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.
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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.
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What is the status of the Hopmeier (Lewis) APA application for cannon testing?
The last I had heard, the APA application was deemed incomplete. Only crickets heard since.
Lisa Caputo says
Great story! Thanks Tom. I have passed it on to some others whom I think would be interested.
Tom French says
Thanks Lisa! It was a fun story to research… in a slightly disturbing way.
The central cone like structure is not an escape hatch. Do more research before you write.
Tom French says
Hello Randall — Thanks for reading and commenting. As the picture shows, the central funnel in the LCC was filled with sand. When released, it was supposed to allow the missileers a means of escape — along with a sledge hammer to break through the nuclear glass. Fortunately, whether it would work was never tested. If you have other information, please share.
Lori Phelps says
What a fascinating story, Tom. It is interesting to know that we
had facilities such as these in place.
Tom French says
Thanks for reading and commenting, Lori. And to think all those years growing up in the North Country we thought we might just be a little isolated from the apocalypse! Oh yeah, I forgot, Fort Drum was only 20 miles away. At least the zombies couldn’t get us.
william hill says
What a great article Tom! You’ve shed some light on a piece of little-known ( but yet hugely important) Adirondack history. Keep up the fine work!
Tom French says
Thanks William! I’ve known about the silos since the 1990s — mostly because of the historic marker at the Vermont tourist center on the other side of the Rouses Point Bridge. But it’s amazing how many people are unaware of this Cold War Adirondack History, and how close they are to many Adirondack landmarks. I’m glad to help illuminate that history — even if it is in a jaw-dropping kind-of-way.
Visitors can see the blast doors up close and personal by driving the quarter mile down Missile Base Road, which is adjacent to the information center.
Susan N says
I agree with the positive comments above; this story was fascinating! Is there a longer version in the works?
Tom French says
Hello Susan — thanks for reading and commenting. No longer story in the works at this point, but these relics of the Cold War will outlast us all. I’m sure future writers will be writing about them for centuries! If you have any specific questions, please ask and I will do my best to answer. Some details did not make the final cut.
Gary mahoney says
Great article. I was stationed at Pafb from Oct 1962 to Aug 1966. When I arrived the Cuban missile crisis was developing. I was put in charge of snow removal at the chazy lake(Dannemora), Brainardsville and Ellenberg missile sites.during the summer I was in the masonry shop and I sometimes was sent down into the silos to repair water leaks with hydraulic cement.I was probably in 9 of the 12 silos.l seem to recall the escape hatch being in the ceiling of the stairwell.could be wrong about that.there were 8 floors and a sump or basement where the huge sump pumps were located. Been down there many times. Scary place for an eighteen year old kid.worked at the sites off and on till they phased them out.I believe sometime in late 1964 or early1965.on an interesting note l live in Pennsylvania and I recently discovered relatives living on the adjoining property of one of my old sites.I have since visited many of the sites including Vermont.It seems like a lot of the townships use these for storage and repair for their communities I also visited the base I had not been back too since 1966. Wow! It was a great experience.your great article has stirred up many pleasant memories
Tom French says
Hello Gary — thanks for reading and commenting. You add some colorful details to the history!
Memory can be strange, but based on my tours, and as you can see in the picture, the “escape hatch” from the LCC was through the funnel structure, so it was in the ceiling in a certain way. The whole facility was designed to withstand a one-megaton hit within a half mile. They were designed before reliable radar would allow detection of an incoming missile — so the whole plan was to potentially launch after being hit. Perhaps there were other means of escape for the missileers, as such, though once they launched their missile, they were sort of on their own.
You are also correct regarding the dates. They were “operational” beginning in the early 60s and were decommissioned by 1965. In my research, many people suggested they were obsolete before even coming on line.
I’m glad your memories were pleasant. As a child of Duck & Cover Drills, I’m just glad we all survived it : )
Christine Cayea says
My husband Floyd Cayea was the concrete foreman on the mussel sites. He pored the caps on all of them. Wish he was still alive he would of loved to have read this
Mike H says
Love this article. As a kid growing up near Griffiss AFB in Rome, there were always rumors about secret missle silos at the facility – but then people would say “no the silos are somewhere farther up north”. Somehow I never knew until recently that there actually were silos in the ADK park. Fascinating stuff!
Tom French says
Hello Mike — Thanks for reading and commenting. People often forget that the Adirondack Park was surrounded by military facilities, between Griffiss, Fort Drum, and Plattsburgh (and others near Albany). We may think we live in an isolated place, but the real world is only an hour away. Okay, maybe two.
Matt McKeever, RN says
Thanks for a great story, Tom! I had the pleasure of touring the Lewis site, which has been wonderfully restored by its former owner. I plan to get out to the Vermont and Champlain sites this Summer. A lot of good information in your article! Well done , sir!
Tom French says
Hello Matt — Thanks for reading and commenting. Adirondack Architectural Heritage is sponsoring a tour of the Lewis site this summer. You can find more information here: https://aarch.org/
Edward Hanlon says
Tom, Excellent article. I was with the 556th Stategic Missile Squadron Atlas “F” ICBM at Plattsburgh in 1965 when they were being decommissioned. It was argued they were “obsolete” by the time they came on line. To some extent, there is a bit of truth there, but they were also built as a nuclear deterrent which proved to be correct. The Atlas “D”, “E”, and “F” came as a complete surprise to the Russians. They played an important role in the Cuban Crisis. We had tactical missiles which didn’t have the range; the Russians had tactical missiles which didn’t have range. Then, they found out we had ICBM’s which could hit any part of Russia. In addition, the squadron at Plattsburgh was the only ICBM squadron east of the Mississippi and in a severe winter climate. This extended their range.
During normal launch training exercises, none of the missiles worked properly, but if the order had come, every single one of them would have launched and hit their targets.
Their concept never was really obsolete; the Saturn moon rocket is a version of the Atlas. It’s like the relationship between the Boeing 787 and the Boeing 707.
Tom French says
Hello Edward — Thanks for adding more interesting information to the story of the silos in the Adirondacks. More than one of my sources also confirmed that they were obsolete by the time they came online. One source even suggested they may have been obsolete before shovels hit the ground, but as you point out, it was also about deterrence and an arms race.