Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Growing up in Southwestern South Dakota in the 70s and 80s, I was well aware that nuclear missile silos existed on the prairies east of town.  In college, my friends and I met lots of air force guys stationed at these places, who described themselves as "missile cops."  (Supposedly one of the most boring jobs in the Air Force)  We'd make somber predictions about how, in the event of a nuclear war, due to all these missiles, the Russians would likely wipe our state off the map.

These missiles could reach their targets in 30 minutes

In it's heyday, this corner of South Dakota contained 150 Minuteman II Missiles, and 15 launch control centers.  The entire facility covered 13,500 square miles.  The silos and launch centers were built in the early 60s, and remained in service until 1991, when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed by US and Russia.

Main HQ - just a glorified trailer house

Shortly after 1991, I'd heard all these silos had been removed, and the missiles decommissioned.  But I didn't realize that the Park System saved an abandoned silo and launch control center.  Using these Cold War-era facilities, they established a National Historic Site aimed at educating the public about this period of history.

Missile silo site

During last month's South Dakota trip, when I proposed visiting the Badlands, my brother suggested we visit the missile silo site too.  It was on our return route, so we'd be in the neighborhood.  Truthfully, I wasn't all that interested at first.  But I decided to keep an open mind - it might be alright.  After all, growing up, I'd heard so much about these silos, but never got to see one for real.

Checking out the silo

After spending all morning touring the Badlands, my family and I stopped by the headquarters of the Minuteman Missile National Historic site, which was merely two glorified trailer houses set next to a roadside gas station.  A couple of interpretive signs flanked the entrance, and inside was a small theater showing movies.  The real attractions - the launch control facility and the actual missile silo were located further west.  The missile silo was a self-guided site, but tickets were required to tour the launch control facility.  The tickets were available from the historic site HQ each day, on a first-come basis.  Unfortunately, by the time we arrived (well after noon) the day's tours were already full.

What's inside?

Since visiting the launch control center was not a possibility, my dad instead pointed his car towards the missile silo.  The silo was located directly off of I-90, on a patch of barren grassland in the middle of nowhere.  A huge chain-link fence circled the site, but the gate was cracked open just enough for people to slip inside.

Diagram showing inside of a silo

There really wasn't much to see.  The launch tube was surrounded by a concrete pad.  It's cover had been replaced with a glass viewing enclosure.  Inside was a decommissioned missile, pointing blankly towards the sky.

These silos were in the middle of nowhere

At one time, these silos had been scattered throughout this grassy plain.  A nearby launch control facility would have been responsible for a certain number - not only to activate them, if the circumstances directed, but also to keep an eye on the security of each site.  If an alarm was tripped, the "missile cops" had to come investigate.  They didn't mess around, and were instructed to use deadly force if any of these silos were threatened.

Back side of the silo

Yeah, we spent a grand total of maybe 10 minutes poking around the silo, until everyone agreed we'd seen enough.  Although it was good to see once, I don't feel a need to return.  But someday I'd like to tour the launch facility.  That's probably more interesting.

Wall Drug!

Our trip ended with lunch at the world-famous Wall Drug.  A large drug store/gift shop/tourist attraction, it's the home of free ice water, 5 cent coffee, and the largest collection of kitschy attractions ever.  You can even get your picture taken atop a giant jackalope! 

This ends the recaps of my South Dakota trip.  Next post I'll return to regular Oregon hiking reports.....


  1. I've enjoyed your South Dakota posts. Haven't been there in many years.. but remember it fondly. We missed out on the silo/missile stuff, but they were all active back then.. a scary era in time.
    Enjoy your 7d.. I love mine!

  2. Thanks for sharing your tour of the Missile Site, I may never get there. I love the last shot of the giant jackalope! Have a great day!

  3. Just caught up with your last few blogs. You had an amazing tour round the badlands and such wonderful scenery. The Silos are a piece of our recent history which touched us all even over in the UK with Greenham Common and the cruse missile silos.

  4. This is so cool, Linda!!! I really enjoyed this tour, thank you so much for sharing.

  5. I had no idea that South Dakota had been such a scary place during the Cold War!

  6. We'll never forget Wall Drug! Stopped there decades ago on a camping trip to the west coast with our kids and bought several memorable souvenirs.

  7. How strange that the Cold War sites are now history! It was so scary... my fifth grade teacher had a fallout shelter built in their basement.

  8. I would have gone there too. After all it's part of the history of our nation.

  9. That definitely looks like interesting places. I haven't hear the word 'jackalope' in years!

  10. Interesting story. We had a Bomarc missile site here in Bangor- before I lived here.

  11. Interesting side trip. History is good. Thanks for sharing.

  12. I've never heard of the Missile site, so that was interesting.

    I'd love to visit Wall Drug sometime.

  13. While much less scenic, this was informative. I had no idea about these SD missiles.
    Looking forward to seeing what's changing back in Oregon as Fall arrives.. You know I can't get enough of Oregon. :)
    But I enjoy your adventures, wherever you go, Linda!

  14. What a fascinating thing to see!

  15. I grew up with a Cruise Missile base just over the horizon - I'm not sure it's good for your sense of permanence!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  16. Hi! I hope no nuclear war would not happen. Your last photo is very charming. Thanks for sharing.

  17. We got to do the tour, it was okay. Riding the jackalope is not to be missed, did that too! Can't wait to see how Oregon is looking as fall approaches.

  18. Earlier in the week, we arrived at the visitor center at 7:55 am hoping that would get us on the first tour of the day - success! I will post about it soon. Upon getting to the silo site you were at - it was closed and locked tight - so we didn't get in. I'll post about it sometime...maybe not real soon...lots of unpacking!


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