The Nuclear Bomb in our Backyard – ICBM’s In Vermont And New York
(Story and Photos By: Robert J. Galbraith)
‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ – It may be difficult to find anyone living in media-savvy North America who hasn’t heard this term, especially after the launch of the Iraq war in March of 2003.
But few Quebecers are aware that 12 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s), the cutting edge of nuclear Cold War weaponry, were once ready to launch from silos located in Vermont and New York, just over an hours’ drive south of Montreal.
It was in 1961-62, under the administration of former President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that the subterranean missile silos and their accompanying launch control chambers were constructed at 12 locations, within a 50 mile radius of the now-defunct Plattsburg Air Force Base.
This nuclear necklace was primed to launch against America’s Cold War arch-enemy, Russia, and to a lesser degree, China. Their 4 megaton payloads were 308 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The only ICBM sites built east of the Mississippi, the installations now sit like pistol-less holsters, their Atlas F missiles removed in 1965 due to greater advancements in nuclear weapon technology. The abandoned silos have been all but forgotten, becoming the rusting victims of time and weather, and the fading memory of Cold War paranoia.
Forty years later, many of the silos and accompanying properties are privately owned, with some available for purchase.
Site 5 (officially named Boquet 556-5) aka Lewis Base, in Lewis, New York, is undergoing a fascinating renovation project that is bringing it back to its 1962 Cold War condition.
Six years ago, Sydney, Australia resident Alexander Michael read a magazine article about someone who had modernized a Kansas silo. The idea of owning and living in a former nuclear missile site struck the 41-year-old architect as an intriguing possibility. He learned that Site 5, located in Adirondack State Park, a favourite tourist destination for many Montrealers, was up for sale.
After inquiring about the possibility of purchasing the Lewis site, Michael flew to the United States and bought it for $160,000.00. The original cost of each site, in 1961 dollars, was approximately $15 million.
“Everyone has a strange reaction when I tell them I own a missile silo. I imagine if, before I purchased the site, someone told me they owned a missile site in Upstate New York, I guess I would have reacted with disbelief,” explained Michael. “No matter which way you look at it, it is a bit bizarre.”
The slightly eccentric, good humoured architect is a pleasant man of 41 years. He describes his architectural style as industrial chic and hardware-warehouse chic. “I compared it (the Lewis site) with the other missile sites, and this and the Redford site (already privately owned) were in the best condition.”
The Redford site near Lake Placid (the location of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games) is a relative palace, and is on the seller’s block, listed at $2.3 million. Gutted of all its original interior, it includes over 20 acres, a private airport runway with hangar, and an above and below ground home. It is described in the sales brochure as, ‘the perfect getaway home; it has its own direct runway access, it is climate controlled and capable of withstanding a nuclear hit!’
“The other ten sites are completely flooded by underground springs and not accessible,” says Michael. “Many have 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 his renovation work takes place underground, and since Michael spends only a month each spring and fall at the site, he is reliant on a local contractor for doing much of the work in his absence.
Being in a state park brings stricter building regulations, but Michael agrees with park construction regulations. “I am more than happy to comply. It is a state park after all, and it is extraordinarily beautiful here.”
He says the close proximity to New York City greatly influenced his decision to buy the 5-acre site. “Location is the name of the game,” he insists. “It is the closest ICBM site to New York City and a great launching pad to the natural beauty of the Adirondacks, something you don’t have at a site such as Roswell, Kansas.”
Last year Michael threw a party at the site for a group of close friends from New York City, Australia and Italy. “When the bus from New York City arrived with my friends, they were anxious and envious. They just bolted out the door like a bunch of kids in a candy store. I couldn’t hold them back. Their excitement and enthusiasm never let up over the three days they were here,” he said with obvious pride. “I got an enormous thrill out of their reactions.”
One of the friends at the party was Anna Christina Radziwill, the niece and goddaughter of former President Kennedy. “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.”
With just over a year’s worth of work left to be done to complete the work on the site (mainly pumping the water out of and restoring the 174-foot- deep silo), Alexander Michael is thrilled about his accomplishment so far. He hopes to make the complex available for parties, weddings, school groups, tourism and history buffs. And, although he says he has probably invested another $160,000 into upgrading the site, he gets immense satisfaction from bringing the former Cold War relic into the 21st century. “In the end, it’s all about the mystery, the history, and getting over daunting obstacles. The sense of achievement is just huge.”