I came across a fascinating piece of Northern Minnesota history in this Doug Easthouse article “Bombing the Big Bog” in the Minnesota DNR publication, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
Northern Minnesota gets a lot of attention for its timber and minerals, but it’s also home to many thousand of acres of rich peat bogs. Some of these bogs are so big, and so remote, that they remain true mysteries on Earth.
So you can imagine how much that would have appealed to the military during the Cold War.
That’s the subject of Easthouse’s story about the “Big Bog,” a vast peatland east of Red Lake in Northwestern and North Central Minnesota.
Easthouse is the manager of the Big Bog State Recreation Area. Well-accustomed to studying the bog’s natural elements, his first-person account details his modern-day discovery of the bog’s recent human history.
As I stand at the end of our bog boardwalk today, the quiet solitude may be broken only by the peaceful song of the white-throated sparrow or the call of a Connecticut warbler. But during World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the roar of low-flying military planes dive-bombing targets rocked this place. So did the rapid fire of .50-caliber machine guns, the bark of howitzers, and the shock of huge explosions in the night sky.
The Big Bog was the source of immense weapons testing during WWII and the Red Scare that followed. The tests even included the detonation of an atomic bomb without its nuclear components. That event produced an eerie flash visible from as far away as Bemidji or International Falls.
Scads of bomb casings were removed from the bog in decades that followed, some of which remain far below the surface of the thick biomass.
The story reminded me that I heard something about this when I was researching another Northern Minnesota war story. One of my favorite columns I’ve ever written was about the crew of a B-29 bomber that ditched over Itasca County in 1945. The plane kept flying away and was never recovered.
Entitled “WWII mystery over the skies of Northern Minnesota,” that piece drew mail and messages from veterans and researchers who followed both that story and the bomb range in the big bog. In fact, an amateur historian has made a pretty good case to me that the missing B-29 is on Lower Red Lake, where Ojibwa officials have thus far declined to search for it.
By now, of course, the plane would have turned over to rust. And as Easthouse points out, the bog is healing over the scars of war.
So many mysteries dwell in the bog. Some we know. Some we never will.
You can read Easthouse’s entire article here.