The forgotten dome city of Northern Minnesota

An artist's rendition of the Minnesota Experimental City proposed near Swatara in the early 1970s.

An artist’s rendition of the Minnesota Experimental City proposed near Swatara in the early 1970s.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

One of the most compelling aspects of studying history are the “what-ifs” of our past. In our personal lives “what-ifs” can drive us mad — “What if I?” “Why didn’t she? If only he” — but in the abstract “what-ifs” make for enjoyable party talk. Since I don’t go to parties (I have children) I’ll share some with you now.

For instance, much of what we now call the Iron Range could have very easily ended up in Canada. Had the British fully understood the value of the ore here, that certainly would have been the case. Furthermore, Minnesota could have been two states instead of one, a north and south that included parts of the Dakotas in each. Additional scenarios allow for a State of Superior that would have included the Lake Superior-adjacent lands of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

None of these things actually happened, though, and the conditions that allowed for these possibilities shall not return; at least, not in our corner of the Multiverse. So what should we make of a giant domed city in Northern Minnesota’s Aitkin County that almost was? Surely THAT must be an impossibility?

In 1973, planners had secured funds to explore the concept of a self-sustaining, contained city that recycled its waste and conserved both its resources and costs. Through the fate of geography and opportunity, a site in the back woods location of Swatara, Minnesota, was selected for the experimental metropolis.

The brainchild of famed 1960s futurist Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, the Minnesota Experimental City would have housed 250,000 residents. The dome would have provided an energy-efficient way to maintain a comfortable year-round temperature throughout the whole city. Waste would have been recycled; food grown and raised right there under the dome. There would no cars in the city. Rather, people would park at the edge of the dome and use electric trolleys and conveyance methods that connected all locations within the dome.

Designed to harness the economic and inventive power of computers and new technology, the city was to be a knowledge center not unlike Silicon Valley. Monorails would travel above ground, while ground level was for walking and biking only. The city was also going to be a proving ground for a theoretical educational model that would have eschewed traditional schools for person-to-person lifelong community learning.

As fanciful as it sounds, the idea became a very real consideration before the state legislature in 1973. But the powers that be blinked; various local concerns balked, and the city that so very much reminds me of the “Dharma Initiative” in the fictional TV show “Lost” never was.

A 1987 story in the Chicago Tribune revisited the Minnesota Experimental City, suggesting that then-Gov. Rudy Perpich was interested in reviving the idea. But Gov. Perpich — a man who loved big ideas — didn’t see this one through. More likely it simply didn’t have the support, since much of the area was in a local recession at the time.

(As an interesting aside, in that ’87 story a Swatara man is quoted saying “You can`t stop progress. But they did.” That’s a succinct sentiment that has proven all too apt at times in the region’s history).

No, the Minnesota Experimental City did not happen. Like the State of Superior or retroactive Canadian citizenship for the residents of Hibbing, it’s just not going to happen as planned. But a domed city, designed to save costs, energy and create more workable, walkable communities? That’s more possible, even if we’ll likely have to see a lot more plagues and locusts to get the legislature to act on it.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, March 22, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

Comments

  1. Kurt Hoffman says:

    I remember this so clearly. It was the talk at every cafe in our area (Outing) that winter. I was a junior at Augsburg College, with a major in Communication. I wrote my first (& only) protest song about the project for a class on persuasive communication.

  2. I mostly remember the fear and hatred surrounding the dome. What local who actually enjoys side benefits of a depressed area with exceptionally low population density would support it?

    Re: the possibility of the Mesabi (and assumedly the Vermillion) ore deposits landing in Canada, I think it was likely fortunate that nobody knew about that. I wrote a paper for a HS history class titled “Fifty-four forty or fight”; while the slogan was useful to Polk, defining the Oregon territory as well as assuring him a victory, the 49th parallel compromise ultimately extended to Lake of the Woods in Mn. Had the British been aware of iron in the 1840’s they might have been forced to accomodate Polk with a war. The British Navy was the best in the world, and their army was learning a great deal, fighting disparate peoples across the globe. Polk secretly wished for a compromise, fearing Mexico, which was as powerful as we were at the time…making it a complicated calculus for the British, who were not predisposed to being an ally to Mexico against another English-speaking nation.

    In the end, we have been a much more important ally to the British than Mexico could have been, even just for a few years in the mid-19th century. Denying (or delaying?) the U.S the capability of becoming the pre-eminent global super-power in the 20th century is perhaps a valid debate, but I believe that the world we are seeing now would have been realized much earlier, had we not had the resources to bring to bear. Imagine a world in which Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, for example, hadnt drawn a powerful U.S/Britain alliance into war?

  3. Fascinating. I don’t remember this though I was a young adult then but I’m certain if it had been proposed in my area, I and everyone here at the time certainly would.

    Aaron, again, I love the amazing historical stories of northern MN you find.

    Re: Chicago Trib article, the objections to the project were about what I would expect, from high water tables to eminent domain takeover of land but the last objection just made me gasp, mixing races. However, it was over 40 years ago so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

  4. Dave Kenney says:

    The accompanying scanned image, which first appeared on the MN70s Tumblr at http://mn70s.tumblr.com/post/17480821350/a-domed-city-for-northern-minnesota , also appears in the book, “Minnesota in the ’70s,” by myself and co-author Thomas Saylor. The book’s third chapter tells the story of MXC and Swatara in great detail. This image is from a proposal drawn up during the late 1960s, well before the MXC Authority chose Aitkin County as the site of the proposed city. (The proposal can be found in the MXC Authority Records at the Minnesota Historical Society.) By the time the Aitkin County announcement was made in early 1973, the dome idea had long been abandoned.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dave. I wasn’t familiar with the blog or your book, though I’ve met Thomas Saylor before. An experimental city in MN without some for of climate control seems like a major compromise. Thanks for the reference and for further reading! •AB

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