildings on Fort Snelling's Upper Bluff.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

"Today's announcement by the National Trust will galvanize support for preserving the Fort Snelling Upper Post," Archabal declared. "This designation as one of America's most threatened historic places puts the spotlight on both the plight and the promise of the Upper Post. This is not an impossible dream."

Archabal recalled that a half century ago highway construction threatened to obliterate the oldest part of Fort Snelling. Minnesotans rallied behind the Fort, though, and the Historical Society now operates it as a popular tourist attraction, reconstructed to give visitors a glimpse of life in the fur trading days well before Minnesota was even a territory.

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But while it's always 1827 inside the Fort, the area around it has a more recent history -- one that is suggested by a ghost town of stately old buildings, sitting silently behind chain link fences amid the highways and airport runways, soccer fields and marshlands that surround the area.

These barracks sit opposite the homes of officers on Taylor Ave., which was nicknamed "Officers' Row."
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

The Upper Bluff covers 140 acres and includes 28 buildings in varying states of disrepair. Research historian Steven Osman knows them all, including an elegant but forlorn structure that he says was the headquarters of the Army's Department of the Dakota.

"The clock tower has all the original works in it," says Osman as he faces the tower. "It is exactly like the way it was built in the early 1880s. And this building oversaw operations for several states and territories, all the way out to Yellowstone Park."

The officer training, supplies, and administration for a string of 20 forts originated from Fort Snelling's Upper Bluff. By the 1880s the Twin Cities had become a hub of river and rail transportation, sometimes called the gateway to the Northwest.

Over the years, the Upper Bluff was home to cavalry, artillery, and infantry units. Its hospital was used after World War I to help wounded veterans rehabilitate, physically and psychologically.

Broken windows
Water damage is causing the condition of these former barracks to deteriorate.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

Most of the Minnesotans who served in World War II stayed in the barracks here during the week or so that it took to complete their physical exams and paperwork.

Through it all, Fort Snelling had a reputation within the military as one of the most coveted assignments. Osman says its inhabitants enjoyed a quality of life that earned it the nickname "the country club of the Army."

"There were the best sporting fields of anywhere in the country," Osman says. "There was an officer's hunt club down below. There were trollies to both cities. And the cities were so much nicer than most of the cities around southern military posts. This was a very nice post to get assigned to."

After World War II, though, the Army gradually abandoned the buildings on the Upper Bluff. The acreage was turned over to Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources, which operates the state park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

In bad shape
This building was once nicknamed "The Incubator" because soldiers' wives living there were prone to pregnancy. Of the Upper Bluff's 28 buildings, it is the least likely to be reborn.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

But the buildings on the Upper Bluff have seen no maintenance in recent years and have fallen into decay.

The DNR's director of Parks and Recreation, Courtland Nelson, says saving more than two dozen historic structures is a bigger project than his agency can tackle.

"The county or a local agency is much better suited to do that than DNR," Nelson says. "We have 600-some historic buildings and facilities in our state park system. But we tend to take those on one at a time. We're not capable of taking on this kind of a challenge."

Hennepin County has taken an interest in the Upper Bluff, and has assigned crews of inmates from its Sentenced To Serve program to work under the supervision of carpenters on boarding up broken windows and leaking roofs.

Airport proximity
Consultants say the Upper Bluff's location next to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is a factor in possible re-uses. The noise could drive some developers away, but others may be attracted to the site's transportation options.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin says officials hope to find a comprehensive re-use for the site, one that can incorporate most or all the buildings. A firm hired to update a 1998 re-use study lists a conference center, an educational campus, and a hotel complex as possibilities.

The DNR's Nelson says there's no shortage of enthusiasm for preserving the buildings of the Upper Bluff. He hopes that the passion for the area can soon be mobilized behind a vision for its future.

"We have our eyes set on a solution that has yet to become clear," he says. "But we think we have all of the parts moving and all of the gears engaged. And we hope that in the near future we will be able to roll out to you a solution to this problem that we all face."

The Upper Bluff is among 11 sites named to the National Trusts's endangered list. Several of the others are areas of New Orleans that were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.