When I was writing my 2007 novel The Day After Yesterday, I wanted the big climactic scene—in which an exchange of ransom payment for a kidnap victim takes place—to occur in a remote, unique, somewhat ominous setting. And I wanted it to be an actual place. I toyed with several different locales and had about settled on a crumbling old abandoned sugar beet factory with vacant, broken-windowed buildings, tall towers, and a network of sagging conveyor tracks … until one day a co-worker (this was back before I retired from my full-time job in manufacturing) happened to mention something about the old "storage igloos" out in Cheyenne County. When I questioned him further, I first began to learn about the Sioux Army Depot …
In March of 1942, as part of our country's buildup for World War II, the Sioux Army Depot was established in Cheyenne County near the lower edge of Nebraska's panhandle, about six miles northwest of the town of Sidney. It would go on to become the only U.S. Army Ammunition Depot functioning in Nebraska through WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
The Sioux Depot was initially under the command of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department and later the U.S. Army Material Command. Its mission throughout its history was the receipt, storage, and issue of all types of ammunition from small arms to 10,000 bombs, all types of general supplies from small automobile parts to jeeps, and various strategic and critical materials. Near the end of its existence it briefly stored a small number of ICBM missiles.
At its peak, the depot occupied 19,771 acres and included 801 ammunition storage igloos, 22 general supply warehouses, 392 support buildings, 225 family living quarters, 51 miles of railroad track, and 203 miles of roads. As many as 2,100 civilian workers were employed in the day to day activities, along with 40 to 60 military personnel.
The depot was de-activated in June of 1967, during the Vietnam war.
All of this may seem like just a lot of dry historical data and details, especially for anyone reading this who lives outside Nebraska and/or is located in a more urban or more densely populated area. To get the full impact of what I'm trying to convey—what the Sioux Army Depot was and what it meant to the area—you must take into consideration the stark high plains landscape in which it was located. The Nebraska panhandle, except for the Pine Ridge area to the north, is a treeless expanse of grassy, rolling hills with widely scattered small towns. Cheyenne County is 1300 square miles in size with a population of just under 10,000, found mostly in four small towns each with a population of under 400 plus the county seat, Sidney, boasting about 6300. You can imagine what the army depot meant to the area when it existed and how economically devastating it was when it closed down. (It is an ironic aside that the community of Sidney saw its first big boom in the 1870s when it was a "wide open" town serving nearby Fort Sidney and then almost a century later boomed again—albeit in a much tamer way—from its proximity to another military facility.)
To visit the remains of the Sioux Army Depot today, the first thing you are struck by is leftover ammunition "igloos" standing in rows upon rows, almost as far as the eye can see, across a wide, flat expanse now overgrown with high grass and brush. I first visited there in the late afternoon, with dusk descending, and as I topped a low hill and the rows of shadowy igloos first came into sight it was like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie. Visualize something akin to scores of giant egg cartons turned upside down and strewn side by side all the way to the near horizon and you get a rough mental picture. (Hey, I'm a writer – I have an imagination.) These igloos are concrete domes with massively thick walls and tall steel-latch doors, standing about twenty feet high at the peak and fifty feet in diameter. They are (and always have been) grass-covered so that, from the air, they would blend into the rolling, grassy landscape and be virtually invisible. The gridwork of streets that served truck traffic between these structures is still mostly in place, though rough and broken and choked with weeds. If you stand in the middle of all this on a sunny day and (again) use your imagination just a little bit you can almost feel the pulse of the bygone activity and energy that ran through here.
These days the igloos are used by area farmers for grain and equipment storage. Some of the doorways are boarded over, to hold in the grain. Others are secured with heavy padlocks. Several, however, are wide open and you can walk inside.
The railroad tracks are long gone. The administration buildings located to the south of the igloo field are mostly still standing, some of them with their purpose still evident via faded signs that read Commissary, Hospital, etc. A row of badly dilapidated corrugated buildings where they must have loaded and unloaded freight trains are still standing and the massive crane framework and giant dangling hook still straddle a remaining short section of track.
As I spend time roaming the grounds, I can't help but feel a kind of sadness, a sense of loneliness and unfinished business hanging over the place. Almost like walking the streets of a ghost town … Maybe some ghosts are watching and walking there with me.
The igloo field served the scene in my book well.
But, as I trust you can tell from the foregoing, the Sioux Army Depot and its history made an impact on me well beyond just that.
Persevere — WD