Historic Fort Snelling holds out hope for bonding bill

Crowd watches reenactors at Historic Fort Snelling on Independence Day
↓ Advertisement ↓

MINNEAPOLIS -- Historic Fort Snelling pulls in thousands of visitors on Independence Day, and Monday was no exception.

Huge crowds came out to get a taste of life on the prairie outpost circa 1825, and watch reenactments of the Battle of Oak Creek during the War of 1812.

But the place that brings the past to life is also focusing on the future, looking for ways to improve the overall experience of visitors and broaden the mission of the historic site. 

"We’re looking to expand our exhibition spaces, our classrooms, our public program spaces both indoors and outside," Tom Pfannenstiel, the Minnesota Historical Society's site manager for Fort Snelling, told KARE.

↓ Advertisement ↓

"What we're trying to do is make this a more community-centric place, where the community can come out and really take advantage of the opportunities to help us co-create programs, and have input in the programs we're doing."

The Historical Society has developed a $46 million revitalization plan, that would combine $34 million in state bonds with $12 million of private funds. A 1904 cavalry barracks building would be restored into a new visitors center.

The current subterranean visitors center is leaking, needs major air conditioning upgrades and falls short of the Historical Society's vision for the site.

"Underground buildings were the rage at the time, for energy savings. But right now we’re experiencing a lot of water infiltration," Pfannenstiel explained.

He said the master plan also includes a river walk along the perimeter of the fort, which sits on a bluff at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. It would help visitors understand why the United States placed the fort there in the first place.

The $34 million bonding request made it into Gov. Dayton's proposal for 2016, and it was included in the Senate's version of the bonding bill.  It didn't make the cut in the House's version, which was smaller than the Senate's and focused mainly on transportation infrastructure.

A House-Senate compromise version of the bonding bill that failed in the closing minutes of the session excluded the Fort Snelling request.  And at this stage of the game it's not clear whether Gov. Dayton will call lawmakers back to the State Capitol for a special session.

The Historic Fort Snelling part of the bonding bill was authored by Republican Dean Urdahl in the House and Democrat Patricia Torres-Ray in the Senate.

"We received really good bipartisan support as we were talking to legislators, and talking to the bonding committees that visited here," Pfannestiel remarked. "Unfortunately the session ended without any bonding bill."

Fort Snelling touches many chapters in state history, some proud moments and some not so much.

It's where an officer's slave, Dred Scott, met and married his wife Harriet. That was before the US Supreme Court decided that Scott -- although living much of his life in a free state -- could not obtain the status of a full U.S. citizen, and therefore couldn't bring a federal lawsuit asserting his right to remain free.

It's also the spot where hundreds of Dakotah people were detained through the harsh winter of 1862-1863 awaiting deportation to Indian reservations in western states.

Snelling also was the place where US soldiers trained for two different world wars, and it played host to a military intelligence language school where formerly interned Japanese American men trained in the 1940s to assist the war effort.

"I think it would really surprise people if they knew the layers upon layers of history here." Pfannenstiel said.

In fact people with connections to those various element's of the fort's past have recorded web videos under the heading of What Fort Snelling Means to Me on the revitalization project home page. 

"The stories that can be told here can be told nowhere else in this country."