Fort Pierre, SD. Oct. 11
Great Plains or Ground Zero? So read the sign at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site just north of the Badlands of South Dakota. We left Cedar Pass Lodge in time to reach the site when it opened its doors at 8 AM. A limited number of 6 tickets to view a launch control center are given out first come, first serve. It was tough to get out of bed since overnight winds blew in a cold spell that should last two days. Luckily most of today was spent driving or indoors.
Why visit this National Park Service site? Some of you may not remember, or maybe even never knew about, the Cold War between Russia and the United States. The two powers faced each other and competed to stockpile nuclear weapons, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Thousands of these missiles existed. In the United States, most of these missiles were placed in hardened, underground concrete silos across the Great Plains. The strategy during the Cold War was mutual deterrence. If each country possessed vast numbers of nuclear weapons and if one side started a war, the other side could retaliate at such a level that each side would be destroyed.
The START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed in 1991 and mandated a reduction in the number and quality of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia. Each country would inspect the removal efforts by the other. It is estimated that the treaty reduced the number of nuclear weapons by 80%. ICBMs located in South Dakota were among those targeted for removal. As the shut down was occurring, the National Park Service and the U.S. Air Force cooperated to save facilities that would demonstrate how the ICBM missiles were controlled.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site consists of three sites: the visitor center with displays and exhibits, a decommissioned control facility about four miles from the visitor center, and an empty underground silo about 11 miles from the control center. Our tour guide was a volunteer who had once been a missileer, he had worked at a silo in the Great Plains and completed twenty years in the Air Force before retiring.
The tour covers two facilities. The above ground building housed the cook, facility manager, and security police. There were extra rooms for maintenance and missileers to sleep in when necessary. There was an armored vehicle used by the security police to travel from site to site. Communications equipment and towers are present behind the fenced in enclosure.
The below ground “building” was an egg-shaped, steel hardened shell with an elevator access to the huge, safe style door. Two missileers worked down here, 24 hours at a time. Our guide spent considerable time explaining the intricacies, redundancies,and safeguards built into the system which are too numerous and intricate to recapture here. In the early years, the crews were all male. By the time the missiles were de-activated, crews could be co-ed.
When other sites were de-activated, the missiles were removed, the silos filled in and capped with concrete. At the control facilities, equipment removed, underground facilities imploded and capped with concrete. The above ground buildings were offered back to the owners of the land around the sites. Some are used to store hay, some removed, a few are now bed and breakfast inns. Only this site remains as a memento of a time in history when mutual destruction was a commonly understood term.
One scary note. The visitor center display mentioned “near misses”, where missiles were almost fired. In 1983, a Russian Lt. Col. chose to ignore an alarm that the US had launched five ICBMs. He figured the US would not just send five missiles if they were launching an attack. He was right. If he had reported it at the time, a period of heightened national concern, the Russians would probably have retaliated. This incident was not reported to the West until much later. The Russian was honored by the UN in 2006 for his actions and came to visit this NPS site in the spring of 2007.
By the end of the tour we were hungry. Cedar Pass Lodge was not open for breakfast when we left this morning so we detoured a few miles to Wall Drug in Wall SD. Now Chris and I have been here before, and if you are not aware of Wall Drug, then you have never traveled. Wall Drug dates to 1931 and was founded by a young couple. The husband had just graduated and was looking for a drug store to buy in a small town with a Catholic church. They settled on Wall, SD, a town of 326 people. They had a five-year lease and as the five years were coming to a close, business was not good.
The wife had an idea. There were travelers heading to the Black Hills along a nearby highway. She said: Let’s offer them free ice-cold water. They put up Burma Shave type signs (look it up, young’uns) and before the signs were all installed, the crowds started pouring in. They have continued to pour in to this store, still owned by the same family. However, Wall Drug is now a one block square cornucopia of necessary and frivolous items for sale. We had a tasty breakfast, with its five cent coffee. Okay, we also bought a few trinkets.
After Wall, it was on to Pierre SD. Pierre is the capital of South Dakota and a town of about 20,000. Pierre is the second smallest capital city of any U.S.capital city. We spent an hour touring the capitol by use of a written self-guided tour script. The building was constructed in 1910 and renovated in the 1980s. Given the size of this state, we were surprisingly impressed with the quality of the building and its beauty. It was not stunning, but very, very nice. It was also interesting that the selection of which town should be the capital of the state was subject to four state-wide referendums; all of which proclaimed Pierre as the capital.
The Governor’s Reception Room had a “Come On In” sign, so we did. The receptionist gave us a pleasant description of the room. The Senate and House chambers were open, but empty, so we were able to view each one. Their aesthetic decor differ but present well. The Capitol Building rises slightly above the surrounding land and there is a small, nearby lake that sets off the building nicely.
Ed and Chris