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Military ruins haunt Eagle River mountain top

Craig Medred
USAF photo by Sr. Airman Laura Turner

The ghosts of a war that never came haunt the ruins atop a mountain high above the suburban community of Eagle River, just north of Alaska's largest city. Poking among the empty concrete buildings now, though technically they remain closed to the public, it's more than a little scary to think about that against which they were built to defend: 

Cataclysmic global war.

Star Wars was being contemplated here long before President Ronald Reagan in 1983 announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed space and missile-based defense system for North America quickly tagged "Star Wars." Even before the first movie in a series of movies called "Star Wars" first rocketed to international success in 1977 to change the way America thought about space.

Welcome to Alaska's Site Summit, in some ways one of the spookier places on the globe. In the now-deserted bunkers here were kept the surface-to-air missiles with which the Army hoped to destroy airplanes from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) bent on attacking the United States.

This was the late 1950s and on into the 1960s. The Second World War -- which ended with the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan -- was not long over. The Soviet Union -- which had been nearly crushed by Nazi Germany -- had risen to become a world power. Led to victory by a ruthless dictator, wary of what it had seen in Japan, terrified by what it had discovered of German plans for a nuclear weapon, the USSR soon had it's own nuclear bombs.

Global tensions rose toward a historic peak. Americans were digging home "fall-out shelters." American school children were drilled in how to flee their classrooms for nearby ditches where they were to taught to hit the ground and curl up to survive a nuclear blast. There was "an eerie peacetime preoccupation with enemy attacks on American soil. The Soviet threat gave civil defense a new prominence. In 1950, Congress created the Civil Defense Administration, which in turn brought America public fallout shelters, the Emergency Broadcast System, food stockpiles -- and Bert the Turtle's 'duck and cover'" initiative to save students.

Be afraid, children. Be very afraid.

It all seems like ancient history now, of course. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The republics that had formed the union split into more than a dozen independent countries. The biggest and most powerful among them, Russia, became so preoccupied with its internal social and economic problems that there was no time to worry about global conflict.

Today, the nuclear threat comes mainly from unstable nations like North Korea that sometimes seem intent on going rogue. And rogues are always dangerous because they operate outside the norms of predictable, sensible behavior. Back in the 1950s, when the Army started blasting away the top of Mount Gordon Lyon to create a missile base, the whole world seemed on the verge of going rogue.

Site Summit, and more than 140 Nike-Hercules missile sites across the country, were America's answer to the craziness. If you'd been in Anchorage in the 1960s, when Nike missiles were being tested, you could have watched the program light up the sky. This wasn't, of course, the only Nike site built to protect what were then the U.S. Army's Fort Richardson and the U.S. Air Force's Elmendorf Air Base. The "bunkers" at Kincaid Park in South Anchorage once housed things far deadlier than the equipment to groom cross-country ski trails. And there were, in addition to Kincaid and Site Summit, six other Nike missile sites in the newly created state of Alaska.

You can read a whole, whole lot more about it here or here. The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service and others are now in engaged in trying to help Friends of Nike Site Summit preserve what is left atop the mountain and hopefully, one day, open it to the public for tours.

Maybe, by Halloween 2012, you will be able to walk among the ghosts of the war that most thankfully didn't happen despite the massive preparation for it. The Army built a small town above Eagle River to man Site Summit. Sixty feet had to be blown off the top of the mountain to level the ground for a "Battery Control Building." Another ridge was flattened to create a launch area. Underground bunkers were blasted into the mountain to provide for missile storage. Some 125 servicemen moved into the facilities to stand watch 24/7. Missiles were launched in November and December from 1960-1963 as part of regular base training. They rocketed over what is now Eagle River.

It was a truly spooky time to be a resident of Anchorage's first real suburb.

But the ghosts of the men who served there probably remember most the frightening Alaska weather. The temperature atop the mountain reportedly hit 49 degrees below zero in 1969, and the record winds are reported to have reached 260 kilometers per hour or 161.56 mph if you can believe that. Compared to such earthly frights, whose afraid of any old ghost?

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Halloween in 2012.