Oscar-Zero Minuteman site

  
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An authentic preserved Missile Alert Facility (MAF), complete with its underground Launch Control Center (LCC) from which Minuteman ICBMs would have been unleashed from their nearby silos had the Cold War turned into nuclear World War Three. The site is very remote in provincial North Dakota, USA, near the small town of Cooperstown, but worth the pilgrimage for dedicated missile and Cold War aficionados. 
More background info: For details of the Minuteman ICBM system and more historical context see under background in the chapter about the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota
  
Oscar-Zero was part of 321 Missile Wing, associated with Grand Forks Air Force Base, and this particular Squadron consisted of five “flights” of 10 missiles each. They were completed in 1965 and initially equipped with single-warhead Minuteman II missiles. But already in the early 1970s the silos – or Launch Facilities (LFs) – were upgraded to Minuteman III missiles each carrying three warheads (MIRVs – see under Minuteman). The staffing regime, safeguards and launch procedures, however, remained the same as at the other Minuteman sites.
  
Under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between the USA and the USSR signed in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, 321 Missile Wing was eventually disbanded and all its missiles removed. Each silo was either blown up or filled in, and all MAFs demolished or gutted and given other uses. 
  
Only the Oscar-Zero MAF was preserved by the US Air Force and declared a State Historic Site in 2007, together with the topside of one of its LFs, November-33, and entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The present site was opened to the public in 2009.
  
The site is managed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota and its official long name is “Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site”. 
  
Why it is named after the late 40th US president is not made clear anywhere at the site itself, nor in its brochures or on its website. So one can only speculate – maybe it's simply because Ronnie was such a Cold War strongman who upped defence spending in unprecedented proportions? I don't know.
  
Anyway, since he had nothing to do with the development, deployment, upgrading nor the eventual decommissioning of these missiles in North Dakota, I chose to refer to the place by its original military code name. 
  
North Dakota still has active Minuteman III missile fields, which form 91 Missile Wing, based out of Minot AFB, with 15 flights of 10 missiles each scattered over the north-west of the state (in total there are 450 Minuteman IIIs still in service in the USA). So when driving around these remote parts keep your eyes open for the tell-tale yellow MAF buildings and small fenced-in patches with aerials and blast-lids of the active missile silos. Some call it “silo spotting”. 
  
Other ex-silos (mostly the bigger Atlas silos, not the narrow Minuteman ones) have even been turned into luxury homes for (very security-concerned) civilians! Some thrifty developers are actively marketing silo-conversions on a commercial basis. Just don't expect to get any windows with a view from such post-Cold-War troglodyte dwellings.
  
  
What there is to see: When you arrive at the reception desk-cum-museum-shop and have paid your admission fee, you are first shown an introductory video about the Cold War in general and North Dakota's Minuteman missiles in particular, then you are taken around on a guided tour. You cannot do it independently on your own.  
  
First you are shown round the topside Launch Control Support Building (LCSB), beginning with the games room and library and the day room where the staff would have relaxed, watched TV (or VHS videos!), read or played games. 
  
Everything was basically left as it was when the site was vacated in the 1990s. A rack of magazines from the time is particularly interesting: you see the familiar faces of Saddam Hussein or a still young Bill Gates on the covers. 
  
Then it's off to the kitchen and canteen. The LCSB had its own cook catering for the six security guards, the facility manager, missileers and visiting military staff. But this chef didn't actually have to be particularly skilled at his job. Virtually everything that was served here came from the set of big freezers and was just heated up. Most items on the menu board were usual classics such as chicken wings, country fried steak, chilli or sloppy joes. 
  
Apparently they tried to introduce some healthier items in the late 1980s, such as broccoli or green beans as sides, but it seemed rather half-hearted. Well, military life cannot be expected to be especially exciting in culinary terms.  
  
Also rather unexciting were the sleeping quarters of the security guards or the facility manager. More interesting was learning about the facility manager's role. He basically had to be a total jack-of-all-trades, sufficiently adapt at plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and so on.  
  
Next stop was the security control center, which would have guarded and tightly controlled access to the site in the past (these days you can just drive in and walk up to the door). You can see the vintage communications gear, gun cabinet and some ancient computer equipment. 
  
The tour then continues by taking the lift down to the Launch Control Center (LCC) level. Before entering the control capsule you're shown the adjacent Launch Control Equipment Building (LCEB), which houses the air-filtration system, emergency electricity generator and other heavy-duty gear. You can also see the hydraulic shock absorbers that made the site resistant to nearby nuclear blasts (though it would not have survived a direct hit). 
  
Both the LCEB and the LCC were secured by thick, heavy steel blast doors too. On one of them, the last crew scribbled their names and ranks and the date of the “last alert” (17 July 1997) and signed off with the 448th Missile Squadron's motto “in aquilae cura” (Latin for 'in the care of eagles' … their emblem featured such a bird too). 
  
Inside the LCC capsule you can see the two desks of the commander and deputy commander, complete with all the controls, the launch key box and keyholes, communications equipment and other vintage gear. There were even coffee mugs left on the desks – as if their owners had only just got up and left.  
  
Almost all the equipment is as it was when the site was closed – except that there are a couple of empty rack slots on the command consoles. The guide explained that these were for some bits of equipment the Air Force didn't want to leave behind. Classified stuff presumably. 
  
What I found just a little bit disconcerting was the fact that there was a “nuclear safety self-study pamphlet” on the deputy commander's console. I would rather have hoped that they were properly trained by the Air Force in such matters, not that it was left to self-study …  But maybe this was just some kind of little in-joke.
  
Also a bit unusual was the large blow-up photo of a tropical beach and azure ocean in the back – presumably to cheer up the dull days the crews had to endure down here. The commander's desk also had a smaller mural on a side cabinet involving the depiction of a Bugs Bunny. No idea why. 
  
In addition to the actual missile operation equipment there are also the more mundane elements such as the daybed, the kitchenette and the toilet/washroom. On a wall in the back three missileer uniforms were hanging from pegs (one of them an instructor/evaluator's). 
  
Back up at topside at the end of the tour I also quickly browsed the small gift shop at the reception desk, but couldn't find anything – except a rather dark-humoured T-shirt, but they didn't have any left in my size. So I left empty-handed. 
  
The other location associated with this historic site is the former November-33 missile silo a few miles down the road. There are a few information panels dotted around the place for self-guided visits. Otherwise the site looks pretty much as it used to when it was in service.
  
The original silo's massive blast-door lid is still in place. In case of a launch it would have been shot open sideways on rails, which are also still in situ, as are the antenna, access hatch and security fence. Only the actual silo and missile underneath the concrete lid are no longer there (the silo has been filled in). But of course you can't see that. 
  
Oscar-Zero and November-33 are in a very remote location. So if you have already seen the more accessible Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, why should you also make your way up to this desolate area? 
   
It's a fair question. Indeed, I would say it's only really worth it for dedicated Cold War enthusiasts and dyed-in-the-wool atomic tourists
  
In comparison to the South Dakota equivalent, the only extra bonus you get here is a) that the guided tour of the Missile Alert Facility is twice as long and hence much richer in detailed information; b) it's a more recent Minuteman III launch control facility, i.e. much closer in design and looks to the ones currently still in use; c) there are a few more artefacts about; and d) the launch facility looks more like they did back in the day, with the original concrete slab on top of the silo. 
  
On the other hand, what you do not get here is an actual missile, or even a chance to look down an empty silo. Nor is the guide at the Missile Alert Facility an ex-missileer (as was the case on my tour of the South Dakota Minuteman site). 
  
On balance, if you can visit only of the two sites, you're probably better off with the one in South Dakota, for practicality alone. But if you can make it up to this more out-of-way northern place then it is very much worth it! I was also lucky to be the only one on the tour – it was close to the end of the season – and that definitely enhanced the visit, and especially the chances for good photography, with no other tour participants getting in the way. But that might well be different at other times. 
  
  
Location: in the north-east of North Dakota, USA, a very off-the-beaten-track part of the country! The Oscar-Zero MAF is located ca. four miles (6 km) north of Cooperstown off Highway 45. The November-33 former missile silo is two miles (3 km) east of Cooperstown off Highway 200.  
  
Google maps locators: 
  
Oscar-Zero MAF: [47.4976, -98.1269]
  
November-33 silo: [47.4399, -98.0661]
  
  
Access and costs: very remote and off-the-beaten track, open only seasonally; November-33 free, Oscar-Zero reasonably priced. 
  
Details: To get to these sites you have to have your own vehicle and not mind long hours of driving (unless, of course, you actually live in the area). Cooperstown is 40 miles (60 km) north of Interstate 94, but almost 300 miles (450 km) north of the main east-wast route, Interstate 90. The closest larger place is Fargo, a good hundred miles (170 km) to the east where I-94 intersects with the north-south main route of I-29. 
  
NOTE that putting the site's official contact address into a GPS will not help! (That's why I won't give it here.) When I did so it sent me into a field (and had I followed the instructions further it would have landed me in a lake!). Instead use the map locators above or simply drive into Cooperstown by map and then follow the local signs (or ask – everybody will know these missile places). 
  
The Oscar-Zero MAF is open only seasonally. It closes altogether in winter between November and end of March. During that time it's only accessible by appointment. 
  
In low season, between Labor Day (first Monday in September) and the end of October as well as between April 1 and Memorial Day (last Monday in May) Oscar-Zero is open Mondays and Thursdays to Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
  
In high season, between Memorial Day and Labor Day it is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last tour departs an hour before closing). 
  
Visitation is by guided tour only. Tours are offered every 30 minutes (on the hour and half hour) and last one hour. Maximum group size is 15. If a group is already full when you arrive, you have to wait for the next tour.  
  
Admission: 10 USD
  
November-33 can be freely accessed at basically any time, but only daytime makes sense.  
  
If you would like to stay overnight in the area, perhaps because you've had a very long drive and rather want to rest before driving on, there are a couple of options for accommodation in Cooperstown itself or surrounding places, ranging from rather drab and simple motels to some rather cosy B&Bs at reasonable (provincial) rates (the cooperstownnd.com website has a couple of listings). Otherwise Fargo has a large range of options. 
  
  
Time required: The guided tours of the Missile Alert Facility last ca. one hour + a few minutes at the November-33 silo site. Unless you live here, the drive out to these sites will take infinitely longer than the time you'll spend there.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: As I was driving away from Cooperstown towards Fargo, I spotted another ex-MAF visible from the road, as by now I had become sensitized to their typical look. From the map of the various flights of 321 Missile Wing that I saw at the Oscar-Zero site I presume this one must have been N-00. But whatever may be its use today, you can only see it from the road.
  
The only other fully commodified Minuteman Site is in South Dakota: the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, near Wall and Badlands National Park. This is for most tourists by far the more accessible site (hence it was chosen as a National Historic Site), so if you can't make it to North Dakota, this is more than a substitute for Oscar-Zero. In fact it comes with the bonus of having an actual Minuteman II missile visible inside its silo, and tours of the LCC are led by former missileers adding an invaluable personal angle to it all.   
  
Related to the 321 Strategic Missile Wing is another relic from the Cold War further north, namely the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex at Nekoma, just 30 miles (55 km) from the border with Canada, and 90 miles (140 km) north of Cooperstown. Google maps locator: [48.589,-98.357]
  
This is an abandoned cluster of installations that was part of the USA's anti-ballistic missile programme. Under the ABM Treaty of 1972, the USA and the USSR were only allowed a total of 100 such missiles to defend just the capital city and a selected other area against enemy ICBM attacks. Under President Nixon, the North Dakota Minuteman missile fields were chosen for this special protection (to retain a retaliatory strike capability in case of an all-out Soviet nuclear attack). 
  
It was a short-lived endeavour, though. After becoming operational in 1975, it was already deactivated in February 1976, less than a year later.
  
The Mickelsen complex employed both long-range Spartan and short-range Sprint defensive missile launchers. But the heart of the complex and its most visually stunning relic is the 80-foot high (25m) pyramid-shaped concrete radar building from which the missile defence would have been orchestrated. Its radar arrays on all four sides at the top of the pyramid look almost like cyclops eyes on this concrete monster …     
  
A single phased-array early-warning radar that was associated with the Mickelsen Complex, and one that is still in use, can be found further away still, some 23 miles (37km) to the north-west, at Cavalier Air Force Station. Google maps locator. [48.7247, -97.8999]
  
For yet more sites associated with America's strategic missile defence programmes see under dark combinations in the South Dakota Minuteman site chapter – and also in general under USA.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Cooperstown is actually quite a neat looking little town, unlike most other places I passed through en route to get there. It is very green and pretty Victorian houses line the main streets in the centre. It's perhaps not enough to make it a tourist destination in its own right, but certainly nice enough for an overnight stopover when touring the area (see above). 
  
Otherwise, North Dakota is rightly infamous as one of the most boring states of the USA, scenery-wise. It's pretty empty and it's flat and for the most part rather featureless. What you see is mostly just cornfields galore and other agriculture. 
  
While the missile silos are not very conspicuous and not so easy to spot for the untrained eye, what you cannot escape as THE dominating visual feature of North Dakota is grain silos.
  
Not only will you pass countless clusters of such grain silos at regular intervals all over this vast area of farmland, you even encounter them on the road! I had to pull in several times for such extra-wide-load transports of new grain silos. The harvesters driving on the regular roads also require virtually the whole width of the road. They were the most massive such machines I had ever seen. 
  
Proper tourist attractions are very, very thin on the ground in North Dakota, but there is one natural attraction of note, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is a kind of equivalent to South Dakota's Badlands, only much less visited and in a really isolated pocket of the country. The key attraction in the Park is the so-called Painted Canyon. 
 
  
  
 
  • Oscar Zero 01 - Missile Alert FacilityOscar Zero 01 - Missile Alert Facility
  • Oscar Zero 02 - guard postOscar Zero 02 - guard post
  • Oscar Zero 03 - old heavy-duty electronicsOscar Zero 03 - old heavy-duty electronics
  • Oscar Zero 04 - gunsOscar Zero 04 - guns
  • Oscar Zero 05 - room of the facility managerOscar Zero 05 - room of the facility manager
  • Oscar Zero 06 - topside recreation roomOscar Zero 06 - topside recreation room
  • Oscar Zero 07 - magazines from the 90sOscar Zero 07 - magazines from the 90s
  • Oscar Zero 08 - kitchenOscar Zero 08 - kitchen
  • Oscar Zero 09 - frozen food choicesOscar Zero 09 - frozen food choices
  • Oscar Zero 10 - computer from the 90sOscar Zero 10 - computer from the 90s
  • Oscar Zero 11 - shaft down to the launch control centreOscar Zero 11 - shaft down to the launch control centre
  • Oscar Zero 12 - down at the bottomOscar Zero 12 - down at the bottom
  • Oscar Zero 13 - machinery roomOscar Zero 13 - machinery room
  • Oscar Zero 14 - hydraulic suspensionOscar Zero 14 - hydraulic suspension
  • Oscar Zero 15 - scary logoOscar Zero 15 - scary logo
  • Oscar Zero 16 - in the launch control centre capsuleOscar Zero 16 - in the launch control centre capsule
  • Oscar Zero 17 - the capsule is also on hydraulic suspensionOscar Zero 17 - the capsule is also on hydraulic suspension
  • Oscar Zero 18 - commander positionOscar Zero 18 - commander position
  • Oscar Zero 19 - deputy consoleOscar Zero 19 - deputy console
  • Oscar Zero 20 - the launch-keybox is emptyOscar Zero 20 - the launch-keybox is empty
  • Oscar Zero 21 - empty slot where equipment was removed by the USAFOscar Zero 21 - empty slot where equipment was removed by the USAF
  • Oscar Zero 22 - vintage technology left in placeOscar Zero 22 - vintage technology left in place
  • Oscar Zero 23 - nuclear security apparently left to self-studyOscar Zero 23 - nuclear security apparently left to self-study
  • Oscar Zero 24 - daybedOscar Zero 24 - daybed
  • Oscar Zero 25 - toiletOscar Zero 25 - toilet
  • Oscar Zero 26 - crew uniformsOscar Zero 26 - crew uniforms
  • Oscar Zero 27 - final alertOscar Zero 27 - final alert
  • Oscar Zero 28 - museum shopOscar Zero 28 - museum shop
  • Oscar Zero 29 - November-33 missile siloOscar Zero 29 - November-33 missile silo
  • Oscar Zero 30 - November-33 missile silo blast lidOscar Zero 30 - November-33 missile silo blast lid
  • Oscar Zero 31 - November-33 access hatchOscar Zero 31 - November-33 access hatch
  • Oscar Zero 32 - another ex-launch control facility in a field nearbyOscar Zero 32 - another ex-launch control facility in a field nearby
  
  
  
  
 

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