When the U.S. Military bombed the bogs of Minnesota
WASKISH, Minn. — 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 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' park manager of the Big Bog State Recreation Area and two other state parks in northwestern Minnesota, researched why the bog was bombed.
The Big Bog encompasses about 500 square miles, or 320,000 acres. Easthouse oversees 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.
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 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.
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 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.
While Easthouse says he never found any documentation of anyone being injured or killed by these bombings in the bog; those few who lived in the nearby Red Lake Nation were close enough to feel the effects.
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.
The bombing she recalls happened when Anna was about 9 or so years old.
"(When) they were bombing, our house used to shake, and the windows used to go to pieces," she said. "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.
Easthouse noted people at the time didn't know just how important and unique the bog is.
"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, such as Hillman Lake, where those researchers first found the bomb that led to Easthouse's research.