Restoration of Historic Fort Snelling Relied Upon Archaeology, Research and the Foresight of Historians
Crucial to the U.S. Government's plans to make a strong and permanent presence along the upper Mississippi, Fort Snelling served many roles. It was a place of trade, of protection, and of "civilization" in what Americans viewed as a great, untamed wilderness ready to be wrested of its furs and other valuable resources as well as provide new lands for settlement in the growing country.
The fort served the Army, in peace and war, through World War II when new recruits gathered for transport to training camps. It all ended in 1946. But while its historic buildings had been altered, were razed or deteriorated through neglect, it wasn't without expressions of concern from those who realized the fort's role in Minnesota history.
According to Fort Snelling: Colossus of the Wilderness, a book published in 1987 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and excerpted below, concern for preserving the old fort goes back at least to 1864, when historian and Minnesota Historical Society secretary Edward D. Neill expressed the fear that "under the advancing and resistless pressure of modern civilization . . . not one stone will be left on another."
The same year grading below the bluff for the first railroad weakened the wall of the fort on the Mississippi side, and within 20 years only traces of the perimeter remained. In 1895 the commanding officer, Colonel Edwin Mason, tried and failed to arouse public support to restore the empty fort as a pioneer artifact museum.
Turn-of-the-century: "Restorative Vandalism"
Instead, the turn of the century brought a controversial facelift to the four surviving buildings. In what was attacked as "restorative vandalism," the army added second stories to the commandant's house and officers' quarters, which were "coated like a caramel with stucco" in a Spanish mission style. The hexagonal tower also received stucco plastering and a red tile roof. The round tower suffered most grievously, its altered condition eliciting comparisons to a "cylindrical grain tank" and a "big cake ready for the frosting." Public outcry soon removed the tower's stucco, but not the plate glass windows, hardwood floors, and bronze radiators that, in a succession of adaptive uses, made the interior suitable for a beauty parlor and finally the home of the post electrician and his family.
1938-1946: Round Tower as a Museum
A long-standing proposal to turn the round tower into a museum finally succeeded in 1938. Largely a Works Progress Administration project, this rehabilitation included an interior mural, more than a hundred feet in circumference, depicting the settlement of Minnesota. After the fort closed in 1946, the museum and its exhibits were open to the public only intermittently.
Mid-1950s: Citizens Force a Compromise to Encircling the Round Tower in a Cloverleaf
By the 1950s, traffic congestion at the fort, a natural junction between Minneapolis and St. Paul, threatened what remained of the historic structures. Pressure from motorized vehicles had been increasing since early in the century, when electric street cars first reached the round tower. The bridge across the Mississippi was rebuilt for motor traffic in 1909, and the spectacular 4,000-foot, concrete-arch Mendota bridge crossed the Minnesota River in 1926. It replaced a ferry operated since the 1850s. Roadways gradually crisscrossed the site, but the 1956 proposal to encircle the round tower with a cloverleaf proved the final insult. An aroused citizenry forced a compromise mediated by Gov. Orville L. Freeman himself. The decision to route the new highway instead through a 450-foot lighted tunnel north of the old fort paved the way for a comprehensive plan to preserve the historic area.
Late-1950s: Archaeological Investigations
The Minnesota Historical Society, long involved in collecting Fort Snelling materials and operating the round tower museum, received a state centennial grant of $25,000 to conduct preliminary archaeological investigations. The extent of the original foundations uncovered in late 1957 demonstrated the feasibility of restoring the old fort. In 1960, the site was declared the state's first national historic landmark. The following year the Legislature created the 2,500-acre Fort Snelling State Park, and Minnesota acquired the 320-acre core of the remaining historic area from the Veterans Administration. A 10-year program was approved by the Legislature in 1965 to restore and reconstruct the original fort.
1965: Researchers Track Down History of Site/Archaeology Continues/Restoration Begins
The Society now assumed responsibility for carrying out the entire restoration. Society researchers examined nearly a century of military records stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as well as other prominent library collections, to gather information about the original fort. Despite the extensive search, many questions remained unanswered. Except for an early diagram of the planned fort, which differed significantly from the completed structure, the earliest scale drawings of the buildings dated from 1835. No known sketches or paintings of the fort could be dated prior to 1830, while the earliest photographs were taken in the 1850s. Nevertheless a formidable collection of evidence was amassed from post correspondence and reports, including Colonel Snelling's description of the finished buildings and maintenance records. Equally painstaking was the search for evidence remaining on the site. Archaeologists examined the round tower in 1965, and the following year they began excavating the outer wall and other structures that had been razed. By 1970 an average of 20,000 artifacts had been recovered and catalogued each year. Concurrent reconstruction drawings were based upon both physical and documentary evidence. Buried foundation walls and debris patterns provided over-all dimensions; locations of windows, doorways and fireplaces; and clues to building methods and materials used.
Because the fort survived long enough to appear in altered form in photographs, physical dimensions for the above-grade portion of many buildings could be determined. Where clear-cut answers or reasonable hypotheses did not emerge, models were adopted from contemporary military fortifications or period construction methods used.
"It's amazing to think that during that high-pressure time when the research was being done and the buildings were being constructed simultaneously, that there was a map sitting somewhere that would have answered so many of our questions," marveled Stephen Osman, manager of the historic site.
Finished Fort Opens as a Historic Site
The fort was essentially restored by 1979, but as an example of how bad fortune can make way for a correction, a fire seriously damaged the commandant's house in 1981, giving the Society a chance to use new research on the Snelling family's life to redo the interior in an even more authentic way.
The house reopened in 1983, the same year the Society opened its earth-sheltered visitor center. Today, nearly 100,000 visitors annually enjoy stepping back in time in a place once trod by Colonel Snelling, Josiah Vose, and the hundreds of soldiers, laundresses, fur traders and others for whom the fort was a center of commerce, defense and the determination of a nation to gain a foothold on half a continent.
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