If you drive down Dakota County Highway 46 east of Rosemount you can't help but notice them and wondering what are those mysterious cement monoliths?
Many KARE 11 viewers have done same.
Jim G. wrote, “What are those large concrete structures off County Road 46 between Coates and Rosemount?”
Thomas I. echoed that thought, writing, “On the south side of Highway 46 in Rosemount are several very large cement structures – what are they?”
Rosemount history buff Gerald Mattson became curious years ago. And now he's become something of an expert.
“We’d drive around and we’d look at all these ruins and it always fascinated me just wondering what went on out here because nobody seemed to know,” Mattson remarked as he led us on a tour of the area, which is part of the University of Minnesota’s U-More Park.
What Mattson discovered is that there’s much more than meets the eye from the highway.
“You look around. You can see the concrete all around here. This place is honeycombed with hundreds and hundreds of ruins and foundations."
The ruins, including the so-called “T walls” on the south side of County 46, are all ghosts of a nation at war.
At the height of World War II Uncle Sam needed more gunpowder. The War Department, as it was called at the time, set its sites on Dakota County and seized 11,000 acres of prime farm land for what was to become the Gopher Ordnance Works.
“It was not a happy time for the farmers,” explained Mattson. “Some of these people were given less than six weeks from the time they first told them they had to be off the property until they were out.”
Mattson, who heads the Rosemount Historical Society and is a member of the Dakota County Historical Society’s board, co-wrote a book detailing the history of the plant.
He says that as the sprawling plant took shape in 1943 Rosemount became a “boom” town in more ways than one.
“Sixteen thousand construction workers moved in here temporarily,” he explained, “They made chicken coops into houses. Trailer parks sprang up and schools were overloaded. The people were coming and going constantly.”
The plant, at full capacity, was supposed to employ nearly 3,000 production workers, but recruiting wasn’t easy. With much of the labor force already working in the defense industry, others away at war and many locals busy producing food to feed the military, the Army and plant operator DuPont ran large 'help wanted' ads in local papers.
“If you can run a vacuum cleaner,” reads the cutline in one 1945 ad featuring a female employee, “You can do my war job at Gopher.”
The first three production lines were completed in 1943, only to be idled because six other powder plants had already met the demand. Then in late 1944 the government ordered production at Gopher to resume and the construction of three more lines.
“They got into production about six months before the end of the war,” Mattson told us as we walked through the ruins, “And this gunpowder was going for Navy artillery shells.”
More than 60 years later Gerald Mattson, a retired Northwest Airlines mechanic, has made it his personal mission to piece together the puzzle of the ordnance works ruins.
“And as you went up the stacks,” Mattson said pointing at one of the huge smoke stacks left behind, “If you look here, these were doorways and these were walkways into the stacks.”
The smoke stacks you can see from U.S. Highway 52 and County Hwy 46 were part of huge powerhouses that heated boiling water for the gunpowder.
“They were huge boiling factories to make boiling water. Millions and millions of gallons of boiling water.”
The “T” walls that made our viewers curious were part of solvent recovery houses that, according to Gerald’s research, were used to recover diethyl ether and ethanol from the so-called “green” gunpowder. The process was highly volatile and the concrete walls were blast barriers to restrict the impact of any explosions.
“If an explosion occurred in one side the blast would go out two sides and straight up,” Mattson explained, “But the concrete wall would protect the man working next door and the men in the building behind him.”
Speaking of explosions, one almost comical safety feature in some of the buildings was a system of spring loaded doors and escape chutes.
“So you run through the doors at a dead run, burst through the doors, jump on these slides and slide down,” said Mattson. He conceded it wouldn’t help someone much in a real explosion.
“I think the slides were more of a confidence booster for the workers.”
Beyond co-authoring a book and producing a documentary about the ordnance works, Gerald also crafted a large three-dimensional diorama detailing all 858 buildings. Working with blue prints and old photos Mattson replicated the layout of the operation as it appeared at peak production in early 1945.
It was a thirsty place. Mattson led us to one of two cavernous concrete reservoirs. It’s now a canvass for budding graffiti artists, but it was designed to hold a million gallons of water pumped in from the Mississippi.
Victory for America and the Allies in World War II spelled the end of the Gopher Ordnance Works. Soon after V-J Day half of the work force was laid off and the other half began the process of shutting down the works. In fact the second powerhouse, for the second set of three production lines, was even finished yet when construction was halted.
By 1947 the Army had deeded the land to the University which turned it into an agriculture and horticulture research park, now known as U-More Park. The plant made the news recently when the U of M agreed to give the State 2,800 acres of U-More Park as part of the football stadium deal at the Capitol. It’s important to note the footprint of the old gunpowder plant lies north of the section of land being turned over to the State.
The ruins will likely remain as a vivid reminder of the most pivotal time in the 20th Century, or simply evoke the curiosity of those who drive down County 46. Mattson says there are both historical and practical reasons that the U of M won’t clear the concrete away any time soon.
“Number one because it’s history,” says Mattson, “Number two because of the amount of concrete in here that would have to be taken out. The cost would just be horrendous.”
By John Croman, KARE 11 News
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