Abandoned Missile Sites Around Us
Those of us who lived through the Cold War remember it as a time of fear of attack at any moment. Russia had its guns loaded, pointed at us, and fingers twitching on the trigger, and we had our guns trained on them. In the ’50s, before the advent of intercontinental missiles, jet bombers were the threat, and so anti-aircraft batteries employing surface-to-air missiles ringed Los Angeles and its vital aerospace industries. A total of 16 Nike missile launch sites were built and manned surrounding L.A. from 1954 to 1974 when the program ended and the old missile sites were adapted to other uses.
The closest Nike site to us was on Mt. Disappointment near Mt. Wilson, just off the Angeles Crest Highway. A newspaper from 1957 describes the then new military facility. It was manned by over 100 soldiers of the Air Force 933rd Missile Battalion, many of whose families lived here in the Crescenta Cañada area, just 30 minutes drive from the radar warning sites on Mt. Disappointment and the separate launch sites at Barley Flats.
The Nike Missiles themselves were the classic missiles we see in old sci-fi movies that pivot up from covered pits in the ground. The missiles were liquid fueled, about a foot in diameter, and 20 feet long. They were two-stage rockets with a booster that would accelerate the missile for about three seconds and then drop off. The second-stage missile could reach 1600 mph, to a height of 70,000 feet and a range of 25 miles.
It was soon replaced with the more potent Nike Hercules missile, doubling the speed and altitude, reaching a range of 90 miles, and capable of carrying a small nuclear warhead. The launch facilities were extensive – multiple cinderblock buildings housing generators and handling areas for the volatile rocket fuel, barracks and recreation buildings for the soldiers, and underground areas for the missiles and launch equipment.
When the sites were decommissioned, they were handed over to a variety of civic and private entities. Most of them became back-country fire stations, or Sheriff’s or National Guard facilities; a few were redeveloped into commercial property, a small handful were abandoned, and one or two became parks. Barley Flats was given to the county sheriffs and until 1992 they operated it as a probation camp. The extensive buildings were totally burned out in the Station Fire, and I don’t know if anything has been done with them since. I saw photos soon after the fire, and it looked like a total loss. I would imagine that the remaining buildings have been demolished. I’m told the early warning radar station on Mt. Disappointment still has some cement pads and is being used a radio transmitting station.
The Nike sites are part of L.A. history and an integral part of Cold War history. The old sites like Barley Flats are fast disappearing, but there are a rare few still around to view. If you care to travel, there is a fully restored Nike site, including dummy missiles, maintained by the National Park Service in the San Francisco area. In the L.A. area, there are several sites scattered around, mostly destroyed, and mostly off limits, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions. There is a fairly intact radar station in the Santa Monica Mountains that has been preserved in San Vicente Mountain Park, with historical interpretive signage. But the best actual launch site in L.A. that’s open to the public is at the White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro. It’s right next to the extensive Fort MacArthur Museum, which has preserved many of the coastal gun batteries that overlooked L.A. Harbor in WWI and WWII. The Nike site at White Point still has a couple of the original buildings, and you can actually walk on the old launch pad doors that would swing open as the missiles rose to launch position.
During the Cold War, the Nike site at Barley Flats constantly reminded residents of CV that they were threatened. It’s an interesting part of our history, and fortunately it never went beyond a threat.