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.