Swanton, Vermont, is dairy country. Travel down Swanton's Middle Road, and you're surrounded by pasture. The driveways lead to farmhouses, barns and tall, silver silos.
But there's another kind of silo here, too. Not far from town is a long, unmarked driveway, a little wider and straighter than the others. It leads to a pair of round-roofed, metal buildings called Quonset huts, which are partly obscured by a stand of trees and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.
The plot belongs to the Chevalier Drilling Company. Near the Quonset huts, surrounded by Chevalier's trucks and cranes, are two massive, metal-rimmed blocks of concrete. Each weighs 45 tons. They're actually doors nearly half a century old. And they're open. Beneath them is the underground silo they were built to protect. It's flooded, but the owners have pumped out enough water to expose a couple stories of discolored steel infrastructure. It resembles the inside of a raised shipwreck.
If you had peered down this shaft in the early 1960s, you would have been staring at the tip of a nuclear missile. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles have been in the news recently, thanks to the atomic ambitions of North Korea and Iran. It's easy to forget that Vermont and New York were once on the front lines of the arms race.
In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed 12 ICBM sites in a ring around the Air Force base in Plattsburgh — two in Vermont, 10 in New York. The military was scrambling to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union, and they spared no expense. Each site cost between $14 and $18 million to build, and could withstand a direct nuclear attack. Several workers died during the construction.
These Atlas F launch sites were some of the country's first underground silos, and they're still the only U.S. missile bases ever constructed east of the Mississippi River. They had a short shelf life, active only from the fall of 1962 until the spring of 1965 — but they left a lasting impression on the landscape. Now, instead of weapons, they hold strange tales of accidental death, contamination and good, old-fashioned American ingenuity.
These stories, like the launch sites themselves, are not easy to find. In a region speckled with a multitude of historical markers, just one lonesome sign — in Alburgh, Vermont — commemorates one of the sites, and it stands half a mile away. For the most part, the North Country's missile silos have been buried literally as well as figuratively. Fortunately, a variety of military and non-military websites describe the launch sites: Each included two Quonset huts, a utility shed and an antenna that could detect a nuclear attack up to 30 miles away.
The silo itself, 52 feet wide and 174 feet deep, was underground, encased in a shell of "super-hardened" concrete. It held an 81-foot-tall missile capable of being raised above ground and fired within 15 minutes. The eight-level steel infrastructure that held the missile and its equipment was suspended in the concrete shell by four giant springs to withstand the shock waves associated with a nuclear attack. It was an engineering marvel.
The silo was joined by tunnel to a two-story underground launch control center (LCC), where a five-person crew maintained the missile and awaited orders to fire. The missileers traveled from the outside world to the LCC via a staircase protected by two enormous blast doors and sheltered by an angular concrete structure. Today these structures, and the candy-cane-shaped vent pipes that accompany them, hint at what's below.
The crews belonged to the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron based in Plattsburgh. Richard Somerset of Essex Junction served as an Airman 2nd with the 556th. He remembers his unit as "the elite of the elite." He says, "It was a very proud time in my life,"
The crews were at the sites 'round the clock, maintaining the missiles and participating in drills. Somerset remembers traveling to the base in Lewis, New York, in the morning on duty days, and passing through two security checkpoints before entering the LCC. He remembers receiving a practice message that he first thought was a command to fire the missile. "The hair on the back of my head just went straight up," he recalls. "It was a strange, strange sensation."
Melvin Driskill, who served as a first lieutenant, remembers being on alert at the Swanton site during the first night of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The military had rushed to get the North Country silos armed, and Somerset reports that on that night, three of these silos, including his, had combat-ready missiles; according to 556th records, by the time the crisis ended 14 days later, the rest of the silos had been armed.
"If we had to push that button," says Driskill, "the sucker would have gone."
But as many of the folks who live near the sites will tell you, changes in fuel technology made the Atlas F missile bases more or less obsolete when they were built — hence their short life span. Locals even question whether the missiles would have been able to lift off the ground, much less hit their targets, something the missileers tend to dispute.
In any case, the government decommissioned the bases in 1965, as quickly as they were built. Many of them were looted for scrap. Ownership reverted to the towns, and some were eventually sold to private investors. A few of them have been contaminated with TCE, a degreasing compound. All of them flooded to some degree.
Interest in the properties has picked up in recent years, thanks to homesteaders like Edward Peden, who have turned former missile sites into residences. Through his Kansas-based company 20th Century Silos, Peden has sold 36 silos to buyers looking for a unique home, or even for a secure data-storage facility. He calls the structures "counterparts to the castles of Europe."
"These sites are going to exist for centuries," Peden says. "What they're going to be worth is incalculable."
Touring these unique, taxpayer-funded sites makes for an interesting trip through the North Country. It's a journey that explores our complicated relationship with the arms race, and introduces a set of colorful visionaries interested in taking advantage of it.
Site 1, Champlain, NY
Site 1 is on Missile Base Road in Champlain, a quarter-mile south of the Canadian border. It passed through the hands of various manufacturers until last fall, when Gerald "Fitz" Fitzpatrick bought the 8-acre site on eBay for $175,000. He plans to clean it up and live in the remaining Quonset hut, and possibly in the launch control center.
The wiry 50-year-old is a former Peace Corps volunteer who's worked for the past decade for the International Committee of the Red Cross, setting up prosthetic and orthopedic workshops for amputees in war-torn countries. He just finished a 14-month stint in Ethiopia, and arrived at the missile site two weeks ago.
Fitzpatrick bought it because he was tired of coming home to his folks' house in Ohio. "I needed my own place," he says. But why a missile site? "It was just something unique," he replies. "It could have been an old church. I was looking for a renovation challenge."
He found one. In the hut the concrete floor is cracked and covered with miscellaneous piles of supplies. Torn insulation panels dangle from the ceiling. The electricity is on, but the water is not. Fitzpatrick is currently living in a van inside the hut, drinking bottled water and showering at a nearby health club. "I call it urban camping," he says.
But if the hut is in rough shape, the LCC looks worse. Fitzpatrick straps on a pair of hip waders and a headlamp to explore it. The door that leads down the stairs is rusted shut; he climbs in through an empty window frame. Though most of the LCC is dry, a knee-deep pocket of water stands at the base of the stairs. Fitzpatrick says it's not contaminated, as far as he knows.
Past the rusting blast doors, rickety metal stairs lead to the LCC. A little natural light shines in from the open escape hatch on the first level. Using his flashlight, Fitzpatrick points out the former living area, kitchen and bathroom, which have been completely stripped. He proceeds carefully from the LCC through the tunnel to the silo itself. The blast door lies on the floor. He steps over it and onto the metal grates of the silo's second level, avoiding mushy piles of what looks like insulation.
No natural light penetrates this chamber. The flashlight beams illuminate the brownish metal, the mist of breath and the pool of greenish water. The only sound is intermittent dripping.
Fitzpatrick says he isn't sure what he plans to do with the silo. All in all, he says, "It's a mess. But I'm happy."
Site 2: Alburgh, VT
A historical marker outside the Alburgh visitors' center on Route 2 announces this missile site. Travel ambassador Jennifer Theoret says many visitors are "shocked and amazed" when they read the sign. "One man said, 'Oh, that's completely inappropriate because this is Vermont,'" she recalls.
The silo itself is located about half a mile away, on "Missle Base Road." Yes, it's misspelled on the sign. The Quonset huts are visible behind the tourist center.
Alburgh uses the site to store vehicles, equipment, and some old 55-gallon drums. A rusting pile of junk sits on top of the closed silo bay doors. The silo and the LCC are flooded. But the concrete shelter that houses the stairwell is not uninhabited - several birds dart out from their nest, agitated, when a visitor approaches.
Site 3: Swanton, VT
The Chevalier Drilling Company has owned this base for about 30 years, according to Mark Chevalier, who runs the company with his siblings. The Chevaliers drill wells, and the site is strewn with their machinery.
Chevalier says the company chose the location for its industrial appeal - the paved road, electricity, the Quonset huts. Pointing to the open missile silo, he adds, "This was kind of a bonus." When business is slow, their workers salvage steel from the silo and sell it. Chevalier says they've already taken out "a lot." That's why the doors are open.
This silo is actually the only one of the 12 that's exposed to the elements. Missile buffs say these doors may also be the only ones with the hydraulic opening-and-closing mechanisms intact.
Site 4: Willsboro, NY
This one's easy to find - just look for the Atlas Atelier and Fine Art Gallery sign on Route 22. An "open" flag waves out front. One afternoon in June, Tori Amos tunes emanate from the gallery speakers.
Artist and Air Force vet Tony L'Esperance bought the site in 1993 to house his business, making magnetic bulletin boards. A sportswear company had already cleaned up the aboveground portions and renovated the Quonset huts. L'Esperance set up shop there and built an apartment for himself in one of the huts.
When a skiing accident left him unable to walk, L'Esperance founded Atlas Picture Framing, and an arts center with a gallery in a hallway between the huts.
Before the start of the Iraq war, antiwar activists rallied at the site and formed a human peace symbol. "I wanted to actually build a huge dummy missile with anti-Bush things on it and then torch it," L'Esperance says.
He toyed with the idea of raising money for a museum. A historian once researched the site, and found that two workers had died there; seven had been disabled. L'Esperance also considered turning the silo into an amusement park, with a ride that would test whether visitors would actually push the button. But these days L'Esperance, 48, is more interested in selling his silo than in developing it. A neighbor has offered $425,000, and negotiations are under way.
L'Esperance reflects fondly on his tenure at the site. "It feels good that I've transformed it into something positive," he says. "From arms to art seems kind of nice."
Site 5: Lewis, NY
The Lewis site is the most impressively restored. Australian architect Alexander Michael bought it in 1996 for $160,000, and has turned the LCC into a stylish apartment full of Cold War campiness. He's chronicled the process on his website
Why would he want to live in an underground missile facility? "Who wouldn't?" asks the cheeky Aussie. "The cool factor is just unbelievable." Michael spends six weeks each year on the property. During his recent spring stay, he hosted a camera crew from Home and Garden TV.
Above ground, Michael has planted trees and is planning a pond. He's kept the launch doors open, but covered the silo with metal sheets, surrounding it with a solid-silver railing, and painted the escape hatch with an arresting black-and-red design.
Michael has done more extensive work below ground. "This is what they call the entrapment vestibule," he explains as he steps past the first heavy blast door, which can still swing on its hinges. "Sounds like an S&M lounge."
Michael has affixed black-and-yellow tape around the doors to the LCC, and has covered the stairs in orange tread. The orange theme continues in his living room, where an orange table sits on a black carpet. The walls of his bedroom downstairs are also orange. He prefers it to the original "rather awful green," Michael says. "Orange has real impact, lightness, real depth of hue."
It took seven years to complete work on the LCC, which includes a bathroom and kitchen, complete with its original sinks and soap dispensers. But the apartment's most intriguing feature is in Michael's bedroom downstairs. Perched on the black carpet in front of a black dressing screen is the original missile launch console - minus the launch button, which was stolen.
At Michael's 40th birthday party seven years ago, the drag queen Pennsylvania stood on the launch console and lip-synched to "Major Tom," Michael says. "You can still see the dent in the metal from her stiletto heels."
The final stop on the tour is the silo itself, which Michael has not yet restored. He hopes to interest a business partner in making this a dance club with a glass roof. His face in the flashlight beam, he observes, "This is just a fabulous space."
Site 6: Au Sable Forks, NY
A locked gate and "No Trespassing" signs greet visitors to Site 6, located next to an abandoned trailer on a remote stretch of road near Au Sable Forks, but developer and self-described hustler Michael "Mickey" Danielle is happy to open up for a tour.
Danielle - which he pronounces "Danny-Ellie," with a Brooklyn accent - bought the property 15 years ago. He'd like to find a buyer interested in building an industrial park. He's asking for more than $300,000.
The septuagenarian has never been down the stairs into the LCC. The staircase, embedded into a hill near the closed launch doors, is filled with dirt. Danielle says he's not even curious about what's below. He bought this land because of what he can see - besides the broken-down white minivan and piles of trash left by a squatter. "The only thing that convinced me on this property was this road and those power lines," he says.
Site 7: Riverview, NY
A rusty chain and "No Trespassing" signs bar entry to this site off Route 3, known to locals as Sugarbush. Visitors untroubled by the possibility of a fine will stumble upon 55-gallon drums, piles of trash and several large, rusting metal tanks, some of which appear to be leaking.
The site is missing its Quonset huts. The silo's launch doors are propped partway open, and surrounded by dozens of plastic jugs full of a yellowish liquid. The labels say it's non-edible vegetable oil.
According to the signs, the site's caretaker is one Keith A. Brown. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Site 8: Redford, NY
This missile site earned a write-up in The New York Times in 2002, when owners Gregory Gibbons and Bruce Francisco tried to sell it on eBay. Apparently, the $2 million-plus asking price was too steep - the property is still on the market.
Gibbons bought the property in the early 1990s for $55,000. He pumped out the flooded silo, converted the LCC into an upscale apartment, and built a house nearby. He worked with his cousin to build a home atop the silo itself, which connects to the LCC via an inside staircase. Pictures of the interior are available on the property's website, silohome.com.
The site is also distinguished by a small airstrip that was once the silo's driveway. The cousins have paved over the launch doors, but cracks in the asphalt reveal their location.
Francisco declined via email to arrange a tour of the house, citing new construction.
And the cousins are not keen on having visitors - their website never identifies the number or precise location of the site. Still, it's not hard to find. A trip to a bar on Route 3 near Redford revealed that locals call it Cherry Hill. A guy in a black Harley bandana even offered detailed directions.
Site 9: Dannemora, NY
Site 9 is now the headquarters for the Town of Dannemora's Highway Department. Both Quonset huts are still standing, used for storage. The candy-cane vent pipe has been dismantled; the escape hatch is full of wild daisies. The silo doors are closed; a Caterpillar pavement grader called "The Beast" is parked on top.
Superintendent Peter Barber says he's hauled out three 44-foot trailers of trash since he took office. He's never been down to the silo or the LCC, both of which are flooded; a mound of dirt blocks the stairwell door. But he'd like to capitalize on the historical nature of the site.
Barber remembers driving past it years ago and seeing the missile towering above ground. He'd like to recreate that experience for tourists. He muses about taking two of the 10-foot metal culverts lying in the grass, standing them end on end, and topping them off with a nose cone. He'd paint "Town of Dannemora" down the side.
"When they come down the mountain," he enthuses, "they'll be able to see it sticking out of the ground."
Site 10: Brainardsville, NY
Site 10 is actually located in Ellenburg, but it has a Brainardsville telephone exchange. Leonard Casey and his family live in the Quonset hut that remains on the site.
Casey, a stocky North Country native, bought the property for $22,000 in 1988. He thought it would make an ideal transfer station for his rock and firewood retailing business, Sticks and Stones.
In 1989, he began turning the Quonset hut into the home he now shares with his wife and their five daughters. Today it boasts seven bedrooms, five bathrooms, a living room and an exercise room with a hot tub; a sauna is on the way. Casey is working on a downstairs library with a floor-to-ceiling stone fountain.
His business is still based here, too. He'd moved some of his inventory into the second Quonset hut, but it burned down years ago.
The rest of the site looks much like the others - concrete stairwell, escape hatch, closed launch doors. Everything below ground is flooded. Casey pumps it out occasionally. He says he would have liked to live in the LCC, but his wife wouldn't have it. "My wife says, 'I'm not a mole, and I'm not living in a hole,'" he explains. Now, he says, "This is home."
Site 11: Ellenburg Depot, NY
Leonard Casey bought this site for $10,600 at an auction in the 1990s and stored rocks and firewood there. But the site looks abandoned - a wasp-infested trailer sits next to the empty Quonset huts.
Now Casey is selling it to a Vermonter who wants to drain the LCC and turn it into an underground home. He won't say how much he's making on the deal but calls it "a good profit."
Casey had intended to buy all of the North Country silos. "Someday my intention was to sell 'em back to the government," he says. But the niche silo-home market took off too fast and priced him out.
Casey picked up the Ellenburg Depot site after the town decided to unload it. Town Clerk Thelma LaBombard says the town bought it from the government in 1967. For years, they flooded part of it during winter months and used it as an ice skating rink. The firemen held field days on the property. Someone set up three horseshoe pits. All that came to an end when the military discovered TCE contamination. Casey says he's not concerned; testers at the Department of Environmental Conservation say the site is now safe. But a neighbor who asked to remain anonymous said her mother researched a cancer cluster in the area.
Site 12: Mooers, NY
The town of Mooers operates its garage on site 12 as if nothing at all were beneath it. They use the Quonset huts for storage, but they've paved over the launch doors and fixed metal bars across the opening to the stairwell. The water is up to the seventh step. The candy-cane pipe is gone.
Mechanical-equipment operator Jeff Brink says he's never been below, but he used to have a paper that listed the name of the missile and the part of the Soviet Union at which it was aimed. It's too bad they paved over those launch doors, he says - "I would have liked to see them open."