A relic of Cold War, remote radar base is falling apart - trivalleycentral.com: Area News

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  • June 30, 2015

A relic of Cold War, remote radar base is falling apart

The summit of East Mountain was once a radar base guarding the United States against Soviet bombers. It's a Cold War relic now, with empty buildings decaying in the high-altitude wind.

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Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000 12:00 am

EAST HAVEN, Vt. - One was destroyed by fire - broken glass, floor tiles and piles of soggy fiberglass insulation are scattered across the concrete pad where the structure stood. A burned-out truck sits nearby.

Four giant, box-like buildings stand above the rest, visible for miles throughout Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and adjacent parts of western New Hampshire.

The only thing in pristine condition is the one-lane road that winds its way up the mountain, as passable now as it was when it was laid on the mountain at the height of the Cold War.

The North Concord Air Force Station was home to the 911th Radar Squadron. It was one of 69 similar bases across the country operated by the Air Force from 1949 to 1963 to protect against a possible Soviet attack.

"It would be great if this place could be used by the general public in a productive way before it rusts away," said Ed Sawyer of East Burke, who bought the base from the federal government in 1965 for $41,500.

But the road to the top remains chained off, and the 73-year-old Sawyer discourages people from visiting without permission. That doesn't stop people who want to take in the 360-degree view from the top of 3,420-foot East Mountain. Sawyer said he puts 30 to 35 padlocks a year on his gate.

The base has taken a human toll. In 1969 a snowmobiler was decapitated when he hit a chain slung across the road; about a decade ago someone died after falling off one of the buildings.

There have been a number of shootings, and vandalism of the buildings continued until there was little left to destroy.

Sawyer would like to sell the two dozen buildings and 70 acres of land, but no one will buy. He once was asking $400,000. The price is now $250,000.

Forty years ago the giant buildings on the summit were covered with inflated white domes. They protected the radar antennas that ceaselessly scanned the northern sky. It was a time when the government spared no expense protecting the United States from Soviet surprise attack. Fallout shelters were in almost every public building, homeowners were encouraged to build basement bomb shelters and school children learned to hide under their desks in event of a nuclear blast.

The base was hurriedly built in the mid-1950s to fill a hole in radar coverage across the Northeast. It was meant to detect low-flying bombers headed down the St. Lawrence River valley bound for New York or Washington.

"We were about the last line of defense here," said Marvin Olson, 69, of East Haven, who came to the mountain in 1957 as a radar technician. The North Dakota native married a local woman and returned to East Haven to stay in 1972 after his 21-year Air Force career.

About a mile below the summit is the cantonment where most of the 174 airmen and civilians who staffed the facility lived. It had a gymnasium, post exchange, barracks, barber shop, machine shop - everything found on any small military base.

Duty was hard, especially in the winter. The buildings at the summit might as well have been in the Arctic. Snow sometimes reached the eaves, and storms frequently made it impossible for the airmen to make it back down the mountain to their barracks; they'd have to wait them out at the top.

City boys considered the Vermont wilderness post one of the least desirable the Air Force offered. A mural of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive covered an entire wall of the former mess hall, an effort to make urban airmen feel more at home, Sawyer said.

The Air Force built about two dozen houses at the base of the mountain in East Haven for families of the airmen. The houses are occupied today, an odd, tightly packed subdivision in one of Vermont's most rural communities.

By the early 1960s, the North Concord Air Force Station was obsolete and too expensive. The Air Force radar command was shifting its focus from detecting Soviet bombers to watching for the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, said Air Force Maj. Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

The East Mountain base, renamed the Lyndonville Air Force Station, shut down April 30, 1963.

The federal government put the property on the market, and Sawyer was the high bidder. When he took over the property in 1965, it was in perfect shape.

Sawyer quickly made back his investment by selling surplus equipment and scrap metal. He and his family lived in one of the Quonset huts at the cantonment a mile below the summit for a time, and he ran his woodworking business in one of the buildings.

"It was wonderful, for a while," he said.

But then outsiders discovered the base. Sawyer tells of being awakened one night when snowmobilers playing in the deep snow roared right over the top of his building.

Trespassers have threatened him and have stolen everything from surplus wire to the base's barber chair. Sawyer said he's had to shoot at trespassers to protect himself.

The experience has left Sawyer bitter. "The vandals can't just steal, they have to smash," he said.

Although Sawyer partly blames a lack of government protection for the problems, Essex County Sheriff Amos Colby said the area was impossible to patrol. "The state police can't be up there all the time," he said.

"I feel bad about what Ed had to go through," said Colby, who still uses a Quonset hut he bought from Sawyer as his garage.

Two years ago, one of Colby's deputies fired warning shots at trespassers on a motorcycle who refused to stop. The deputy was charged with reckless endangerment, and the incident ended his career in law enforcement.

The sheriff would like to see the base made into some sort of recreation area.

"It would be a great place for people to hike and horseback or snowmobile," Colby said.

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