In mid summer the Black Hills are literally a calming oasis compared to the vast plains that lie to the east. Yet I’m compelled to leave the cooling comfort of whispering pines and granite spires for something unusual and mysterious. Instead of aiming east and heading for home, I drive south and descend into rolling grassland. As the landscape opens up, temperatures climb into triple digits and cell service fades. I’m searching for things new to my eyes and there they are. Man made or natural? First there are a few. Then many. Then hundreds. Not crazy like hoodoos but uniformly bumpy like giant Braille. It takes miles of driving but now I see them for what they are.
Fort Igloo is no longer owned by the Government although the US Army has a minor presence here in the form of test wells maintained by the Corps of Engineers. The wells are a legacy of the former storage and disposal of munitions containing conventional explosives as well as the blistering agent, mustard gas, and the nerve agent, sarin. The bumpy countryside is actually a vast, abandoned storage facility with 800 or so “igloos”, each constructed of poured concrete with a steel door and covered with earth.
Frankly, calling Fort Igloo a storage facility doesn’t even do it justice. In addition to the concrete storage magazines, the 33 square mile complex once included all the amenities of a well-planned town. In addition to living quarters for over 1,000 people, Fort Igloo (properly known as Black Hills Ordnance Depot) also boasted an Army hospital, a school district, community center, day-care center, movie theater, bowling alley and other mainstays of small-town America. These amenities were actually a necessity due to the remote and isolated location. Indeed, the isolation was also a necessity dictated by the mission of the Depot and the nature of items warehoused there.
BHOD was conceived, built and opened during World War Two with the mission of receipt, storage, issue and maintenance of ammunition. The depot also housed several hundred Italian prisoners of war beginning in 1943. The facility performed its mission through three wars and was eventually closed in 1967. All types of ammunition were stored here from small arms ammunition to artillery rounds, bombs and chemical weapons. The sprawling nature of the base along with its remote location in southwestern South Dakota provided a relatively safe buffer in case of a deadly mishap.