Doesn’t every kid grow up exploring ruins in the woods?
I thought so, maybe because that’s all I cared about or maybe because most of my compatriots did the same—maybe I’m still that kid.
The first week I had my driver’s license and was given permission to use the family car for a day, I drove south to “where the stacks are.” Strange silos poked out of the trees high enough to be seen from the highway so that when one got close enough, they could be counted on for navigation. This was a playground for me, a place to climb, explore and hone my then-new hobby of photography.
Farmland Goes Explosive
In 1941 and ’42, Du Pont, the country’s oldest powder manufacturer, was looking for a construction site for their new ‘Army Ammunition Plant’. Previously their criteria for building such a plant was excellent rail accessibility, cotton availability, nearby labor, water, and far out of the reach of any potential carrier-launched bombers.
The pilot project for such a plant was the company’s Indiana Ordinance Works #1 (also on this site), and the lessons learned in the construction and process from the Indiana plant would be channeled into its sister facility. Because of its proximity to the Mississippi River, Twin Cities labor, and various rail lines, Rosemount, Minnesota was selected—a meeting on March 21, 1942 announced the plans to the public.
It would be called “Gopher Ordinance Works.”
Building the Gopher
Eighty-four farmers were be kicked off their land as the government claimed 11,500 acres, promising to pay the farmers ‘fair value’. The residents were all forced to move from their property, including those who had pending lawsuits against the government disputing the so-called ‘fair value’ they were granted.
It may seem strange to learn that farmers were suing the government in the middle of such a terrible war over the simple business of land assessment, but at the time Minnesota was largely isolationist leading up to World War II; many of these displaced residents didn’t want to enter the war in the first place, much less sacrifice their way of lives for it.
Roads through the property were closed to local traffic just six days after the public meeting and construction started almost immediately. The first shipment of powder was due to leave the plant the following January.
Then something changed.
Gopher Ordinance Works was built to manufacture rifle and cannon powder, exactly like Indiana Ordinance Works #1, which shared the same chemical processes and nearly identical building designs. By April 1943 construction was three-quarters complete when the army announced that Gopher was being put on standby status.
Gopher’s mothballing before completion is largely due to two factors: other plants were producing more powder than predicted, and the military was using less artillery than expected. The construction site was abandoned by the hundreds of contractors that were rushing to complete it, an event illustrated today by Power Plant #2’s unfinished chimneys.
How GOW Became The Busiest Gopher (For Four Months)
By January 1944, Du Pont was busy dismantling the Gopher plant, shipping its brand-new parts to its other powder plants throughout the Midwest, when word was given to refit and activate three production lines. In spite of machinery being removed simultaneously, Gopher would see action.
Production was due to restart 1945.
When the plant first activated in 1943, some powder was produced, but not nearly in quantities like what SFAAP (here) and INAAP (here) produced. Still, our heavy artillery use in Italy justified a reactivation of part of this Minnesotan war machine, and when it was running it performed well.
The three production lines were turning out high-quality rifle and artillery powder round-the-clock between January and April of 1945 when V-E day and the fall of Germany brought two-thirds of Gopher into standby status once more. V-J day brought the last powder line back into mothball status, signaling the final end of Gopher Ordnance Works’ wartime usefulness.
In spite of the fact it was only producing significant quantities of powder for four months out of over three years of existence it was the third most expensive ammunition plant in the country with a bill of $115 million.
If you’re in the area, the roads are open to the public, now, and you can drive right through and look at the ruins of Minnesota’s war machine. Set your GPS to the intersection of East 155th Street and Blaine Avenue East and go, go go!
Update: As of 2016, most of the power plant areas have been demolished.