When the U.S. Military bombed the bogs of Minnesota

Troop firing at targets over the bog, 1949
A photograph taken in 1949 from a tower in the bog shows members of the 216th Anti-Aircraft Artillery firing batteries at air targets.
Courtesy of Minnesota National Guard

For decades, the history of a military weapons range in northern Minnesota remained hidden to all but a select few who lived nearby. Between the outset of World War II in 1941 and 1958, the Big Bog, also known as the Red Lake Peatland, was used to practice artillery, aerial bombing, anti-aircraft fire and even test experimental triggers for inert nuclear bombs.

Doug Easthouse, the DNR's Park Manager of the Big Bog State Recreation Area and two other state parks in northwestern Minnesota, researched why the bog was bombed and wrote about it in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

The Big Bog encompasses approximately 500 square miles, or 320,000 acres. Easthouse oversees has about 9,000 of those acres and that part of the bog features a boardwalk that can be hiked to get a sense of the bog. Ecologically, the bog is an important reservoir for fresh water for Minnesotans and is home to plenty of wildlife. The southern edge of much of the bog is the north shore of Red Lake.

A bomb crater lake
Craters like this one in the Red Lake peatland piqued Doug Easthouse's curiosity about how they got there.
Courtesy of Minnesota DNR | Erika Rowe

Eastman set upon this uncommon history of the bog by a conversation with two researchers who had been studying the ecosystem of the bog since the 1970s. They told him of Hillman Lake, and told him that they "deduced that a meteorite might have created the lake", but instead of finding evidence of a meteorite, they found a piece of bomb casing.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

In the process of uncovering the history of that bomb casing, Eastman rediscovered the hidden history of nearly 20 years of military activity at what was called the Upper Red Lake Firing Range. He found that during the years that the range was in operation each branch of the military used the bog. National Guard units practiced shooting down planes by taking aim at drones towed by crewed Air Force bombers. The Navy practiced dropping inert bombs into the bog, and the nation's nuclear forces found the cold conditions to be perfect for some unconventional tests.

The cold and harsh winter conditions of the bog mirrored those of Cold War targets in Russian so it was where they tested non-nuclear parts of nuclear weapons. These cold weather tests for barometric triggers for nuclear weapons that set off non-nuclear versions of the bombs that weighed nearly 11,000 pounds at a height of 3,000 feet above the frozen bog landscape. These detonations were visible across northwestern Minnesota, even being noted in Bemidji.

Anna Gibbs
Anna Gibbs, Red Lake Nation elder
Tom Weber | MPR News

While Easthouse says he never found any documentation of anyone being injured or killed by these bombing in the bog, those few who lived in the nearby Red Lake Nation were close enough to feel the effects.

They were bombing, our house used to shake and the windows used to go to pieces.

Anna Gibbs is an elder on the Red Lake Reservation, who grew up in this area of bombing just north of where the tribal nation's main communities stand along the lake's shores. Her story is documented in last year's book "Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe," a history of Red Lake written by Bemidji State professor Anton Treuer.

The bombing she recalls happened when Anna was about nine or so years old. "[When] they were bombing, our house used to shake and the windows used to go to pieces. They were busted. I ran outside; I saw the trees shaking and the birds flying away somewhere."

Gibbs' family lived at Ponemah Point, a spot where Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake meet, and an important area for the Red Lake Nation.

Gibbs also pointed out that the bombing affected fishing on Red Lake, the primary source of income and work for the Red Lake people. While the areas directly bombed were uninhabited, the effect of the bombing was far more widespread affecting the people who lived nearest to those areas.

Doug Easthouse noted that people at the time didn't know just how important and unique the bog is. This lack of understanding led to some unconventional actions being taken to transform the landscape.

Doug Easthouse
Doug Easthouse, manager of the Big Bog State Recreation Area, with an inert bomb.
Courtesy of Minnesota DNR

"A lot of the bombs that the Navy was using were inert, practice bombs. So they dropped thousands of them out there, but basically remnants are sheet metal and cast iron casings. The biggest effect the Reserve bombing had was a cooperative project with the Conservation Department at the time," said Eastman.

In a project that might seem unimaginable today, the state helped create habitat for moose by dropping bombs. From 1949 to 1951, the Reserves dropped about 50 live bombs in order to create a break in the boggy peat on the surface of the water so moose could have an area with fewer annoying bugs around them.

Some of those bomb-created "lakes" have since grown back over with peat, but some 16 remain, like Hillman Lake, where those researchers first found the bomb that led to Easthouse's research.