Coosa Annex bunker

Old military ammo bunkers from the Cold War era in Talladega County. BOTTOM PHOTO: Phillip Tutor on top of one of the bunkers.

Photos by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

TALLADEGA COUNTY — If the Almighty wanted to create a forest of indestructible tornado shelters, He’d be wise to meander around this arresting swath of pine tree-covered land just north of Alabama 275.

Here, south of Oxford and a 3-wood from Talladega’s northern border, lie remnants of America’s past — 136 weapons-storage igloos built during World War II. Today, they’re equal parts eerie and interesting: cold, dark, musty, empty.

Think Anniston Army Depot without signage, obscured by piney woods, seemingly forgotten.

“I grew up in Talladega,” says Wes Pope, “but I never even knew about this place.” By “this place” Pope means the Coosa River Storage Annex, a 2,836-acre facility that today is home to Top Trails, an outdoors playground managed by the Public Park Authority of the cities of Lincoln and Talladega that opened in 2012.

Miles of earthen trails criss-cross the former military complex and its maze of asphalt roads that lead visitors to the igloos. On most days, Top Trails caters to motorcyclists, ATV riders, hikers and fishermen. Last February, Top Trails received two state grants totaling $325,000 for improvements. Pope, 55, runs the place.

“I wear lots of hats (out here),” he says.

Which figures, since he’s the park’s only full-time employee.

Closure and rebirth at the Coosa River annex

Unlike Anniston’s depot — whose military value remains strong — the Top Trails property lives an odd marriage of public activity and military closure. And, unlike Anniston’s Fort McClellan — also vacated by the Army — the former Coosa River annex hasn’t been redeveloped by demolishing aging buildings and recruiting outside industries to build on the site.

Instead, history, vacancy and redevelopment exist side-by-side.

“It’s pretty much identical today as it was then,” Pope says.

Well, kind of.

Turns out, Quonset-hut igloos constructed out of several feet of reinforced concrete don’t deteriorate much in 70 years. But time hasn’t slowed. Weeds and bushes obscure their entrances. Pine trees sprout from soil collected on their roofs. Graffiti is more common than cracks in the cement floors. But they’re still standing, strong and proud, just like the Army intended.

How this unusual marriage happened takes a bit of explaining.

When World War II began, the U.S. government bought this property from several private landowners and built the Coosa River Ordnance Plant, which was operated by the Brecon Loading Co. (Sounds like the humble beginnings of Anniston’s depot, doesn’t it?) Brecon took powder from the Alabama Army Ammunition Plant in Childersburg and loaded it into containers.

After the war, the annex was assigned to the Anniston depot, which used it as an overflow storage site. According to a September 1992 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, the Anniston depot stored an assortment of munitions at the Coosa annex from 1947 to 1982: containerized explosives, propellants and projectiles such as rockets and mortar rounds. Also stored at the annex were non-explosive bomb parts, wooden boxes and empty cartridges.

The Corps of Engineers report also includes this fascinating sentence:

“No liquid propellants, chemical weapons or radiological materials are believed to have been stored at the annex,” it says.

Wink, wink.

The military’s decision to stop ammunition storage at the annex in 1982 signalled the beginning of the property’s end. The Alabama National Guard used the annex as a training site for a few years (as did Fort McClellan). In 1988, the Department of Defense recommended the annex for closure. And in recent years, with the igloos empty and the land officially unused, a partnership between nearby cities and an active group of outdoors enthusiasts led to the creation of Top Trails. Once cleaned of unexploded ordnance, the land became property of the National Park Service, which deeded it to Talladega and Lincoln’s Public Park Authority.

The igloos are as sturdy today as they were when built in 1943.

A subdivision of abandoned homes

Whatever you call this place — Top Trails, the old Coosa River annex — it’s not hard to find if you know where you’re going.

From Alabama 275, not far from the Alabama 21 turnoff, head north on Welch Avenue. Follow the signs and check in at the guardhouse. Once on the fenced-in property, igloos rival pine cones in abundance. They’re ubiquitous, spaced evenly apart, all on the same side of the paved road — a subdivision of abandoned homes. Only the few that Pope uses for Top Trail storage are locked.

Coosa annex igloos come in two sizes: large and extra large. (The Corps report calls them “standard” and “small.”) “Standard” igloos are 90 feet long by 30 feet across, their interior ceilings 17 feet high. Only two Coosa igloos, Nos. 3301 and 3302, are “small” — 60 feet by 30 feet. On the outside, a trapezoid-shaped concrete wall faces the road. On the inside, two shallow drainage ditches snake along each of the longest walls, and that’s it. The barrenness is unmistakable.

A 1959 safety placard glued to the wall is the only visible sign of what once called the igloos home. Listed are 16 do’s and don’ts. No. 10: “Do not smoke or bring matches into the magazine.”

One of the first things Pope tells visitors is to check out the igloos’ doors, and here’s why: They’re eight layers thick of alternating material — metal, wood, metal, wood, metal, wood, metal, wood, outside to inside. Each door weighs 700 pounds, Pope says.

In truth, the doors are the only part of the igloos decaying with age. They’re covered in rust. Weeds and thorny bushes poke out from the cracks in the wood. Some doors creak open and shut; others are immovable. A few even have built-in small-animal cages, which may have been used as a primitive, if not effective, test for leaking chemical munitions. (Wink, wink, remember, says the Corps report.)

Two things strike you when you enter a Coosa annex igloo: the temperature and the sound. The sensation isn’t like getting trapped in a grocery store’s walk-in refrigerator; instead, it conjures up a damp, windowless parking garage that gets creepier the farther back you go. Conversations inside an igloo, meanwhile, are darn-near impossible because of the natural reverb created from the Quonset shape and concrete floor. As odd architectural sensations go, this one’s hard to forget — or replicate.

None of that stops Top Trails riders from using the igloos as shelter from the weather or as makeshift campgrounds, Pope says. Small campfires, recently extinguished, are common near the igloos’ entrances.

A word of advice: More or less, one igloo looks like another igloo, as do most of the Coosa annex roads, so without a map or a homing-pigeon sense of direction, getting lost is a distinct possibility. But there’s no shame in wandering aimlessly amid pine trees and vacant igloos at Top Trails. That’s part of the fun.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.