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Familiar smoke stacks on UMore property demolished

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On Monday, Sept. 26, the University of Minnesota began demolition on the five smoke stacks visible from County Road 46. (Photo courtesy of Bill Cuevas)2 / 4
Ken Kerns, assistant vice president of health and safety with the University of Minnesota stands in front of the crane used to demolish the old smoke stacks left standing after WWII. (Deanna Weniger | Independent Town Pages)3 / 4
(Photo courtesy of Bill Cuevas)4 / 4

With a wrecking ball painted maroon and gold, the University of Minnesota began demolition today on the five smoke stacks visible from County Road 46.

This is one of several projects the university is tackling in order to remove hazards from the property, said Ken Kerns, assistant vice president of health and safety at the university.

"We've had a lot of people coming into the stacks," he said. "They are very popular with kids."

The bottom of the cement structures are covered in graffiti. Kerns said workers have found beer bottles, trash and even a mattress in them.

"We're trying to eliminate the attraction," he said.

Dubbed "Five Stacks" by the university, the structures were built in the 1940s as part of the Gopher Ordnance Works, a facility that manufactured smokeless gunpowder.

The demolition, by Bolander construction company, will take about six weeks and cost $270,000. It includes bringing down Five Stacks and its sister Four Stacks (built for the same purpose but never finished), and the Eight-Ball (a round gas tank once painted like a pool ball by trespassers). The debris from the demolition will be used to fill in 300 manholes around the property, Kern said.

In 1942 the U.S. War Department acquired about 12,000 acres of farmland in Dakota County for the construction of the plant. By the time the GOW was up and running in 1944, WWII ended and production ceased a year later.

The government declared it to be surplus property, demolished most of the buildings, including the one that surrounded Five Stacks, and transferred about 8,000 acres to the U of M.

Since acquiring the property, the university has used it for agricultural research and has leased some parcels to agricultural and commercial tenants.

Beginning in 2006, 2,822 acres of the property have been used as Vermillion Highlands, a research, recreation and wildlife management area that is jointly managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the university.

Many safety risks remain, some covered by encroaching grass and woodlands.

Kerns came to work for the university about two years ago and made removing hazards from the property one of his top priorities.

He and his department walked the grounds last summer and cataloged 3,000 items that are considered unsafe, such as tripping hazards, pits, manholes with crumbling lids, and the stacks. Every item was geo-referenced so it could be easily found with a global positioning system (GPS).

Those involved with the project were all on site today, wearing hard hats and safety vests, to witness the demolition. Some even sat in the crane cab and pulled the lever, releasing the wrecking ball to hit the smoke stack.

Besides hazards, the university has been working to evaluate the environmental condition of the property. Over the summer, soil and groundwater samples were taken for laboratory analysis. A full report should be available by the end of the year.