Sunday in the Park with Chicago's Cold War Missile Defense Shield
During the height of the Cold War, anti-aircraft missile batteries surrounded many of the major population centers in the United States. Built under the Project Nike program, these rings of military bases formed defense shields against a nuclear attack from Soviet long-range bombers. At the beginning of the program, they carried missiles with conventional warheads, but in later years, they were equipped with missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads with yields ranging from 2 to 30 kilotons.
While detonating a nuclear bomb so close to a city like Los Angeles and New York might sound like it would defeat the purpose of protecting them from such a blast, bear in mind that these Nike batteries were literally the last line of defense. Getting just a singe also seems to be a more preferable outcome than total nuclear annihilation. But exactly how many missiles were fitted with a nuclear warhead and at which sites seem to be a matter of state secret.
Chicago had a total of 23 batteries — the most among the Nike program cities. Each one was typically divided into two separate parcels of land. At the Launch Area, the missiles were stored in underground bunkers and brought up to the surface using an elevator and a rail system. Located a short distance away, the Battery Control Area contained the radar and computer equipment.
Since each site was typically manned by a large crew of at least 100 personnel, there were recreational facilities, crew quarters and other support facilities attached to either the launch or control area. Otherwise they would have been located at a separate third area.
As can be seen from the map above, most of the sites were built on the urban fringes of the city and away from densely populated areas. A couple were even located in the boondocks of northern Indiana. But what's really interesting about these Chicago emplacements (and what really piqued our interest in the very first place) is that three of them were inserted into prime parkland area along the shores of Lake Michigan.
The launch area of Site C-03, for instance, was built on Belmont Harbor; its control area was on Montrose Harbor a little further to the north. Just a few yards away from its arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles were high-rise lakefront apartments. One wonders if residents in those buildings regularly spied on the missiles preening upwards on their launchers during test runs. Surely they must have been treated to the spectacle of a simulated nuclear armageddon.
Another battery, Site C-40, was built on the northern end of Burnham Park, near McCormick Place and Soldier Field. The third, Site C-41, was located in the similarly genteel surroundings of Jackson Park, the very same park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and in an earlier era hosted Daniel Burnham's White City during the World's Columbian Exposition.
It's interesting to think that in the backyard of the Museum of Science of Industry, students from the nearby University of Chicago might have taken leisurely strolls among picturesque lagoons and arcadian meadows while soldiers, in their restricted enclosures, hurriedly scampered about during a readiness drill, the sounds of birds twittering and frolicking mashed up with alarms blaring. Closer to the lake, people threw frisbees around while radar towers looming above them tracked the skies for any incoming apocalypse.
All structures at the three lakefront sites have long been demolished and cleared away. Most of the other sites also have had their buildings razed and their underground bunkers filled in. Post-Nike conversions have varied through the years, and have included a police shooting range, a golf course, parking lots and industrial developments. A popular conversion seems to be turning them into “Nike Parks” or “Patriot's Parks”. There's not much left to see, in other words.
One of the better documented sites in its ruin state is C-84. Before a shopping mall was plopped down on top, the National Park Service sent some of its awesome HABS/HAER surveyors in 1992 to take some photographs. One imagines urban explorers lamenting at the loss of such a pleasure ground.
Fortunately for the dark tourists, ruin pornographers and CLUI junkies, there are still some residual traces worth your time. For instance, some concrete slabs and building foundations remain at the launcher area of Site C-44, located at Wolf Lake in the southeastern corner of the city.
To see a sizable collection of buildings and radar towers still intact, you'd have to go to Site C-47 in Indiana. The control area, now a Blast Camp paintball venue, still have some of its radar towers. All the buildings at the launcher area are still standing, though this parcel of the site is private property.
Add in a “Nike Park” and a “Patriot's Park” to the itinerary plus a stop at the C-84 shopping mall and even a picnic in Jackson Park, and you have the making of an interesting Sunday outing perambulating the city's edgelands. It'd be like re-tracing some spectral pilgrimage route encircling the city, perhaps in tangent to the same arcs and loops which decades ago some military inspector, while island hopping from one nuclear arsenal to another, had inscribed into the landscape with his irradiated body. And who knows, maybe you'll also be soaking in minute amounts of radiation at each way station, in which case your own infinitesimally irradiated body will be leaving a trail of energetic breadcrumbs.
It'll be an atomic tour of Chicago's Cold War missile defense shield.