Unknown Stories: Nike Missile Bases

6:28 PM, Sep 24, 2013   |    comments
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  • Entrance to what was once BU-34/35 control base off Transit Road in Orchard Park
  • Remains of radar support structure at NF-16 control base on Shawnee Road, Cambria, now owned by a private business
  • Bunks where soldiers once slept still attached to thick concrete walls of underground bunker at former BU-18 missle launch base in Lancaster
  • Entrance to what was once BU-34/35 control base off Transit Road in Orchard Park
  • Telltale barbed wire still surrounds many old NIKE bases in WNY, such as the BU-09 launch site in Lancaster
  • Telltale barbed wire still surrounds many old NIKE bases in WNY, such as the BU-18 launch site in Lancaster
  • Town of Amherst uses former barracks at BU-09 control site on Smith Road for a variety of purposes, including records storage
  • Guard booth still apparent at entrance to BU-09 Control base on Smith Road, Amherst
  • NF-41 Control Base on Whitehaven Road is now Nike Base Park
  • Former NF-41 launch base on Staley Road now serves as Grand Island School District's Eco Island Nature Reserve
  • Guard shack at enetrance to former BU-09 launch site, Millersport Hgwy. Amherst
  • Guard shack at enetrance to former BU-09 launch site, Millersport Hgwy. Amherst
  • Towers which once supported radar installation photographed at dusk at former BU-18 control base, Lancaster
  • Former BU-18 control base buildings on Pavement Road in Lancaster now house municipal police and court facilities.
  • Atomic bomb proof shelter remains at former BU-18 launch base in Lancaster
  • Abandoned outbuildings at former BU-09 control base, Smith Road in Amherst

BUFFALO, NY - A municipal storage site in Amherst, a private business in Cambria, some town facilities in Lancaster, a senior center on Grand Island...and an empty field in Orchard Park.

All these places are connected through a portal, which opens to a chapter in American history...down darkened steps...past heavy rusted doors...beyond the bunks still fastened to thick concrete walls, where our defenders once slept.

During the cold war, while civil defense supplies were being laid in, in just about every American community, some of them, which were home to targets deemed strategic, were being further fortified.
In the 1950s and 60's, the army built 250 air defense bases throughout the country to house and to launch the Nike; the world's first operational, guided, surface-to-air missile.

The bases were designed to act as a "last ditch" line of air defense from long range Soviet bombers and were constructed in defensive "rings" surrounding major urban and industrial areas.

Outside of the New York City area, though, the only ones in the state were in Western New York, where there were seven Nike bases in Erie and Niagara Counties.

Despite spending the equivalent of $9 trillion of today's dollars to build, man, and arm the bases, within 20 years - with the advent of ICBM's, they were obsolete...and abandoned.

In most cases, the bases were deeded to local governments and school districts as surplus property.

You can still see them, however, if you know what you are looking for.

In addition, once one begins trekking about to visit the remains of the bases, they begin to notice the unmistakable clues of what were once military installations.

At some, you can still see a guard shack near an entrance road, sometimes not far from a rusted flag pole, from which old glory has not flown for decades. Also noticeable are outbuildings, constructed in the same fashion, to serve similar functions. They are located not far from nondescript militaristic style structures in compounds still surrounded by aging, and tell tale barbed wire fences.

A typical Nike air defense site consisted of two separate parcels of land.

One was the control base, which housed the radar and computer systems designed to detect and track hostile aircraft, and to guide the missiles to their targets.

There is one on Smith road in Amherst, where people run their pooches in the Paw Park, perhaps oblivious to the origins of the mysterious structures not more than a stick's throw away.

In Lancaster, where the control base barracks were re-purposed to house the town's police and court facilities, one can still easily spot the towers, which once supported the radar units.

Usually about a mile away from the control base was the actual launch site, where the missiles were stored horizontally within heavily constructed underground magazines, and could be raised to the surface on elevators and fired.

Those are harder to find, as they are usually more isolated and more inaccessible.

However, with the proper coordinates and access to a computer, a peek at a Google or Bing satellite map shows the remains of launch sites, in some cases quite clearly.

The best preserved of those launch sites locally is just off Millersport highway, and is owned by Veritay Technology which on its website even has photos of restored bunkers ...which they use to test and develop cannon-caliber ammunition for the defense industry.

On Staley Road on Grand Island, the launch site was turned over to the Grand Island School District for its Eco Island Nature Reserve.
Barracks that once housed soldiers, now serve as a learning lab for school kids. Beyond the pond and butterfly garden, the broken down guard post and fencing signal the location of the silos which we're told have been filled in.

There's remnants of another launch site at the Hamburg Highway Department, where the town's police force once used the underground portions as a firing range....although they don't any longer and catacombs beneath are now flooded with ground water.

Another launch site in Lancaster is private property.

The owner graciously agreed to let us look around, as long as we did not identify him ...or its precise location.

He has converted the barracks into a residence, and his base still has the bomb shelter once common to these facilities, to protect the troops based here in case they became targets.

What remains of this particular launch site is perhaps among the most authentic you might find anywhere.

While the underground magazines (like at so many others former launch bases) had once filled with ground water, the owner has not only pumped two of them out, but also, through a great deal of effort and ingenuity, has been able to repair, restore, and make functional one of the missile elevators.

Inside the 4-thousand square foot cavern, with walls of concrete several feet thick, he stores things for people.

It is dank, musty, and macabre, and once inside, one gets the impression they have stepped back in time, to a different era. A time of different fears, in a different world...the remnants of which can still be seen, however, as another chapter in an entire book of Unknown Stories of Western New York.

Click on the video player to watch our story from Two on Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bob Mancuso. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2

WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com

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