Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Pyramid on the Prairie

For almost ten years, I was the primary historian who worked preservation issues for a very unusual historic site in North Dakota. No battles occurred there, no pre-historic remains lie beneath its surface and no famous person was born there. In fact, this military installation was only operational for less than one year in the mid 1970s. What made this Cold War era site so important is what it accomplished without firing a shot. The highly advanced technologies that made it a success also doomed its existence as an operational system.

Now this site has been declared surplus and is being auctioned off to the highest bidder.


Photo by author


As a result of the USSR’s successful testing on August 26, 1957 of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and subsequent orbiting of the Sputnik I satellite, defense of the United States against ballistic missiles became a national priority. Following a decade of technology development and system tests, a Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) site was authorized by Congress to be constructed near Nekoma, North Dakota to defend Minuteman ICBMs based near Grand Forks, North Dakota. Construction started in the late 1960s.
The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex (SRMSC) lies in extreme northeast North Dakota, scattered across four counties. The SRMSC consisted of two phased-array radars, the Missile Site Radar (MSR) and the Perimeter Acquisition Radar (PAR). Both the MSR and PAR sites were considered small, self-contained communities. The four Remote Sprint Launch (RSL) sites, clustered about the MSR at varying distances, were manned by personnel garrisoned at the MSR.

Location of the SRMSC in North East North Dakota

The SRMSC became operational on October 1, 1975 and was inactivated on February 10, 1976. It was the only operational ABM system ever deployed in the free world. It is generally recognized that its construction and activation were instrumental in successfully negotiating the ABM and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) Treaties with the Soviet Union. The PAR was leased to the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in September 1977, and currently remains operational as an early warning and surveillance radar for the North American Air Defense Command and Satellite Surveillance Network. The USAF redesignated the PAR Site as Cavalier Air Station. The remainder of the SRMSC was dismantled and placed in a caretaker status until December 1991, when the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command (USASMDC) reacquired accountability for the property in preparation for possible future ABM deployment. Although there was great hope in the local community that a deployment would bolster the sagging agricultural economy, SRMSC was not chosen as a home to the new Ground-Based Midcourse Defense site. Fort Greely, near Fairbanks Alaska received that honor. The 49th Missile Defense Battalion operates a new missile defense system at that remote installation.
The four RSL sites, located within 20 miles of the MSCB, were in the general area of the Minuteman missiles which they were to defend. Each occupied from 36 to 45 acres of land. The sites were composed of security stations, heat sinks, fuel storage tanks, waste stabilization ponds, and a Sprint missile launch area containing 12 to 16 launch stations. They also contained a hardened, buried, reinforced-concrete Remote Launch Operations Building (RLOB) - a single-story structure that controlled and monitored the RSL sites as the signals from the MSCB directed. The RLOB connected to the surface through a hardened concrete tunnel, 11 feet wide and 90 feet long.

Jerry Greenwood (center) long time site manager at SRMSC, discusses preservation options
with representatives from the North Dakoka Historic Preservation Office. This is inside the tunnel
leading to the Remote Launch Control Building at RSL-3. Photo by author.

Graphic Engagement Walktrough


Contemporary video of how the system worked

The total area of the MSR site is 433 acres, and is 102 miles northwest of Grand Forks, and 12 miles south of Langdon, close to the tiny agrarian town of Nekoma. About 25 air miles separate the MSR and PAR sites. The MSR saw little or no use after closure. A non-tactical portion of the MSR (274 acres) was acquired by the General Services Administration (GSA) in 1977. During the period after closure, the GSA made little provision for maintenance and repair for many of the buildings. As a result of the low maintenance program and the harsh environmental conditions during the winter season, many of the structures were significantly damaged with some becoming irreparable. All of the family housing units and many of the other non-tactical buildings have been removed. MSR site facilities included an associated partially-buried, earth-mounded Power Plant (MSRPP), a heat sink, fuel storage tanks, two test towers, the Universal Missile Building (UMB), the Warhead Handling Building (WHB), security stations and Sprint and Spartan launch areas with over 100 missile launch tubes. Non-tactical buildings included: an industrial building; water storage ponds; waste water stabilization ponds; enlisted men’s quarters and dining complex; Bachelor Officers’ Quarters complex; a community center; a dispensary; a chapel; a gymnasium; outdoor recreational facilities; family housing; and miscellaneous support structures.

The Missile Site Radar (MSR).  The Spartan and Sprint launch silos are in the foreground.  The edge of the non-tactical area is seen
top right.  It included housing, HQ building, maintenance buildings, motor pool, chapel, dining hall, PX, bowling and alley. 
Everything need to support a small community. Photofrom:


 The Missile Site Control Building (MSCB) is the focal point for the MSR and is a landmark that is visible for miles around the complex. “The Pyramid,” as it is known locally, was flooded in the years after closure, as a result of seeping groundwater. A salvage effort, shortly after closure, resulted in debris left hanging from walls and ceilings and heaped on the floors. Through a mammoth effort it has subsequently been drained and the vast interior of the structure has been cleared of the tangled debris that had covered its floors. The MSCB has approximately 127,000 square feet of floor area, two subterranean main floors housed a computer rooms, radar control stations, tactical operations centers and a massive power plant with five 7,000 horsepower diesel generators. Two above-ground floors which housed Tactical Support Equipment (TSE) and contained the four phased array radar faces for providing hemispheric coverage.

Photo from the Historic American Engineer Record on the MSR.  The Missile Site Control Building and its exhaust stacks from its
underground power plant.  Some have called these stacks the "North Dakota Stonehenge."  The pyramid can be seen for miles around and is a local landmark.  It has become part of the cultural landscape. Photo from the Historic American Engineering Record for SRMSC.

In 1993, the USASMDC made the decision to prepare Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documentation for the tactical areas of the SRMSC in preparation for a possible new deployment of an ABM system. I was one of a team of historians who were involved in writing the report, gathering primary sources and getting the finished product accepted by the National Park Service and the Library of Congress. The SRMSC HAER is one of largest and most comprehensive recordations of its type ever prepared. The data is presented in several parts. First, it provides a detailed historic context for the complex as a whole. Second it provides historical background, construction drawings and photographs on over 60 buildings. And finally, the most significant and complex buildings, such as the MSCB, PAR and RLOBs have multiple photographs, drawings and enhanced historical information. Representative information for both a Sprint and Spartan Missile launch silo is provided to record all of the Spartan (30) and Sprint (70) silos. The SRMSC HAER has been deposited at the Library of Congress, and the North Dakota State Historical Society, where current and future Cold War scholars may have access to this important historical resource.
Much of the information in the HAER has been made available on this excellent website:
I also prepared a Cultural Resource Management Plan in accordance with Army Regulations. This book-length document provides details on the setting in North Dakota, an extensive history of the area from pre-historic to modern times, and preservation options for the buildings. The GSA has placed my Cultural Resource Management Plan on line, I suspect for the benefit of potential bidders. You can access it here:
As a result of the important part that SRMSC played in the Cold War victory over the former Soviet Union, and the unique technological and architectural features it includes, USASMDC recognized the fact that certain key SRMSC facilities could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NR) as being of“exceptional importance."
When the US Army decided not to deploy its new anti-ballistic missile system at the SRMSC I prepared a white paper for the National Park Service in an effort to entice them into acquiring the property for preservation and interpretation as a Cold War Heritage site. The white paper described the properties, their significance in history and some interpretation ideas on how the properties could be adapted for visitation and interpretation. The idea gained traction at the NPS regional office, but alas, did not make it to the national level for consideration. The NPS was already working on a shoestring, it could afford to take on new historic properties.
The properties are now being auctioned off by the General Services Administration (GSA). I wish one of my friends would buy the MSR, and invite me to visit once in a while!

The Sprint missile launch area with the MSCB "Pyramid" in the background. Photo by author.

1 comment:

  1. I'm working on using this incredible creation as the theme for a post-apocalyptic role-playing game. This page has been incredibly helpful and informative. I must say that all fun and games aside, it's been incredibly enriching to learn about this part of our history. It's just wonderful, and thank you for this web page.