KARNACK, Texas (KTAL/KMSS) – Just outside of a little town in East Texas, an 8,416-acre-sized slice of WWII, Vietnam, and Cold War history is slowly going back to nature.

“There’s a documentary called Bombs to Birds. It’s all about this place,” said John Fortune as he gave KTAL NBC 6 News a tour of the grounds of the old Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant in mid-July.

Fortune sits on the Caddo Lake National Refuge Restoration Advisory Board, a group of local citizens who deeply care about the place where military history meets nature. He’s also a photographer whose work is featured in “The Northeast Corner of Harrison County, Texas,” a thoroughly researched history book on the region that was published in 2021.

“It’s a Superfund site,” Fortune said while standing inside the refuge’s visitor center, where military history and facts about the nature of the region fuse together to tell an unexpected story of war and peace.

“When they were manufacturing back then, they weren’t nearly as conscious about pollution as we are now,” Fortune said of the ammunition plant.

Those who have never been to the refuge may be surprised when they tour its visitor center and learn the history of the place, especially the story of how the production of military weaponry ended at the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant.

Visitors can see relics from the Cold War at the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Karnack, Texas. Image: KTAL’s Jaclyn Tripp.

Two world superpowers (the U.S. and Russia) had been playing a game of nuclear chicken for decades, and in 1987 the two nations agreed to destroy their land-based, intermediate-range missiles.

It just so happened that the rocket motors for many of the U.S. intermediate-range missiles came from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant outside of little Karnack, Texas.

But understanding how the ammo plant shut down involves understanding how it opened in the first place, for Longhorn’s history doesn’t begin with the Cold War. It actually dates back to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the moment the United States entered into WWII.

Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant history

In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, it became obvious to the U.S. government that ammunition plants were needed across the nation.

“They were condemning property out here to build a plant to manufacture TNT,” said Fortune of the months following Pearl Harbor. “They started making this plant from scratch after Pearl Harbor, and the day the war was over they just shut (the ammunition plant) down until the Korean War came along.”

Legend says Longhorn manufactured TNT during WWII and flash bombs during the Korean War. The flash bombs were designed to be dropped from airplanes.

“It was like an enormous flashbulb,” he said. “It (the light) would flash and they would take nighttime reconnaissance pictures.”

During the Cold War, Longhorn was responsible for building rocket motors. But much to the surprise of many, the Cold War would have an unexpected outcome for the ammunition plant outside of Karnack. Instead of scaling up and building more for the Cold War effort, Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant shut down instead.

Here’s why.  

Fortune said that in the 1980s, an international agreement between the United States and Russia was signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement in 1987. Image: Ronald Reagan Library and the National Archives and Records Administration

The result of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement of 1987 was rather profound: more than 2,600 US and Russian nuclear missiles were destroyed as delegates from both countries visited one another’s homelands to watch the agreement come to fruition.

America destroyed 846 missiles and 1846 Russian missiles were destroyed. Both nations made good on their word after agreeing to eliminate all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 310 and 3417 miles.

Fortune said the engines for missile rocket motors were made at Longhorn. Some of those rocket motors were placed on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and the 1987 agreement called for an end to the production of such weaponry.

According to Fortune, the Russians brought several teams to the Karnack region. Those teams watched rocket engines undergo destruction, then visited churches, and went to ball games, in the area.

“It was quite an event when the Russians came,” said Fortune. “We made the New York Times.”

George Bush even visited Longhorn when he was Vice President of the United States. He, too, witnessed the destruction of Longhorn rocket engines.

“They (Russia) sent a team over here to visit our destruction, and we sent teams over there,” said Fortune. “It was a big deal.”

The federal government looked at multiple locations as potential Pershing destruction locations. They considered Pueblo Army Depot, near Pueblo in eastern Colorado; Tooele Army Depot near Salt Lake City, Utah; Tekoi Test Range, southwest of Tooele, Utah, and Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant near Marshall in eastern Texas.

Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant was selected, and the work began. More than 2,600 missiles were destroyed because of the agreement, and the destruction of the weaponry at Longhorn is now seen by historians as the first real moment the Cold War began to thaw.

The end of an era

In the years leading up to the closure of Karnack’s ammunition plant, two superpowers had undergone a nuclear arms race and a space race. And in little Karnack, Texas today there is the beginning of what may be a place race underway: the EPA is cleaning up the toxic waste dump that once helped to end the Cold War and now serves as a refuge that can help slow down the warming of the planet.

Nestled snugly beside Caddo Lake, the old ammunition plant grounds are now getting attention from the EPA and from people around Karnack proper who are doing what they can to respectfully remember the ammo plant’s history, clean up toxic waste, and help nature thrive at the refuge so future generations can enjoy a healthy ecosystem.

Harrison Bayou links Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge to Caddo Lake. Image: KTAL’s Jaclyn Tripp.

Others spend their mornings running weed-eaters down walking trails as visitors stop to see the progress of the refuge’ as it returns to a state of peace after decades of being fully cognizant of war. And at Caddo Lake, which connects to the refuge via Harrison Bayou, tours explain the significance of the region’s Civil War and Reconstruction-era history.

Volunteers plant wildflowers in the proximity of where missiles were once destroyed.

Fortune told KTAL that Caddo Lake was once home to the Caddo tribe, who called the area home for thousands of years. The lake’s name is no accident—it was named in honor of the tribe.

The EPA is still dealing with the unexploded ordnance and other hazards that need to be cleaned up at the old ammo plant grounds. In fact, no one is certain exactly how much unexploded ordnance is buried on the refuge that is larger than Atlanta, which is the largest city in Cass County and one of the closest cities to Karnack.

But a strong sense of hope is alive on the grounds of the old ammo plant.

John Fortune stands in the doorway of an abandoned building that was once used by Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant. Image: KTAL’S Jaclyn Tripp.

Fortune said the preserve is now a part of one of the EPA’s environmental programs designed to clean up places where abandoned hazardous waste can cause harm.

And though it may sound counterproductive, the story of how the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant became a site where hazardous waste was abandoned is proof that old enemies can put down their weapons, even if only for a little while.

The future of the refuge

Decades after the ammunition plant was closed, the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge Restoration Advisory Board meets in the T.J. Taylor Community Center, where the EPA gives updates on what is happening at the Superfund Site.

The T.J. Taylor Community Center is part of American political history, too.

“(Former First Lady) Ladybird Johnson is from here, and T.J. Taylor was her dad. The community center was built where his store was. He had a sign that said T.J. Taylor, Dealer in Everything,” Fortune said with a grin.

Area residents enjoy an afternoon at Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge in mid-July, 2023. Image: KTAL’S Jaclyn Tripp.

It is said that Ladybird inherited her father’s business sense. She was the first First Lady of the United States who had made a million dollars on her own before her husband took the Oval Office. Her family home is still loved and cared for by locals.

The story goes that Ladybird’s parents moved the family elsewhere when Ladybird’s little sister was killed by a bolt of lightning. But Ladybird spent much of her youth around Karnack and grew up to become a nature-lover. She spent part of her life working for the causes of beautification and biological restoration in the United States.

The former First Lady of the United States undoubtedly ran across countless Red-eared sliders in her youth, as the little semi-aquatic turtles have a breeding ground in nearby Uncertain.

Ladybird’s love of nature is still evident today at her wildflower center.

A beautiful future

Fortune said the refuge’s visitor center wasn’t around in Ladybird’s day, or during the time period when the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant was operating. But Fortune loves the visitor center and was there recently when Friends of the Refuge built a new deck on the premises. They used supplies donated to the project and did the work themselves.

Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began manufacturing TNT in Oct. 1942, mere months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But now a sense of peace seems to have settled across the property.

Migrating birds make their temporary homes in the bottomland hardwood ecosystem where rare or threatened wildlife are doing their best to thrive. Hiking trails await those who can hear the story the land has to tell. And for those who understand that this ecological treasure is important to future generations, there are plenty of ways to volunteer.

The refuge is located south of Caddo Lake and east of Karnack.

It’s certainly worth the trip.