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The sci-fi dream city that Minnesota almost built

The city of 250,000 was to be built in Aitkin County. One small problem: They forgot to ask Aitkin County.

The city of 250,000 was to be built in Aitkin County. One small problem: They forgot to ask Aitkin County. Minnesota Historical Society

This is the story of how Minnesota almost built a $10-billion utopia in Aitkin County.

The story begins in the only decade it ever could: the ’60s. Urban decay was leading to urban flight which led to urban sprawl, flowing into suburban estuaries. At the same time, people had their heads in the clouds. The economy was good, which meant some people had time and comfort enough to be idealistic. They wanted to live without strife, without pollution, without the mere sight of garbage.

And they might have come close.

Along came a man with a dream and a name ostentatious enough to match: Athelstan Spilhaus. He was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and his lifetime catalogue of inventions included a device used to measure and record sea water depth and temperature, countless children’s toys, and one Minnesotan city straight out of The Jetsons.

Spilhaus had a background in mechanical engineering, cartography, oceanography, meteorology, and urban planning, according to a story in the Smithsonian. He was also the longtime dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. His dream: creating a clean and beautiful “city on a hill.” A city nobody would want to leave for any suburb.

Spilhaus wanted a city of 250,000 people with no noise, no garbage, and no bus drivers. Public transit would drive itself on a rail system. Waste would be hauled away and recycled by underground tunnels. There would be a computer terminal in every home, and they’d all be interconnected: internet in 1967.

He said the whole thing would cost about $10 billion in 1967 dollars. In 1969, the same year humankind shot two men to the moon, the Minnesota Legislature greenlighted the Minnesota Experimental City project.

So many prominent legislators were on board that when Spilhaus resigned as co-chairman of the project in 1968, having become disenchanted with the project, it didn’t die in the cradle. The Legislature created the Minnesota Experimental City Authority in 1971, which was tasked to find a site fit for a utopia by 1973. The federal government kicked over $250,000, and private corporations pitched in another $670,000, enough to get this thing started.

Then came the studies: The authority looked into transportation, urban design, telecommunications, climate, education, health care, energy, and waste water treatment, according to Minnesota Historical Society. There were sketches, too: one showing the city under a gigantic, transparent dome designed to let light in and keep rain out. Plus plants to purify the air and water, underground transportation, and the cryptic note “public art.”

They wanted to have this thing done by 1985.

They were really, really going to do it.

Then came the location. They chose 75,000 acres of Aitkin County and Cass County, near the village of Swatara. It was undeveloped, and far enough away from Minneapolis to avoid being considered a suburb. Perfect, they thought.

Aitkin County did not think so. Apparently, no one thought to ask them.

Even if it was some kind of a sci-fi ecologically friendly utopia, it was still a big city right in their backyard. The citizens protested, support dribbled away from the Legislature, and in 1973, the Minnesota Experimental City Authority lost its funding and quickly died. The ’60s may have been a great time to be dreamy, but the ’70s were not.

Spilhaus supposedly stayed dreamy. He died without ever having built an actual experimental city, but remained supportive of the concept. Apparently, he later told his secretary that he wished he’d planned to build the Experimental City in the ocean.

The story of the Minnesota utopia that almost was will be the subject of a new documentary by Chad Freidrichs, The Experimental City. You can catch it in the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union Theater on April 16.