The $34.5 million revitalization of Historic Fort Snelling opens to the public on Saturday, offering visitors stunning new views of the Mississippi River as well as a more expansive telling of the site's 10,000-year-old history that evokes both "pride and tragedy."
The state, which owns the site, provided $19.5 million for the revitalization of the National Historic Landmark. The nonprofit Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the site, raised $15 million in private funding.
What visitors are likely to notice first is the sweeping new views of the Mississippi River, which drew people to this site for centuries including Dakota and Ojibwe people and later the U.S. military.
The 1980s-era visitor center that obscured the river has been torn down and replaced with new walking paths and scenic overlooks surrounded by native plantings and interpretative signage.
"As soon as you drive up, it's such a dramatic difference. It is just so inviting in a way that it hasn't been before." said Amber Annis, the Historical Society's director of Native American Initiatives.
The visitor center has been relocated to a restored 1904 cavalry barracks, which had previously been closed to the public. The public can tour the exhibits and gathering spaces in the 19,000-square-foot building. The new visitor center will now be open year-round.
Just as the physical site is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Fort Snelling is also a convergence of people and cultures, said Ben Leonard, the Historical Society's senior site director.
The revitalization more fully acknowledges that complex and long history. The sign at the entry tells visitors this is a place of "diplomacy and conflict; pride and tragedy; service and sacrifice."
"This place means so many things to so many different people," Leonard said. "This is a very complex site. This is a site of tremendous tragedy. It's also a site of honor and pride."
All the original military history including the fort's instrumental roles in the creation of Minnesota, the Civil War, World War I and World War II remain on display.
U.S. Army Lt. Zebulon Pike selected the site for a fort that was completed in 1825, more than three decades before Minnesota became a state. Nearly 25,000 soldiers passed through Fort Snelling during the Civil War. More than 300,000 men and women joined the U.S. military at Fort Snelling during World War II.
Now, other aspects of the site's history are being more thoroughly explored. That includes delving more deeply into the history of Native people, traders and enslaved people who lived at the fort as well as soldiers.
Leonard said they're accomplishing this more expansive storytelling by greatly increasing the public's access to the existing 22-acre site.
"We weren't utilizing and inviting the public into all those spaces, and now we are," Leonard said.
As far back as 10,000 years ago, Native people hunted and fished and established camps at this location. Dakota people call the site Bdote, which means "a place where two rivers come together." Many of the new signs along the new outdoor paths identify plants by their Dakota names and explain their cultural significance.
"This is Dakota ancestral homeland," Annis said. "This place has such an amazing and long legacy."
The fort was also a place of suffering, and interpretative signs and exhibits address that.
The fort was the site of a concentration camp for 1,600 Dakota following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The vast majority of people held were children, women and elderly, and an estimated 130 to 300 Dakota people died over the winter of 1862-63, mainly due to diseases and harsh conditions.
Even though Minnesota was free territory that sent thousands to fight for the republic in the Civil War, enslaved people, brought by military officers, were held at the fort — including Dred Scott, who later famously sued for his freedom.
During World War II, the fort was home to the Military Intelligence Service Language School, where Japanese American soldiers trained for overseas service as interpreters, interrogators and intelligence workers even as their own families were interned and stripped of their freedoms in the United States.
While history is what draws more than 65,000 visitors to the site each year, the revitalization includes several modern updates including more meeting spaces and classrooms, accessible restrooms, a museum store, all-terrain wheelchairs for visitors with limited mobility and grab-and-go food and beverage services.
Kent Whitworth, the Historical Society's director and CEO, said in a written statement that telling the complex history of this site will better inform and serve future generations.
"Our guiding vision for the Historic Fort Snelling revitalization has been to inspire a better future by providing a place to learn, share and connect to all of the complex stories that shape history in Minnesota," Whitworth said.