Nuclear missiles and the silos that housed them in the Adirondacks
By Tom French
Many people travel to the Adirondacks to escape the bedlam of the modern world, but for a time during the Cold War, it was ground zero for nuclear annihilation. Several Atlas F missile silos were blasted out of Adirondack anorthosite in a ring around Plattsburgh and seven of the 12 sites are inside the Blue Line.
With walls almost 10 feet thick made from super-hardened, bomb-proof, epoxy-resin concrete, these 18-story Cold War monuments will survive for thousands of years. Internal frameworks floated in the air, suspended from pneumatic cylinders to isolate the facility from shock waves in the event of a nuclear attack. Light fixtures dangled from springs to absorb the impact, and the launch control center (LCC) was even wrapped inside a Faraday cage to protect it from an electromagnetic pulse. To launch, two 45-ton overhead doors were opened and the “bird” was lifted out on an elevator.
Future ballistics testing site?
Site 5 in Lewis is the most historically intact, perhaps because it never flooded (most sites have) and a previous owner, Alexander Michael, restored the site in hopes of creating livable space for “weddings, dinner parties, concerts, art exhibits or even a disco,” according to a 2010 Press Republican article. Micheal received an AARCH Preservation Award in 2012. Prior to Michael, the site was a cosmic-ray detector for researchers at Plattsburgh State.
Micheal Hopmeier, president of Unconventional Concepts Inc., a national security consulting firm, purchased it in 2015 and uses the site for research focused on barrel wear, radio frequency propagation, atmospheric physics, and other national security projects. He recently applied to the Adirondack Park Agency for permission to expand ballistics testing.
During a tour, Hopmeier explained how various design factors harken to medieval castles with defensive doglegs and angled corners. Two armored doors with a “murder hole” formed a mantrap in case the facility was overrun. 7000-pound, curved blast doors were the last line of defense. The silos were designed to withstand a one-megaton hit within a half mile and remain fully functional.
The inside of the crew quarters is dominated by a cone-like structure in the center of the 40-foot diameter room – the escape hatch. After a nuclear strike, the missileers could venture into the wasteland by pulling a lever, releasing four tons of protective sand. The sand at the top was expected to be glassed over from the detonation.
A short life as a beer cave
Site 7 near Loon Lake has the most colorful post-Cold War history, including a Missile Silo Stout, rappelling for a short paddle, and a deadly accident.
Sara and Dan Burke purchased the property in 2006 for their farming operation, Atlas Hoofed It Farm. The silo was just a coincidence and “actually made life harder for us,” Sara Burke said. Their first attempt at a mortgage was denied because of the silo, and a failed biofuel operation prior to the Burke’s ownership required clean-up.
Clean-up and salvage are common themes of silo ownership. Hopmeier reports removing 150 tons of garbage dumped into his silo over the years, and Burke says they’re always finding junk from the military days. PCBs, lead, mercury and toxic solvents are other concerns.
A tragedy occurred in the Burkes’ silo in 1979, perhaps involving unexploded ordnance left in the silo. When a man and his sons decided to reclaim steel from the superstructure, they pumped the water out and began torching the metal into manageable pieces. At some point, the father hit an artillery round and was killed by the explosion.
In the aftermath, someone tried to close the launch doors. The hydraulics broke and one door has been partially open ever since.
The Burkes decided the door should be sheathed for safety reasons. But before they sealed it, Dan tossed in a raft, wriggled through, and had friends belay him down. He paddled around and took pictures just to prove he’d been in it.
Other than Dan’s expedition, the Burkes have never accessed the silo. The tunnel from mission control is underwater. They use the crew quarters to store hoses because it never freezes, which is also how a decommissioned missile silo became a real beer cave.
After chatting with Kevin Litchfield, brewmaster for Big Slide, the friends decided the near constant 50 degrees would be perfect for lagering beer. The idea for a Missile Silo Series was born. Yet, a health inspector suggested the room might need to be inspected. “It didn’t make sense to us,” Sara Burke said, “because the sealed kegs were just being stored.”
To Russia with Love was the only beer to make it to market.
New uses for the sites’ Quonset huts
When the silos were decommissioned in the mid-’60s, some municipalities purchased the properties for their Quonset huts. Most installations had two. The town of Dannemora used one for their highway garage until it burned in 2010. The other was used for storage until it was replaced with a salt shed in 2021. The cement pad and launch doors are covered with piles of gravel, a plow and spare parts.
The Quonset huts at Site 4 in Willsboro were converted into a goggle factory for Leader Sports before being sold to Air Force veteran and artist Tony L’Esperance in 1993. Atlas Atelier and Fine Art Gallery was open until his death. Steve Helsby and his wife, Kay, purchased the property in 2018 as a “retirement project.”
“I do a lot of self-sufficiency stuff,” Steve Helsby said.
He’s installing a solar system and hopes to use the water filling the silo for a ground source heat pump. He’s also toyed with installing a gravity battery, but a priority has been the Quonset hut roofs, which had a number of leaks. In the process, he also painted a Ukrainian flag on the corrugated metal. Videos documenting his progress can be found on his YouTube channel.
It’s reported that Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey owns Site 8 near Redford. In the 1990s, Bruce Francisco converted the LCC into a “luxury home” complete with private runway. Francisco markets silos nationwide as the “Most Unique Secure Real Estate in the World.” Pictures on his website feature an entertainment center beneath the “marbled” cone of the escape funnel.
Efforts to reach the owners of Site 6 in Au Sable Forks were unsuccessful, though no structures remain above ground. The access stairwell to the LCC is smashed, and the silo is filled with water.
Among private citizens, Leonard Casey has owned a silo for perhaps the longest, and he owns two. He uses them for his business, Sticks and Stones.
“I didn’t know anything about missile bases. I just stumbled onto it. I needed a staging area for my stones.” Casey gathers them from old pasture walls.
He bought his first silo near Brainardsville in 1988 and converted the remaining Quonset hut into a home. His other silo is Site 11 at Ellenburg Depot. For a time, he thought the government might buy them back as storage facilities. “If anybody ever wanted to contain something – shut that door and seal it in. It ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
In 2016, Hopmeier hosted a reunion for roughly 150 missileers. The event was attended by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, and a StoryCorps booth.
The veterans, Hopmeier said, “talked about what it was like going down that stairwell knowing they were targets along with their families (in Plattsburgh). They were on the front lines of the Cold War.”
He pointed to the thermonuclear flash detector, a red and white pole still standing sentry over his site. Lightning was known to set them off. “To me, that symbolizes what those guys faced. Every time that alarm went off, they didn’t know if it was a real strike, whether their families were already dead, and now they were being asked to kill millions of people. They hadn’t spoken about this in years. Some broke down in tears.”
Hopmeier donated his launch console to the Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum. It has been restored and programmed to mimic the light sequence of a launch. Guided by historic checklists, visitors will still need two keys to initiate the sequence.