The following piece was written by a TGA artist. The writer’s name and many other names mentioned here have been changed to protect the innocent.
Thirty years after its construction, Phoenix, Maryland’s abandoned Nike missile battery became the awkward reminder of a doomsday that never happened. For me and many others who grew up in central Maryland, the site took on a mythic status. It became a rite of passage for kids to invade its rusty netherworld. The irony of its existence was impossible to ignore: a once deadly underground complex lay hidden in plain view stuffed between agricultural lands, retail infrastructure, public forests, and other wholesome community centers. Phoenix, Md. was designed to be a tranquil ex-burb and yet at one point the biggest army on Earth felt it was the perfect spot to hide a nuclear arsenal.
Project Nike was a strategic initiative created by the US Department Of Defense. It encompassed the engineering, testing, and diffusion of guided anti-aircraft missiles. They were called “Nike” missiles because that name originally belonged to the Greek goddess of victory, something that the army was certain it could attain with these weapons. From the 1950’s through the early 70’s Nike sites came to every corner of the globe that had a US military presence. It wasn’t an exclusive part of Maryland’s culture, but the project began life at the Fort Meade army base – roughly forty five minutes to an hour west of the city of Baltimore and its greater metro area which includes Phoenix. Though first conceived in 1944 as a plan of defense against The Axis Powers, once Cold War tensions began to mount it became one of the many bi-products of anti-communist paranoia and the military industrial complex.
Nike launch sites were constructed specifically to protect densely populated urban centers from the threat of nuclear war. They were built within existent bases or on the grounds of National Guard armories. When extra land wasn’t available the army built on property bought from the private sector. Each site comprised around 50 acres of land most of which was taken up by underground infrastructure: missile magazines, control rooms, office space, and storage areas. The Nike sites’ major above ground structures were radar towers. The number of batteries built in any given area was tailored to fit individual populations and the sites were arranged in circles (nicknamed “rings of steel”) that surrounded whatever city they protected.
The specs for these missiles were technically sophisticated technically sophisticated. There were a total of three different Nike models created: the Nike Ajax, the Nike Hercules, and the Nike Zeus. Hercules and Zeus were equipped with nuclear warheads. All three were controlled by a triple radar system invented by Western Electric. The missiles themselves were built and jointly designed by The U.S. Army and defense contractor McConnell-Douglas.
Public safety issues associated with Project Nike first emerged in 1958 when a Nike Ajax was accidentally detonated at a site near the Gateway National Recreation Area in Leandro, New Jersey. The explosion killed six soldiers and four civilians.
The Cold War’s slow acrimonious end began in 1972 with the SALT I arms control treaty, a bilateral effort in which the U.S. and the Soviets worked to reduce their collective stockpile of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s. Project Nike was among the first of the U.S. defense programs to get the axe. All Nike sites were decommissioned by the DOD soon after the talks concluded.
Random destruction and diplomatic rigmarole weren’t all that cast a negative shadow on Project Nike. In the early 1980’s – twenty years after its establishment and nearly a decade after its shut down – toxic chemicals began to contaminate water in neighborhoods that surrounded the remains of BA-03 aka the Phoenix Nike site. Industrial solvents had seeped into wells after being used to clean missile storage units and other parts of the site that were located deep underground. The pollution was so devastating that people who lived in Baltimore County’s Sunnybrook Road area couldn’t drink their tap water for most of the 80’s. The army finally cleaned up the water supply in 1993, but efforts to decontaminate the soil were ongoing as recently as 2007. By the 90’s any trace of live ammo had been wiped clean from the site. It posed no threat connected to bombs, missiles, or any other explosives. Other than toxic residue, the biggest thing that us young trespassers had to worry about was aggressive confrontations with security guards who occasionally patrolled the grounds.
It was absurd and terrifying to even think about it. This grim complex was once located within walking distance of the baseball diamonds where we all played little league and the shopping centers where we bought comic books and candy. The churches and schools our parents dragged us to were all in the same area. A dangerous military installation in my dorky white bread neighborhood? Could it really be true? I had to see it to believe it.
In addition to being my high school’s biggest class clown, Sam was an accomplished lacrosse player. Other than me, most of his close friends were macho jock kids. My arrival at Sam’s house coincided with that of several Jeeps filled with Sam’s beefy lacrosse bros and their glammed out preppy girlfriends. Covered in perfume, wearing tie-dyed t-shirts, open toe sandals, subtle touches of glitter and blush, and cut-off denim shorts, these girls looked like they were heading out to a dance club, not some crusty military bunker. The guys were decked out in standard issue jock gear: Umbros, backwards baseball caps, white socks or no socks at all, pro-sports team jerseys, and name brand sneakers (including big puffy Nike basketball kicks). I could only hang with them because Sam and I were Dulaney’s ultimate abstract comedy team. We’d do almost anything to sabotage the zombifying banality that passed for American public education at Dulaney. These muscle bound local sports stars might have wanted to beat the crap out of me, but they just couldn’t find time for that; they were too busy laughing at all the insane shit Sam and I did to disrupt class.
Their WASP-ish girlfriends were just plain nauseated by me. I was the anti-thesis of a clean cut jock – an emaciated, un-kept, no-count vegetarian with long greasy hair who consciously refused to wear designer clothes. Outside of school, the world these kids lived in seemed alien to me. Knowing that they had an even vague interest in military arcana further piqued my curiosity about the Nike site.
Sam’s parents weren’t home that evening so before heading to the abandoned battery we hung out at his place for a little “pre-gaming”. Classic rock and rap blared from a stereo, beers got chugged, cigarettes were going around, maybe some of the couples were making out. It wasn’t a Dionysian orgy, but it was far from wholesome. Daylight savings time had kicked in, so it couldn’t have been any earlier than nine when the adventure began. Within the sleepy environs of Phoenix we were surrounded by bored pensioners and stay-at-home moms who’d jump at the chance to rat on suspicious activity. The Nike site was only a destination when kids had the cover of night to protect them.
Once the caravan of Jeeps rumbled out of Sam’s semi-suburban development it wasn’t long before we turned off a country road down on to an unpaved gravel stretch. The grey and white path shimmered in the moonlight as we lumbered along. Even with all-terrain wheels no one could drive too fast as the pathway which led to the Nike site’s main gate was just as decrepit as the site itself. Before the main entrance there was a cul de sac where up to four or five vehicles could park, an area wide enough for a big rig to make a U-turn. A few of the cars parked off to the side underneath some mammoth evergreen trees. One of the jocks parked his Jeep in a position that faced the entrance gate directly. He sat idling for a minute before Sam walked over and noticed that it’d been chained shut. Sam then gestured silently pointing in the directions just to the left and right of the gate.
“What hell’s going on?”, I whispered. The other kids remained silent. This was old hat to them, nothing unusual. Sam scurried over to me, leaned in and replied, ”Just stay over there and whatever you do don’t move or make a sound.”
The jock revved his engine a few times before peeling out, kicking up a cloud of dust, and crashing his jeep head on into the gate.
I was awestruck. I’d never seen such recklessness up close. “What the fuck is he gonna tell his parents!?” That’s all I could think. But some of these kids were from really wealthy backgrounds. Their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were probably all jocks at some point. “Boy will be boys” was a common justification for anything destructive done by any man prior to the p.c. revolution. The sensitive indie rock nerds and defiant riot grrls of the post-Nirvana era had yet to embed themselves into pop consciousness. We were barely past the Reagan years and the overblown machismo of low brow touchstones like The Morton Downey Jr. Show and Wayne’s World. A couple scratches on a Jeep grill? These were badges of manhood.
The impact broke the chain instantly but caused no severe damage to the Jeep. As its front end met the fence there was no violent explosion of sound, only a muffled clink. This wasn’t a razor-ribboned electrified fortification bound by multiple padlocks, it was probably the cheapest metal fence money could buy. In 1991 there was no great threat of Soviet spies to worry about; such things quickly became faint memories thanks to glasnost and the fall of the Berlin wall. The government had no reason to give the Fort Knox treatment to the Phoenix site or any other gutted Nike battery.
Once we all sauntered past the bent up gate Sam led us straight to an entry hatch. A few trailers and supply sheds dotted the perimeter. There were telephone poles and fluorescent street lamps out by those, but the central area was cloaked in shadow. This hatch was part of an emergency escape route which lead to the control rooms and other infrastructure located below ground. As it opened that’s when the kids turned on their flashlights. As the first beam shot down I noticed a wrought iron ladder that went straight into an abyss. Five or six kids went in.
Initially I stayed above ground with one or two others who chose to be lookouts keeping watch for the security. I wandered around the massive concrete slab under which lurked ominous launch racks. I marveled at time’s organic destruction. There were weeds, ivy, and dandelions growing everywhere around the slab’s edge and from rusted metal seams throughout the launch pad and buffer zone areas. Some of the trailers and supply sheds were also blanketed by wild fauna.
After a few minutes I finally decided to check out the interior. Climbing into the narrow metal escape tube I could see dim flashes of light ping ponging around as I slowly made my way to meet the others. As I caught up with the crew laughs, mumbles, and a faint splashing swelled in volume. The ladder ended up in a passage way that flanked the missile magazines. It was there that I noticed the murky water.
“What the fuck?! Are you kidding me? That’s gotta be polluted water!”, I exclaimed. These goofballs were meandering about laughing, making scary ghost noises, clanking keys and flashlights against walls, all doing their best Jacob Marley/Poltergeist imitations. I looked over to one of the kids who was wearing shorts standing ankle deep in the grey water stomping around like a madman. “Dude, you’re gonna get poisoned or something, that’s probably toxic waste, I’m gettin the fuck outta here!” A moment of silence, a few kids yelling ”Oh shit!”, and the party was over. We shot back up the ladder, shaky flashlights leading the way like strobes on the fritz.
My close friend and fellow anarcho-freak “Kevin” lived around the corner from Sunnybrook Rd. Before we became friends in high school he had a few brushes with the Nike complex. Here’s Kevin’s take on the landmark:
The Nike site was pretty legendary turf… The first real experience I had there was when my Cub Scout troop camped out on the property… most of the info relayed to younger kids seemed to re-iterate warnings to stay the hell out of there, it was dangerous and older teens did stuff there like drink alcohol and worship Satan.
…(some friends and) I finally snuck into the restricted area years later. We found one of the accessible entry points and one by one climbed down into some sort of control room. It was pitch black and I was freaked out the entire time I was there which wasn’t long at all. I remember tons of graffiti covering just about everything and plenty of empty beer cans.
As the neglected Nike missile sites fell into disrepair they became hang outs for bored teens all over North America. Sketchy tales of these abandoned relics can be found coast-to-coast:
A man had to be hoisted to safety after plunging 40 feet down a hole at an abandoned missile site in Chatsworth.
Los Angeles city and county firefighters used a pulley system to raise the man from the hole at the decommissioned Nike site in Chatsworth after friends say he fell while they were drinking and smoking during a party there…
– a September 9th, 2018 KNBC news report
Area children… have vivid memories of cavorting on the property. The silos were open – well, we found a way to open them – and, believe me, nothing beats the Cold War memory of clambering inside a missile silo…. Generations of Stapleites recall the Nike site as an abandoned, overgrown, unpatrolled area – the ideal spot for drinking, drugs, and sex (“Hey, wanna see my silo?”)
– Dan Woog’s 70’s memories of a Nike site that was near Westport, Connecticut’s Staples High School, originally published on the blog 06680
When I was in high school we used to party at (Nike site) SL-10 (Marine, IL. [near St. Louis, Missouri]) Everything below ground was flooded and had more than a few dead animals floating around in it.
– A comment from a thread about Nike site remnants posted to the ar15.com forum
Among the many odd twists in the post-Nike saga, Hobart, Indiana’s recreational attraction Blast Camp might provide the wackiest one of all. This quote comes from its website:
Chicagoland’s longest running and most unique paintball and airsoft facility… Blast Camp is located on a historic national landmark that served as a Nike missile defense base… Nike Missile site C-47 is one of 20 missile bases utilized as a “last ditch” line of air defense for Chicago… Our playing field is located over 20 acres and contains 13 original buildings such as the mess hall, the generator room, five radar towers, administrative buildings and barracks.
Why should anyone care about a bunch of delinquents wandering through the skeleton of a Cold War monster? It’s not clear if the Phoenix Nike battery made a big impression on Sam and his bro’s. They were partying hard back then, so nearly thirty years on few could remember much when I asked them to share their overall impressions. For me, everything about the Nike site symbolized defeat. This hulking complex built to protect people ended up doing the polar opposite. It scarred the land with its visual appearance as a cold concrete slab filled with rust and dilapidation. It never saved anyone from a Soviet nuke attack. It was nothing but a nuisance and an eyesore. The environmental destruction it caused is remarkable for being one of the few things to ever drive down property values in bucolic north Baltimore County.
Beyond its colossal aura of failure, my most intense memory of the Nike site was when the jock guy bashed his Jeep into the fence. That replays over and over again in my head, popping up in daydreams whenever I least expect it. Regardless of whether or not the Nike site was active, it belonged to the U.S. Army. Through all the pro-choice rallies, gay rights demonstrations, anti-war protests, and animal rights events I went to in the 90’s never once did I see the destruction of federal government property. I’d never been directly connected to such brazen civil disobedience until spending an evening underground in a rotten sludge bunker with a bunch of drunken jocks playing Poltergeist.