ARLINGTON, Neb. — Tucked away on about 274 acres of Washington County countryside near here is a relic of the Cold War: three concrete-and-steel-reinforced launch pads built to deploy Atlas D missiles, the first generation of U.S.-based thermonuclear warheads capable of striking the Soviet Union.
Along with the pastures surrounding them, those launch pads could be yours.
This unusual listing for a little more than $2 million by Joe Temme of CBSHome Real Estate involves the property of Zach Erickson of Blair; his mother, Roberta Eriksen Witherspoon; and two cousins in Australia. Already, Temme has scheduled tours of the property with prospective buyers, mainly agricultural suitors.
“Some people have talked about using the buildings to store fertilizer or corn,” Temme said.
Based on recent land transfers in Washington County, the family’s timing appears to be right.
A late October auction saw farmland prices hit $10,100 per acre in the southern portion of the county, said Kevin Kermeen, owner and broker at Blair-based Washington County Real Estate. The top bidder at a separate and more recent auction in western Washington County paid $9,600 per acre.
That’s a considerable increase over the year-ago period, when per-acre prices topped out at $9,000, Kermeen said. Sales figures from his firm indicate that raw farmland in Washington County has been starting out around $6,000 per acre.
By no means are potential buyers restricted to agricultural use, however; a more intrepid buyer would be limited only by the imagination and finances.
Luella Eriksen, whose husband acquired the site from the federal government in 1969, said there was once chatter of establishing a golf course on her family’s property.
“We really purchased it because of its location,” she said. “At one time, there was a plan that the Interstate would go to Fremont and it went south instead.”
Alternatively, the family has grazed cattle and rented pasture land to local cattle raisers.
Zach Erickson, Luella’s 41-year-old grandson who farms north of Blair, grew up playing and cutting thistles on the site. It provided “a pretty good backdrop” for playing paintball, he said, but now “the time seemed right” to sell.
Though knowledgeable on the site and its history, Erickson was born after the time when duck-and-cover drills were a normal part of life.
In response to Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1949, the U.S. accelerated a policy of nuclear proliferation to deter and defend against communist aggression. The successful deployment of Sputnik in October 1957 heightened tensions and invigorated those efforts.
Construction overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Arlington site and at two others near Mead and Missouri Valley, Iowa, began in April 1959 and was completed in July 1960, Department of Defense records indicate. Together, the sites cost about $12.9 million to build.
The corps directed construction of seven additional Atlas D sites in or near Cheyenne, Wyo., Lompoc, Calif., and Rockford, Idaho.
For a short time, they were considered a last line of defense against a Soviet attack on the Strategic Air Command bases near Omaha and Lincoln. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara directed all Atlas sites to be decommissioned in May 1964.
Government records indicate that the Arlington complex and its local companions were the last Atlas D sites removed from alert status.
The newer-generation Atlas E and Atlas F launch sites featured underground storage. The F generation had a 174-foot-deep underground silo for improved blast protection.
A single Atlas E site was built in Nebraska near Kimball, and 12 Atlas F sites were built — for a total of $24 million — between York and Nebraska City.
In all, between 1957 and 1967, the U.S. government built 114 Atlas launch sites, 76 Titan missile launch sites and 1,014 Minuteman launch sites, according to “To Defend and Deter: The Legacy of the United States Cold War Missile Program,” published by the Department of Defense in November 1996. The Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base, predecessor to the U.S. Strategic Command, controlled the burgeoning nuclear arsenal.
Western Nebraska is still home to a classified number of active Minuteman III missile launch sites, officials at F.E. Warren Air Force Base said. The base controls 150 missiles in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska’s extreme southwestern Panhandle, but base officials said they couldn’t confirm how many of the 82 Nebraska sites remain active.
Though Atlas and Titan sites are now defunct, some have found new life.
In July, the Nebraska National Guard opened the Mead Atlas Readiness Center on top of the Mead site it owns, for example.
And a fledgling residential housing development led by Gary James of Council Bluffs has sprung up on the Missouri Valley site.
“We divided it into 2.5- to 8-acre lots and have 52 lots as part of phase one,” James said. James and two partners in GLJ Inc. have sold 14 lots since beginning the development in 2005.
Another Midwestern Atlas D site now hosts high school activities, the corps reported.
The Kimball launch site’s wide-open concrete bunkers sold for $40,000 in 1996 and were converted to a residence.
Later-generation sites like it have made a side business for Ed Peden of Topeka, Kan., who also converted a former Atlas E site into a home. Peden and his wife, Dianna, have brokered deals between buyers and sellers of former missile sites, closing on 57 sales in 19 years.
Peden said he has yet to broker the sale of an Atlas D site, but that doesn’t mean they are inferior.
“An Atlas F is a very deep silo with lots of stairs and the D doesn’t have that, so it’s much more accessible and probably could retrofit pretty easily,” he said. Underground sites are also more prone to water seepage and are therefore more difficult to maintain, Peden said.
Still, environmental challenges abound at many sites. A common problem is trichloroethene, or TCE, a carcinogen present in a degreaser used at active sites.
Seven of 12 Atlas F sites in Nebraska are presently “either under investigation or are being cleaned up,” said Ed Smithwick, unit supervisor in the remediation section of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
In cases where groundwater is contaminated, landowners must wait to drill wells until pollutants are under control. Cleanup efforts are led by the corps and can last years or decades.
Remedial work is ongoing at Arlington and near Mead —- also the site of an EPA Superfund site connected to a former ordnance plant. Smithwick said “it could be decades more” before remediation is complete near Mead.
Documents from the corps’ Omaha division show that cleanup of TCE at the Arlington site will cost almost $13 million by the time it is completed. Local officials anticipate five more years of cleanup work. Waist-high test wells are conspicuously scattered about the property.
The expanse of Atlas D sites makes them better-suited for exploring by vehicle than by foot. Emergency decontamination showers abut the site’s three launch pads, and the inherent danger of working at the sites was written on the wall: each blast bay is equipped with a metal cubby that once held what was labeled an “explosion proof” phone.
Even though rusted doors and gutted interiors have rendered the Arlington site’s cavernous structure sterile and innocuous, it still sparks Cold War memories for some.
Temme recalled the duck-and-cover drills. “It was like the world was going to end.”