The State Capitol may be grander and more iconic. But Historic Fort Snelling is arguably Minnesota’s most historically important spot. On the bluff above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Minnesota’s story unfolded, from earliest Dakota habitation through participation in the 20th century’s greatest military dramas.
Visitors to the old fort should encounter that long story. That’s the vision behind the Minnesota Historical Society’s request to the Legislature for $34 million in bond proceeds earmarked for the renewal of the fort in time for its bicentennial in 2020.
It’s a big request for a big project — for the society, it would be second in size only to the construction of its St. Paul headquarters, the Minnesota History Center, in the early 1990s. But legislators’ response ought not be governed by sticker shock. Fort Snelling is worthy of a once-in-a-generation investment, both because of what it has meant in Minnesota’s past and what its renewal offers for the future.
The proposal features a new visitors’ center, replacing the underground, undersized and structurally defective center that opened in 1980. Chronic water seepage has made the existing center unsuitable for reuse. Plans call for it to be removed and for visitors to be welcomed instead in two rehabilitated historic buildings, a circa 1880s munitions building and a large cavalry barracks built in 1909 and vacant since 1988. That change would greatly enlarge exhibit space, while adding a parklike plaza suitable for public gatherings.
More exhibit space would provide the opportunity to tell a bigger story. For decades, the historic fort has been stuck in time — 1827, to be exact — as re-enactors introduce visitors to early Fort Snelling life. That story wouldn’t disappear, planners assure. Visitors would still learn that the round tower is the state’s oldest building and the commanding officer’s quarters its oldest house.
But representation of what came before and after the fort’s first decade would be added. There’s a rich story to tell: the long Dakota ties to the spot and the tragedy of the 1862 Dakota War; the fur trade of the 17th century; the fort’s significance to U.S. westward expansion; the presence of African-American slaves, including Dred Scott, and the contributions to two world wars. Attention would be paid to the fort’s role in diversifying Minnesota’s population, society CEO Stephen Elliott promises. For example, the fort’s use as an intelligence training center for Japanese-American troops during World War II led to the state’s first sizable Japanese-American settlement.
Telling more of Fort Snelling’s story should allow more people to see themselves in Minnesota’s past. That in turn should deepen their connection to this state and its future. The Legislature must act this year to make that vision a reality in time for the fort’s 2020 bicentennial. They shouldn’t let that chance slip away.