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Know the West

From missile silo to theme park

Tourists can explore the home of a Minuteman


CACTUS FLATS, S.D. - Wind whistles through a 16-foot-tall chain-link fence at the Delta-09 MX Missile Site, east of Wall. Beyond, white-faced cattle clip away at blue grama and buffalo grass, and in the distance, the plains slice into the dramatic landscape known as the White River Badlands.

Just a few years ago, this remote land held the ingredients for mass destruction. Soon, it will welcome visitors from all over the world: Ten years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a peace dividend of sorts is being collected in South Dakota.

In December, President Clinton signed a bill creating the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, to be administered by Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota. The 25-acre unit includes a deactivated Minuteman II missile silo, its launch-control facility, and a yet-to-be-built Cold War interpretive center.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who says the Minuteman silo and launch facility best represent America's land-based nuclear arsenal from the Cold War.

President Kennedy called the missile system his "ace in the hole."

The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by the United States and the former Soviet Union turned the site away from war preparedness. The treaty required a deactivation of some Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including 450 single-warhead Minuteman II nuclear missiles.

Although the location of the Minuteman site was chosen, in part, to draw tourists from along Interstate 90 connecting the South Dakota badlands and the Black Hills, supporters contend the new historic site is not meant as a tourist attraction.

"This is not a tourist trap. This is an education site," says Tim Pavek, the Minuteman II deactivation manager from nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base.

"You cannot deny that the Cold War greatly influenced corporate America and the American people, from our economics to our social life. We won't simply interpret the Cold War technology represented at the site; we'll interpret the Cold War in its broader context, as a significant aspect of our social fabric. For the first time, the American public will be able to see the secret world of the ICBM."

An untold story

Bill Supernaugh, superintendent for Badlands National Park, welcomes the added responsibilities the new unit means for his staff.

"We'll be able to bring people to a site that was on alert just a few years ago," he says. "Most people have never seen the nuclear sites we've hidden underground. It's an untold story that's very exciting."

Few opposed the designation. "I have heard some people say this is a waste of money, but it's not widespread," Pavek says. Even ranchers who gave up land to house the underground missile sites in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana have not complained.

The national historic site will kick up some economic activity for the area. As many as 10 permanent jobs will be created and an estimated annual operating budget is about $400,000.

Visitors will likely start at the interpretive center, to be located just off the interstate. There, they will be introduced to the Cold War through such means as newsreel films of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. Next, they'll take a bus to the launch-control facility. Tour guides dressed as "missileers' will lead no more than six visitors at a time 30 feet below ground to see the push-button technology that could have ignited World War III.

"They'll be cramped down there," says Marianne Mills, chief of resource education at Badlands National Park. The control pod, which housed two missileers for 48 hours at a time, measured a mere 12 feet by 28 feet, Mills says.

"The pod is absolutely lined with very old computer technology, circa 1970s. Visitors will see banks of radio equipment and two obvious working areas, as well as bunks on the wall, a microwave oven and a bare toilet."

Mills adds that it took two keys to launch a missile, and that a sign on the "blast door," in parody of Domino's Pizza, guaranteed a missile's delivery "in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free."

The missile silo itself, several miles from the launch site, marks the visitor's third destination. Visitors there can stare down through a Plexiglas cover at the 80-foot-deep, 12-foot-diameter launch tube. Inside, standing as if ready, will be a 58-foot-long, 72,000-pound, nuclear-tipped "mock" Minuteman II missile. Wayside exhibits and a brochure will also be available at the silo site.

"They'll be able to contemplate the ironic contrast of this mechanized weapon of mass destruction within the serenity of the beautiful prairie and badlands," Pavek said.

A terrifying era

Pavek, a Rapid City native, says he remembers the emotional impact the Cold War had on him when he was a child.

"I vividly remember lying in bed, with the windows open, waiting to go to sleep, only to have the silence broken by the distant rumble of B-52 bombers taking off from Ellsworth Air Force Base. As the rumble increased in intensity, then gradually disappeared in the distance, I lay awake wondering whether or not the planes would ever return, whether if, within minutes, we would see the fireballs of Soviet nuclear bombs detonating over western South Dakota."

Pavek believes the Cold War needs interpretation, especially for post-Cold War generations. "Those were some scary times," he says. "My kids have no idea what it was like. This site will be a place for us to learn and to remember our past."

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site should be ready for the public in three to five years. It is the 379th unit in the National Park System.

Tom Domek is a writer who lives in Custer, South Dakota.


  • Tim Pavek, 2103 Scott Dr., Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD 57706-4711 (605/385-2687).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Tom Domek