When we’re on vacation, we’re early risers. We don’t miss many sunrises; in addition to the fact both Adam and I naturally wake up when the sky starts to lighten, we’ve come to look forward to the stillness that greets us before most people are awake. We’ve also come to look forward to getting a jump start on our day, whether it’s miles under our tires or places visited before the crowds descend on them. On the day we set out to visit the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site and Pyramid of Nekoma, we hoped to achieve both.
We started our morning in Fargo, where we had ended the previous evening much, much later than expected. Instead of stopping for the night in Jamestown, North Dakota as planned, we pressed on toward Fargo, which was a great home base for some of the places we wanted to visit before our travels took us closer to home. We figured we would sleep in a bit to make up for it, but when dawn broke our eyes opened and it was no use trying to force an extra hour or two of rest. By the time the world was really waking up we were already north of Fargo, heading off to learn more about the Peace Garden State’s surprising role in the Cold War.
If North Dakota sounds like it should be a bit removed from the Cold War, you’re right: it wasn’t the first place we would have thought to look for missile silos and a history lesson. That’s one of the reasons North Dakota is a great vacation destination, and our day trip to learn about the missile silos and the Pyramid of Nekoma proved that there is something new and important to learn no matter where in the world you happen to be.
North Dakota and the Cold War: How the Missile Silos Came into Existence
In many ways, the Cold War was unlike any other war the world had experienced because it wasn’t about direct combat, and success wasn’t defined by eliminating an enemy. It was about distrust, tension, and competition—and the arms race illustrated the intensity and severity of what was at stake. By the 1950s, both the United States and the USSR were quickly building nuclear weapons, sending the message that each nation was prepared to use extreme deadly force if needed.Among the weapons created by and for the United States was the Minuteman I missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could be launched from underground and reach its target on the other side of the world in just about 30 minutes by traveling over the North Pole. Missile silos began to dot the states in the USA’s Midwest in the late 1950s, with 1,000 Minuteman missile silos and 100 launch control facilities created and staffed as part of the country’s strategy. States like North Dakota were ideal locations for missile silos; they were located away from major population centers, and by flying over the North Pole missiles had a shorter distance to travel if they were deployed.
In North Dakota, the 321st Missile Wing was a collection of missile launch sites that, at the height of tensions between the USA and the USSR, remained ready 24-hours a day to launch an ICBM in defense of the country. Among them were the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility and the November-33 Launch Facility. Oscar-Zero MAF was staffed by a small crew of just eight people in an above-ground Launch Control Support Building. Two additional people were stationed below ground in the Launch Control Center. Not too far away, the underground missile silo itself sat in silence, awaiting a call to action if one was to be made. As history would tell, that call never did come; still, the missile alert facility and launch facility remained a crucial part of the nation’s defense plan. Today, both are part of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site.
Today, many of the launch facilities and missile silos have been decommissioned; when the Cold War ended, most of them were removed from service, disassembled, and abandoned. While some were converted to museums, others were converted into something even more surprising: they became houses that were sold to the public. Although they were often heavily modified before they were sold, some people now call a big piece of our former national defense strategy home!
Visiting the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site
There are several decommissioned missile silos throughout the Dakotas, and it’s entirely possible that you could simply drive right past them during a visit. While not exactly hidden in plain sight, we pulled into the driveway of the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility in much the same way we might pull into a friend’s driveway—if, of course, that friend’s home was surrounded by chain link fencing. Standing in front of the building, which presents a bit like a 1950s ranch-style home, I joked with Adam that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s grandmother were baking pies right inside the door.No one’s grandmother was baking pies. Instead, a room full of high school students snapped their attention away from a movie playing on one side of the room to stare at the newcomers in the moments before we were ushered outside by one of the site staff members. Back in the sunshine, the woman offered to let us join the high school class on their tour or wait for 20 minutes for a more private tour. Rather than subject the class to another stranger danger incident, we decided to wait for their tour to get underway before beginning our own.
Our visit started with a brief movie to orient us to the historical relevance of the space where we were seated, and then we were off to learn more about the Oscar-Zero MAF. While there were plenty of facts to learn about the Cold War, the Minuteman missile, and the strategic location of each of them, much of the tour was focused on the operation of the facility and day-to-day life for those stationed there. Much of our orientation took place in the common area, which felt comfortable with walls lined with bookshelves and pool tables occupying most of the space. Our guide shared that everything in the room was intentional, including the contributions of the games and books to help pass the time and build community for those who spent long winters there.
We had a chance to do some independent exploration of several rooms that made it easy to imagine what life might have been like for the people who staffed the Oscar-Zero MAF. There was a lounge area with sofas, chairs, and a TV for watching movies on VHS. On one wall, a lonely phone booth was a lifeline to loved ones; calls were typically limited to just 10 minutes at a time, and conversations had to be carefully conducted to avoid sharing information that might be confidential. The kitchen had a menu more extensive than we were expecting to see, with plenty of hot and cold options, and down the hall were a number of dormitory-style bedrooms to house those stationed at the facility.
Our final stop on the topside level of the facility was the security control center, where teams would closely monitor the comings and goings of anything living that ventured too close to the building. Most visitors were expected, but any time something seemed suspicious someone would need to look into it, patrolling the perimeter of the building for unauthorized members of the public or even animals that might trigger the outside floodlights.
Many visitors are most interested in what lies 60 feet below the topside area: the launch control center. We took a surprisingly long ride on a surprisingly smooth elevator, ending up in front of a large, heavy blast door. Before Oscar-Zero was decommissioned, crews made up of two people worked 24-hour shifts from behind the blast door. Their role was simple but serious: in the event a missile had to be launched, the crew on duty would be responsible for deploying it. Accidents were all but impossible; each of the two members of the crew had access to their own launch key via a combination lock only they knew how to open. Both keys would be needed, and they would also need to confirm the launch with another missile alert facility whose crew would need to retrieve and use their own launch keys. The redundancy added time but ensured no missile could be launched by mistake. After all, if a missile was launched, there was no way to call it back.
The launch control center was jarring to take in, and the history it represented was unmistakable under the harsh fluorescent lighting. From one spot on the floor, we could see the two chairs that were once assigned to each of the two-person crews who worked shifts below ground. They had harnesses attached to them that crews would wear to keep them in place in the event of an attack. From that same spot, looking up, we could see an emergency escape door that would have provided a quick evacuation from the underground room. Around the corner, a cheerful bald eagle and Oscar the Grouch smiled at us under the phrase, “Who Ya Gonna Call?” A word bubble answered the question: “Hey! This job is for… the best of the best!” It’s hard to deny the kind of mettle needed to answer that particular call of duty.
The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site has a wonderful virutal tour on YouTube that provides additional information and details on what to expect when you visit. Take a look below!
We were fascinated by our visit to Oscar-Zero, and we were grateful to have enjoyed a small tour group, a knowledgeable guide, and an unrushed experience to illuminate a part of history that was somewhat unfamiliar to us. We still had a ways to drive, though; there was still another spot to visit as we continued our missile silo education.
The Pyramid of North Dakota
Just 15 miles south of the Canadian border, it would be hard to miss the large pyramid in an otherwise barren North Dakota landscape. Located in the small town of Nekoma, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex would look more at home near Chichen Itza or in Cairo than it does in what could be characterized as the middle of nowhere. Earlier in our trip, when chatting with people who had lived their whole lives in North Dakota, we mentioned the Pyramid of North Dakota was on our list. The responses were the same from everyone to whom we mentioned it: “I’ve never been.” “That’s really far up there!” “Wow- hard to believe you have even heard of that!”
It cost six billion dollars to build the complex, which was designed to serve as a radar system capable of both launching missiles and shooting them down, providing protection for any projectile that might have entered US airspace from over Canada. After just less than one day at full operational service, though, the complex was shut down after a vote by the US House of Representatives. They deemed the facility to be ineffective; there was also concern that, because of its location, fallout from destroying missiles in that area could have unintended consequences.
Visiting the Pyramid of North Dakota allows little more than parking just outside of the complex for a few photos. There are no public tours to take, and while there are plans to create a museum in that space in the future, there isn’t one to check out at this point. We were glad we made the trip, partially because it was fun to see a very quiet, remote part of the country, but also because the safeguard complex’s ambiance is worth experiencing. There’s a kind of creepy stillness that surrounds it, silence sometimes punctuated by the sound of a car on a road off in the distance. At first, I found myself squinting from the driver’s seat to imagine what it might have been like with life infused into it. Upon realizing that would have lasted for no more than a day or so, during the brief time it was operating at full capacity, its reality seemed haunting. Its inception challenged nuclear war, and its demise bowed to something more closely aligned with fear. As we drove away, I was glad its purpose was never fulfilled.
Where to Stay Near the Decommissioned Missile Sites
The Pyramid of North Dakota is about an hour and a half by car from the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, and it’s easy to visit both in just one day. We stayed in Fargo, but Grand Forks is also a good option—and potentially closer to both sites because it is about 90 minutes away from each of them. We use Booking.com when we travel—take a look at some of the deals below if you’re planning to visit North Dakota!
Visit the Missile Silos of North Dakota!
We ended our night back where we started our morning, in Fargo, and Adam and I debriefed our day over German food and local beer. As it turned out, the Peace Garden State had played an important role in keeping the peace during the Cold War.
In a way, we shouldn’t have been surprised at all. History lives in all of our backyards; even our own, near Vint Hill in Virginia, has unique and unexpected ties to the Cold War, and just a few hours away the Greenbrier bunker in West Virginia tells another riveting Cold War tale. It’s up to us to be good students, to listen to the stories, ask questions, and make sure the lessons learned are remembered and shared with future generations.
Our visit to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site and Nekoma’s Pyramid of North Dakota offered a great day trip, and if your travels take you to North Dakoka, we hope your love of history takes you off the beaten path to visit them, too.
Want to read about more odd and unsual locations? Here are a few more places we’ve written about!