Abandoned missile silo causing sleepless nights for folks in the Adirondacks


LEWIS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – More than 30 years ago, missiles were ready to launch in Upstate New York. The Cold War is over now, but some military waste is still inspiring fear in the North Country.

The first intercontinental ballistic missiles were Atlas Rockets. At the height of the Cold War, they were hidden in the Adirondacks of Northern New York State. In the shadow of Whiteface Mountain, it was the only site east of the Mississippi.

“This is where the pad was, where the missile was,” John Wimett, of Lewis, N.Y., said. “That’s where it would come up out of the earth when they would bring it up.”

By 1962, the U.S. Air Force installed 12 Atlas missiles in a ring around the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base. In theory, they could reach Moscow.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Wimett remembered coming home to Lewis to find the greatest firepower in the world in a deep, bomb-proof underground silo next to his family’s Adirondack woods. Fifty years later, the long abandoned missile silo continues to cause him sleepless nights.

“It used to be eerie,” he said. “I would stand here when they would bring the missile up at about five o’clock at night, and it looked like a silver bullet coming out of the earth. Then it would retract back into the ground.”

The Adirondacks Atlas Missiles scared Americans, especially Wimett.

“Because of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, if they would ever have decided to take them out and then try to launch this, we would have been blown off the map,” he said.

The missiles became such a part of Northern New York life that they were celebrated like in a 1964 home movie of a Plattsburgh, N.Y. Independence Day Parade.

But the missiles weren’t very accurate. Nearly as fast as they appeared, they were gone. The abandoned Adirondack silos were sold to private buyers. Some were made into homes complete with landing strips. Most were sealed and forgotten.

But now, nuclear fear is back.

University at Albany professor Bryan Early is an expert on how North Korea has built nuclear missiles despite decades of economic sanctions.

“The North Korean government has been developing fairly sophisticated long-range ballistic missile systems, and currently, they don’t have full coverage,” he said. “They can’t reach Washington, yet, but some of the missiles, specifically the Tapo-Dong II, have a true intercontinental capability.”

Early said the North Koreans have not perfected missiles to reach the White House like in their propaganda video. No longer a target, the old missile sites present a new problem.

At a missile site along Lake Champlain, buyers who try to utilize the site find water about 185 ft. down. When they go to pump it out, they discover it’s contaminated with chemicals.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation investigated pumping of water from the Lewis missile silo, which drained into a creek. They found PCBs, lead, and mercury in the sludge. Since then, the new owners are draining the silo under state supervision.

“My big concern is the contaminated water number one. That’s the main factor,” Wimett said. “And if the government is putting something there that we don’t know about, that’s a big concern to me, too.”

The previous owner of the Lewis site was an Australian who invited veterans to annual missile silo open house tours. The new owner is a Washington, D.C.-based company named Diversified Upstate Enterprises.

That’s all anyone knows. Lewis town leaders are now asking what the new owner will do with the old silo. Speculation and gossip spreads through the town: A police training facility? A getaway resort? Secret scientific research?

Nobody knows.

NEWS10 ABC has reached out to the new owner several times, but they have not responded.

Three of the biggest East Coast earthquakes have been in the North Country along a fault line that goes west into Ontario, Canada.