Atlas of the North Country

The Nuclear Threat Among the Adirondacks


Far below the ground, five men sit in a small, dimly lit room, with all sorts of buttons bleeping and switches glowing.  Radar screens flash coordinates and a telephone sits, waiting to ring.  Five ordinary men, with extraordinary responsibility, sit in this room, waiting for a very specific call.

These men have been tested and trained to ensure their psychological and physical health, and when tens of thousands, maybe even millions of people’s lives are in these men’s hands, that reassurance is the least that can be had. 

Every last one of these men hopes that this call will never have to be answered.

Adirondack missile launchWhat a missile launch may have looked like in the Adirondacks.

But if one day, the orders were to come in, they would launch a nuclear warhead straight over the North Pole and into the U.S.S.R., most likely causing mass casualties.

An Enormous Sense of Responsibility

Between the Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and the 10 nuclear missile silos located in northern New York, the U.S.S.R. had a lot to worry about in this area if a nuclear war ever broke out between the two superpowers of the time. 

 

According to Jim Bailey, the Plattsburgh City Historian, there were sites located in Champlain, Mooers, Ellenburg, Harrigan Corners, Chazy Lake, Clayburg, Sugarbush, and AuSable, all of which housed nuclear weaponry at one point. 

There were also four other ballistic missile sites in the area, including ones in Boquet, Willsboro, and in Vermont they were located in Alburg and Swanton. 

And although the Cold War has long since ended, the Air Force base and the missile silos long ago put out of commission, you can still feel the remnants of this very tense time in American history. 

“There are eight missile silos in Clinton County,” says Clinton County Historian Anastasia Pratt. “There are also two in Essex County and two in Vermont.” 

“We had to confiscate a camera and film once,”

Each station had it’s own security precautions; two guards, armed with a .38 caliber pistol, each taking three different shifts a day patrolled the perimeter and handled visitors, as well as some domestic threats.

Adirondack missile launchAn atlas missile site located in Ausable.

“We had to confiscate a camera and film once,” says Reginald Miller, a sergeant in the Military Police and the head security guard at the site located in Mooers.  “A secretary was taking pictures of the missiles and the launch pads.” 

Miller admits that there was never any sort of “007” like breach of security, and that the secretary was probably taking pictures for “personal use.” 

These silos housed huge, 82 foot high Atlas liquid-fueled missiles, and they were capable of causing quite a bit of destruction. 

According to Richard Somerset, a Ballistic Missile Analyst who worked in the silo in the town of Lewis, NY, these incredible devices could launch a single warhead 10,000 miles away, and the blast could completely wipe out 10 square miles around the target. 

The rockets were capable of producing 389,000 pounds of thrust, which could send these nuclear behemoths well into Russian airspace.

The missiles required a hole 52 feet in diameter that was 174 feet deep in order to properly house them.  The underground control centers were connected to the silos through a 100 foot long tunnel.  All in all, over 8,000 cubic yards of concrete were used to create these enormous structures. 

“They were made out of thin aluminum,” says Miller.  “Every few days it would wrinkle up and they would inflate it with hydrogen.”

“The contact crews were not supposed to know where the targets of the missile are” 

In order to gain the enormous responsibility of launching a nuclear weapon, there were quite a few filters for people that could not psychologically handle wiping out whole cities.

Somerset explains that “the contact crews were not supposed to know where the targets of the missile are.”  This was solely because of the psychological effects of wiping out tens of thousands of people. 

“Too many people do not realize the destructive power of nuclear weapons,” says Somerset.  He explained that even after the original blast, which completely wipes out a 2-mile radius and has a blast radius of 10 miles, another dangerous consequence of nuclear weapons is nuclear fallout. 

“The explosive force is so great, when the air is moving away from the explosion it is traveling at 400 miles an hour; this causes a vacuum that picks up radioactive debris,” says Somerset.  “That is what forms the mushroom cloud.”

This mushroom cloud is what causes the fallout. 

“Fallout could precipitate, depending on the winds, one, two, or 300 miles away from the blast,” says Somerset.

“They were a part of a much bigger network of missile silos across the country,” says Jack Downs, a Press-Republican reporter who did a series of articles on the topic back in the ‘80s.

“The feeling was that they were pretty much obsolete by the time they were installed,” says Downs. 

It is undeniable that times have changed; when these missile silos were in commission a five man team was in place, including three enlisted men.  Every silo was worked on by a missile crew commander, a deputy commander, a missile facility technician, a power generation technician, and a ballistic missile analyst.  All of these men worked together to ensure that a successful launch was always capable and ready.

“Now its only two officers,” says Somerset. “There are only a few times when you see an enlisted man who is authorized to launch.”

All around the area, you can see hints of the Cold War, but understand that these structures, which took a lot of time and effort to complete, were virtually useless by the time they were in commission. 

“Around that time, it was very cutting edge technology,” says Somerset.  “You’re doing something that 90 percent of the population doesn’t know about.” 

Miller says, “We had a good crew; it was just like any other workplace.” 

And now that the cold war is over, many of the former missile silos have been converted into private housing, bought up by wealthy people with a lot of ambition, and capital.  However, it is quite difficult, and the idea of having a silo-home may sound more appealing than it really is.

And even though the destructive power of these nuclear missiles has long left the area, the remnants of this amazing time in history are still dotted all around us. 

Did you know about Plattsburgh's nuclear history?