old missile silo
The strange history of 12
former nuclear-weapons sites in the North Country, and what
you can find there today—from trash heaps to fancy homes
By Cathy Resmer
Vt., is dairy country. Travel down Swanton’s Middle Road and
you’re surrounded by pasture. The drive- ways 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 Co. 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 50 years 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 New York and Vermont once were 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:
10 in New York, two in Vermont. The military was scrambling
to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union, and it
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
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, Vt.— 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 nonmilitary Web sites 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
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
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,
Vt., 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 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.
we had to push that button,” says Driskill, “the sucker would
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, which is something the missileers tend to dispute.
In any case, the government decommissioned the bases in 1965.
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
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
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
has 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
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 currently is 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
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
No natural light penetrates this chamber. The flashlight’s
beam illuminates the brownish metal, the mist of breath and
the pool of greenish water. The only sound is intermittent
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.”
You can follow Fitzpatrick’s progress at his Web site, www.killer
2: Alburgh, Vt.
historical marker out-side 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.’ ”
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.
3: Swanton, Vt.
Chevalier Drilling Co. 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
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
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
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,” L’Esperance says, “and then torch it.”
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 workers 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.”
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 Web site, www.siloboy.com.
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
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,” he 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
6: Au Sable Forks
locked gate and “No Tres-passing” 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
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,” he says, “was this road and those power
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
According to the signs, the site’s caretaker is one Keith
A. Brown. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
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 Web site, 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 Web
site 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.
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
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 re-create 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.
they come down the mountain,” he enthuses, “they’ll be able
to see it sticking out of the ground.”
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
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
His business is still based here, too. He’d moved some of
his inventory into the second Quonset hut, but it burned down
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.”
11: Ellenburg Depot
Casey bought this site for $10,600 at an auction in the 1990s
and used it to store rocks and firewood. But the site looks
abandoned: A wasp-infested trailer sits next to the empty
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.
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.
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.”