On March 30, 1977, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would close Kincheloe Air Force base near Sault Ste. Marie and transfer military personnel and equipment to other bases.
Kincheloe had been the financial lifeline to Chippewa, Mackinac and Luce counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula, providing an annual payroll of some $36 million in the economically depressed region.
Gov. Bill Milliken urged President Jimmy Carter to reverse the decisions, saying it would have a devastating effect on the entire state.
The history of Kincheloe dates to 1941. With war raging in Europe and threats arising in the Pacific, the federal government rushed to build Kinross AFB to protect the Soo Locks, which allow shipping to traverse the St. Mary’s River connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
There was some talk of closing the base after World War II, but Cold War tensions and the Korean War kept it alive. In 1956, Kinross–named for the township in which it is located–made the Pentagon list for base closings. The community organized and effectively fought the closing. (The base’s name was changed in 1959 to honor Capt. Iven C. Kincheloe, a Michigan test pilot who died in a training flight over the California desert.)
During Vietnam, Kincheloe housed B-52s and subsequently become part of the SAC defense system, largely serving as a refueling station. The Pentagon announced on March 10, 1976, that Kincheloe would be closed.
Many residents simply did not believe it. “We were not too uneasy,” said Mansfield. “They had cried wolf so many times before.”
But this time the Pentagon was serious. As the reality sank in, the Sault Ste. Marie area first expressed outrage, then panic and finally slipped into a sullen depression.
“People thought this would become a wasteland,” recalled John Campbell, executive director of the Eastern U. P. Regional Planning & Development Commission.
There was good reason for gloom and doom. Scores of businesses near the base–restaurants, gas stations and small stores–immediately closed. Teachers were laid off as students moved away.
It was as though a neutron bomb had hit Kincheloe Air Force Base in 1978. The buildings, desks and equipment were there, but the people were gone–700 civilian workers laid off and 3,200 military personnel transferred.
Fortunately, after the initial cycle of closings and transfer of population, Kincheloe made a comeback. Kincheloe’s revival came about through aggressive local leadership combined with a willingness of the state and federal governments to help financially. Unlike today, it occurred when budget constraints were less pressing.
In fact, the conversion of Kincheloe is as much a result of luck and good timing as it is of hard work and foresighted planning. While the hope had been to develop a solid manufacturing base for Chippewa County, anchored by an airport industrial park, the result is a hub of state prisons surrounded by a few small industries.
There are five correctional facilities now located at the former base, employing 1,200 workers. Seven manufacturers employ about 250 workers, and service businesses employ an additional 350.
Susan Watson, “It’s Final, Kincheloe Will Close”, Detroit Free Press, March 31, 1977.
Donald W. Nauss, “Life After Taps Plays at the Base“, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1993.