Silo Souvenirs

By Robert J. Galbraith on May 15, 2008

The Kremlin has announced that Russia is threatening to suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, along with refusing to implement the strategic arms reduction talks (Start 11). These decisions are in response to U.S. plans for the proposed installment of an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, which President Bush says will deter long-range missiles being launched from the Middle East and Asia, with Iran being the main threat.

The CFE treaty, which was signed at the end of the Cold War is intended to limit the deployment of military forces in Europe, and is considered to be an important cornerstone of European security. But should a compromise not be found, and the treaty fall apart, Russia could potentially go ahead with its threats to retarget and redeploy nuclear missiles. At present, Russia and the Bush administration are trying to come up with a compromise which will satisfy both nations and not start a new nuclear arms race.  

To most Montrealers, the deployment of more nuclear bombs in Europe seems so far away, just another spat in the non-ending sparring of world politics. But very few of us are aware that just over 40 years ago, our beloved city was on the frontline of the Cold War and at the very doorstep of potential nuclear Armageddon.

 Less than an hour’s drive south-east of Montreal, and scattered along the northern woodland borders of Vermont and New York, lay 12 nuclear missile silos and their payload of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s), primed and ready for the end of the world as we knew it.

It was in 1961-62, under the administration of former American President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that the subterranean missile silos and their accompanying Launch Control Centers (LCC) were constructed at the 12 locations, within a 50 mile radius of the now-defunct Plattsburg Air Force Base, in upstate New York.

This nuclear necklace, manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, was primed to launch against America’s Cold War arch-enemy, the USSR, and to a lesser degree, China. With their 4 megaton payloads (308 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) hell-on-earth could have started right here in our own backyard.

The only ICBM sites built east of the Mississippi, the installations now sit like gigantic empty wormholes, carved 180 feet deep into the solid granite of northern Vermont and New York. With their Atlas F missiles removed in 1965, due to greater advancements in nuclear weapon technology, the abandoned silos have become the rusting victims of time and weather, and the faded memories of Cold War paranoia.

Now, forty years later, many of the silos and accompanying properties are privately owned, some of which have been turned into underground homes. Others are owned by towns, school districts, water companies and other commercial businesses, with some available for purchase.

The Redford site in Adirondack State Park near Lake Placid, is on the seller’s block. Listed at $2.3 million, it is described in the sales brochure as, “surely one of the most unique real estate properties you could own. The perfect getaway home, it has its own airplane runway, it is climate controlled and is capable of withstanding a nuclear hit.”

Another site, a half-kilometer south of the Canadian border in Champlain, New York was recently sold for $175,000 – on eBay! But the Boquet 556-5 site (aka the Lewis Missile Base in Lewis, New York) is a real gem, and is being devotedly restored to its original 1962 Cold War condition.

This site was purchased for $160,000 in 1996, by Australian architect, Alexander Michael.  “Regarding why  I purchased the site; it was really a publicity stunt at first, which became an obsession,” explained the 46 year-old architect, who describes his architectural style as warehouse-chic. “I naturally wouldn't have done it had I not been interested in the first place with the extraordinary engineering, architecture and utility of the place, and aside from anything else, it provides me with an inexhaustible line of seemingly insurmountable projects that could easily last the rest of my life.”

Michael bought the site after reading about someone who had modernized a Kansas missile silo. The idea of owning and living in a former missile silo intrigued him. So he researched the idea and found that the Lewis site was up for sale. Shortly after, he flew to the U.S. and bought it. The original cost of building the site in 1961 dollars, was approximately $15-$18 million dollars.

He had compared the Lewis site with the other eleven missile sites in the area, and it and the Redford site (already privately owned) were in the best condition. The other ten sites were completely flooded by underground springs and not accessible without having them pumped out. Many had been salvaged, their metal interiors long ago taken out for scrap. “The Lewis site is the best preserved example of their former 1962 appearance.”

Ninety percent of the renovation work goes on underground, and over the last couple of years, he has been able to finally pump out the 174 foot deep silo. “We did lots of exploring down there and found all sorts of interesting things. Aside from delicate electrical devices and soft materials, the condition of the structure is remarkably good, considering,” said the architect.

“The other really interesting thing we did was to visit a junkyard close by. We actually found the door rams that opened my silo doors!! The thought of pressing a button and seeing the doors rise up is just toooo fabulous to resist. We are negotiating a price for them.” Each of the two silo doors weighs approximately 45 tons.

The silo and its accompanying LCC, which are connected by a tunnel, are nuclear blast proof. The LCC had been completely restored and is the section of the facility where Michael lives while doing the restoration work, assisted by local contractors.

He hopes to soon make the complex available for parties, weddings, school groups, tourism and history buffs. But he has already welcomed numerous visitors, including Anna Christina Radziwill, the niece and goddaughter of former President Kennedy, who attended a party at the site in 2004. “It didn’t occur to her that her uncle had these sites built,” he explained. “It was a connection she didn’t make, and it changed her attitude toward the site. She felt some kind of connection to it that she hadn’t had before her visit,’ said Michael.

“It's just extraordinary the diversity of people who are interested in these sites, and without exception, are all very educated, liberal and fascinated by the history.”

Michael may well be looked upon as an architectural pioneer and historian, a man who has ‘gone where no man has gone before,’ with his plans for this project.

The American Air Force retired its last Atlas F ICBM squadron in 1965, after the introduction of the solid fuel Minuteman missile (the high volatility of liquid-fuelled rockets, such as the Atlas F, made them dangerous to maintain).

But this was not the end of the missiles; some would finally get a chance to become airborne (once their nuclear warheads were removed and deactivated). They were used for the next twenty years to launch NASA’s manned vehicles in the space program. In fact, it was a re-purposed Atlas booster that put American astronaut, John Glenn into earth orbit.

The former ‘city killers’ and harbingers of the most unthinkable nightmares of self-annihilation, would now bring men to the new frontiers of outer space.

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