In 1918, the United States government bought 13,000 acres of sand prairie next to the Mississippi River as a site to test artillery. In short order, the Savanna Proving Grounds boomed to life with the firing of 75mm and 155mm howitzers. After WWI, warehouses were built to store ammunition, and Savanna Ordnance Depot was born. The manufacture of munitions began and barracks were built for employees. Because of WWII, employment jumped (from 143 in 1939 to 7,195 in 1942) and there was a construction boom that resulted in several new warehouses and a new power plant. The Depot also built 407 “igloos” to store ammo and other volatile weapons like mustard gas. Igloos had between 1000 and 2000 square feet of storage space under a steel-reinforced hump, secured with a very sturdy four ton steel door. After construction was completed, the igloos were covered with dirt and grass to hide them from aerial surveillance. In 1948, one of the igloos exploded, creating a hole 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep that is still visible today. Residents of nearby Hanover and Savanna reported blown out windows and cracked plaster. The steel door was never found.

In 1962 the rechristened Savanna Army Depot continued life as a storage facility for munitions but entered the world of recycling and destroying old munitions and testing new ones. The base escaped closure in the late 1970s through political sleight-of-hand, but it only delayed the inevitable. In 1995, with employment down to about 500 people, the base was included on the closure list, and shut its doors in March 2000. Most of the land, 9400 acres worth, were transferred to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

The Depot today is a creepy, intriguing place – large buildings rot, surrounded by tall fences topped by razor wire; railcars sit empty, stripped of their exterior sheathing; deer graze next to abandoned gas pumps. The base’s skeleton remains intact, but the heart and soul, the thousands of people who once worked here, are long gone, replaced by no trespassing signs and warnings about unexploded ordinance. Igloos no longer store mustard gas but computer data.

Much of the property remains off-limits, even though it is part of a public wildlife refuge. Unfortunately, for me, anyway, the authorities are very serious about enforcing the “no-go” rules, so I limit my exploration to areas that won’t require me to forfeit my new digital SLR as a penalty for trespassing. Here are a few pics from my visits.

See photos from the depot below.

Today’s Bad Decision: Running out of business cards. I spent a week talking to a lot of people about the book project. This could have been a good marketing opportunity, except for the fact that I did not have anywhere near enough business cards. I’ll do better next time. I just printed a batch of 500 cards for next week’s trip.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2008