Travel Blog

The Slow Road to Deadhorse

Cooperstown, North Dakota

On the face of it, not an awful lot goes on in Cooperstown, North Dakota.  Farming, mostly.  But between 1947 and 1991 Cooperstown held a closely guarded secret: this was the front-line of The Cold War.

Wind buffeted my car as I drove across the exposed, dead-straight roads of North Dakota towards Cooperstown.  50 miles due west, turn right; 30 miles due north, turn left; 25 miles due west.  The land was flat. Really flat. Massive skies, deep crystal-blue, bigger than I’d ever seen, quickly succumbed to darkening clouds blowing in from the west.  The fields of wheat pulsed in the wind like a bedsheet drying on a washing line.  Dust blew across the road as crops were harvested.  This was the Great Plains.

I passed quickly through the convivial main street of Cooperstown and headed north on County Road 45.  After four miles I pulled in to a small carpark at the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility, now part of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Park.  Up until 1997, in a bunker deep underground, this was a central missile launch centre.  This place housed the nuclear red button. 

“This is where they ate their dinner,” my guide explained as we walked around the ground-level buildings.  She was a rather shapeless lady, bright ginger hair with greying brown roots, and wore large gold glasses with elaborate diamante-encrusted arms. She seemed to be a walking relic of the Cold War.  “And these were the bedrooms,” she said, sipping on her bottle of Coke.  It was all rather banal.  Until she opened a small wooden door, revealing an industrial elevator sinking 60 feet into the ground.  We got in, the meshed metal gates clanking as she closed them behind us, and started to slowly descend.

There were two steel vessels, shrouded in four-feet of concrete, buried at this site.  Access was complex, and required passing through a thick concrete door.  I had to duck my head as I scurried down a narrow corridor into the launch control centre.  “Two ‘Missilers’ were in the control centre at any one time, awaiting instruction from the President to launch.  It was a complex operation with duplicated authentication,” she explained.  It needed to be.  Each missile was 30 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima.  And there were 1000 of them, each capable of travelling 15,000 miles per hour.  The entire Soviet Union could be destroyed in under 30 minutes.  But the Soviets had the same capability.  It became colloquially known as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction.

A semblance of sanity was signed on July 31st, 1991 by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – START.  This required both sides to destroy a large portion of their arsenal.  Oscar-Zero was decomissioned but avoided destruction, turning into this visitor centre in 2009.  A launch site, called November-33, was destroyed below ground, but the surface features were retained.  I headed there next. 

A concrete lid, 15 feet across and five feet thick, covered up where the missile had once been.  It retracted on rails for maintenance, but in the event of a missile launch, it needed to move almost instantaneously.  This was achieved through ballistic gas actuators that simply blew the 107-ton door out of the way. 

I stood on top of the concrete closure door.  I was all alone.  The sun warmed my face against the cooling breeze.  Just outside the perimeter fence bulrushes grew in a ditch, nodding gently in the wind.  A small bird, jet-black with bright red wings, landed on a stanchion, chirping away to me merrily, blissfully unaware of the horror this site was once capable of. I stood for a while in this empty corner of North Dakota and contemplated the ferocity of man.  

The November-33 launch site.

I've got my finger on the button...