Ghosts of the High Plains - MC "adventure"

Martinjmpr

Wiffleball Batter
Ghosts of the High Plains, part 1:

We’ve had an unseasonably warm Winter here in Denver (although the Mountains to the West are near-normal in terms of their annual snowfall) and with a new motorcycle and a warm (70+) day, I decided to do a long distance ride on Sunday, March 22.

My goal was to see how the bike did on a long ride, especially with the recent add-ons (Slipstreamer Spitfire windshield, Renntec grab rail and luggage rack, and the Air-Injection removal kit that is supposed to make the bike run cooler.)



My destination was the High Plains to the East and Northeast of Denver. The mountains are still a little dicey for riding, with sand and gravel in every corner and patches of ice in the shady spots, not to mention the cold temperatures. This time of year I’m content to stay east of the Rockies when I ride.

I always take a camera, and I have a real affinity for photographing things that are old, abandoned, derelict. Not sure why, maybe it’s the history major in me that sees in these forgotten things a link to the past.

Of particular interest to me (as both an historian and a veteran) are relics of the Cold War, which still dot the Colorado landscape. I’ve done much internet research over the past 3 years and have been truly astonished at what is out there, in plain sight, and to which most travelers are completely oblivious.

Leaving Englewood, I topped off the tank and headed straight East. Just past the C-470 “beltway” that marks the Eastern edge of the greater Denver metropolitan area, I passed my first relic: An old Titan -1 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launching base. To the untrained eye, it’s just a fenced in area with an old Quonset hut and some concrete slabs.



The Titan bases were huge, the biggest and most expensive ICBM launchers ever built. Each one housed 3 missile launchers, a large crew and a security element. The launchers were built in haste in the early 1960’s at a cost (in 1960 currency) of over $200 million each. A total of 18 of these bases were built, 6 of them in Colorado. The others were in South Dakota, Washington State, Idaho and California, each of which got 3 bases – 1 squadron – each. Only Colorado got 2 squadrons, probably because the missiles were built at the Martin Aerospace company Southwest of Denver.

This road, Quincy avenue, runs through the old Lowry Bombing range, used by military aircraft as far back as WWII. The debris was cleaned up but the military found many uses for this otherwise nondescript area just East of the city. Among other things, military research and testing laboratories, a late, post-cold war Emergency communications system, and three other Titan 1 bases are located in the area that runs along Quincy avenue for about 20 miles.

Quincy is a fun, “roller coaster” road that rises and falls with the undulating terrain. I finally reach the end of the paved road, where Quincy intersects with the Kiowa – Bennett road that runs North-South. Turning North, I drive a short distance, cross Interstate 70, and then reach the old US highway 36 that parallels the interstate to the North.

Just East of Strasburg, Highway 36 peels temporarily off to the South to run through the town of Byers, but I take the older road that continues straight East. A few miles further on, I come to a sign that marks a poignant memorial.

This is the Oklahoma State University memorial. The sign explains what is being memorialized:



I stopped for a few minutes to look at the memorial. There was a description of each of the people who died in the crash, along with their dates of birth, many of them heartbreakingly young.



I feel a particular connection to Oklahoma State, since both of my parents are OSU alums, in fact, they first met on the campus at Stillwater.



The wind never really stops blowing out here, especially on high ground, where the memorial was situated. But other than the steady wind, it was appropriately quiet at the memorial.



Continuing East, I crossed a concrete ford (I recall that in Oklahoma we’d have called it a “low water bridge”) and soon rejoined US 36, now fully divorced from Interstate 70, which turned sharply to the Southeast at this point. US 36, on the other hand, points arrow-straight to the East.

Again the road rose and fell with the land. Coming down a hill, I saw an old farmhouse and what appeared to be cattle in the field. But they weren’t cattle.



American Bison, who once roamed these plains in the tens of millions, now just a more exotic form of livestock.



I also passed a little known landmark in Eastern Colorado: the Hoyt radio tower. Because distances can be deceiving on these vast, open plains, most people are probably unaware that this is the tallest man-made structure in Colorado, 1996’ from base to top. According to Wikipedia, it is the 43rd tallest man-made structure in the world.

(a little hard to see but you can see a vague shadow in the center of the picture frame)



Continuing East across the plains, I soon came to a “milestone” of my own: My new bike turned over 2,000 miles.



To be continued...
 

Martinjmpr

Wiffleball Batter
Ghosts of the High Plains, Part 2:

Just 3 miles later, I rolled into a town of Last Chance. As far as town names go, they don’t get much more “western” than “Last Chance.” You can almost imagine walking through the bat-wing doors into the Last Chance Saloon, pulling up a stool at the bar next to a colorful group of gunslingers, desperados, fallen women, and gamblers, and ordering up a shot of whiskey as the piano player played a lively tune in the corner.

I last passed through Last Chance around 10 years ago and I recall there was at least a gas station there.



Now, it’s long gone, as is the Last Chance café. In fact, other than the church that seemed to be full on this sunny Sunday morning, there did not appear to be even one building in town that was open to the public: No gas station, no convenience store, no post office. Just another small town that couldn’t survive the modern era.

And with that realization, the town’s name isn’t so much charming as it is sadly ironic: This town’s Last Chance was long, long ago.

Turning North on Highway 71, the road again rolls up and down the prairies, with the fields on either side alternating between dry-land farming and open ranch land. As I head North, sloping downhill along a creek that is a tributary of the South Platte river, I can smell water. I later discover that the road parallels an irrigation ditch that is starting to fill up as we head into the planting season.

I stop in the busy agricultural city of Brush for a fuel stop and a fast-food meal, and then continue North on 71. The bike is running great, as smooth as silk and with plenty of power. Traffic on this 2 lane State highway is sparse, as most of the serious travelers are on the Interstate that runs diagonally across the Northeast corner of Colorado.

About 15 miles North of Brush I pass by what appears to have once been a school or a church. While it does appear unused, it hasn’t fallen completely to ruin like so many of the other old homesteads around here. A broken window is the only sign of abandonment. It was probably once the center of a bustling, thriving farming and ranching community that extended across the wide expanses of grassland here.





Continuing North, I finally reach the intersection of CO Highway 14, which runs almost arrow-straight across the Northern corner of Eastern Colorado. I turn Left to head towards the mountains, barely visible now through the haze and tiny on the horizon.

A few miles down the road I pass through the towns of New Raymer, barely hanging on to life. About 10 miles past that, I see another old homestead, long abandoned.



Whenever I see sites like this I can’t help but wonder: Who lived here? How long did they struggle to make their living in this dry, harsh place? What was it that finally drove them away? Was it a death in the family? A particularly harsh winter? A better opportunity in another place? Where are they (or their children or grandchildren) now? Do they remember what life was like out here a hundred miles from nowhere?





In wetter climates, the elements would have quickly claimed this hulk and left nothing but a concrete foundation and a field of scattered wood fragments covered in burgeoning vegetation, but here in the dry, high plains, wooden structures can last a long time. If they can survive the snow and the wind, they can stand for a hundred years, so it’s not easy to tell whether this house was abandoned 10 years ago or 60 years ago. An historian or an archaeologist could probably divine the age of the house from clues like the hardware used, or the type of plumbing or wiring, but those things weren’t really my concern.

To be continued...
 

Martinjmpr

Wiffleball Batter
Ghosts of the High Plains, Part 3

Returning to Highway 14, I continued West until my GPS showed me to be close to my first intended destination, Atlas missile silo E-6, a couple of miles West of the town of Briggsdale.

The Atlas missiles were the first ICBMs deployed, in the late 1950’s. Large and fragile, they did not have a rigid airframe, instead, they were “inflated” like an aluminum balloon, and only had structural rigidity when their fuel and liquid oxygen tanks were full. The “skin” of an Atlas missile was about the thickness of a dime! When stored, an inert liquid was pumped into the storage tanks to keep the missile “inflated.” The first Atlas missiles, the Atlas D models, were deployed in concrete, above-ground launchers that looked like warehouses (for those of you in or around Laramie or Cheyenne, WY, you can see an Atlas D launch site just South of Interstate 80 near exit 345.)

This site, however, is one of the 9 Atlas E silos that were based out of F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. Both the Atlas D and E sites were “horizontal” launchers, where the missile was stored on its side and then raised to a vertical position in order to launch. The Atlas E launchers were “semi underground” sites where a low launcher building was constructed and then dirt was pushed up against it so that only the sliding door at the top of the launcher was above ground.

The Atlas missile program was one of the shortest-lived weapons programs in modern times, and these sites were only active from about 1960 – 1965. After that, the sensitive equipment was removed and the sites were auctioned off. Because of that, most Atlas D and E sites are now private property, and difficult to access. Atlas E-6 is one of only two Atlas E silos (to my knowledge) that are located on public land (the other one, Atlas E-8, is a city park in Greely, CO.) Atlas E silos are the second-rarest of the deactivated ICBMs, as only 27 were constructed (9 in Washington, 9 in Kansas, 5 in Colorado, 3 in Wyoming and 1 in Nebraska.)

I turned off of CO 14 at the access road, still paved after 45+ years, though the pavement is showing its age. This area is in the Pawnee National Grasslands and so is open to the public. There is a wire gate but it isn’t locked. The “code of the West” is that it’s okay to go through an unlocked gate on public land but you always leave the gate in the same condition you found it in: If it’s open, leave it open, if it’s closed, leave it closed. I opened the wire gate, rode through, then closed it behind me. The silo itself is about 3/4 of a mile from Highway 14.



The silo construction is not visible, having been buried by the Forest Service some years ago. From what I’ve heard it’s more or less intact, but completely covered up with dirt. Figuring that it would be a shame to let my knobby tires and high suspension go to waste, I decided to ride up to the top of the mound for some pictures.



The only telltales that this is anything other than a random mound of dirt are the concrete cooling pond (used to cool the water from the generators that provided power to the site) and the concrete and metal “track” for the access gate. No other sign remains that would indicate that, for a few years in the early 60’s, this site was at the center of the US Strategic defense system.





Looking around it’s obvious that this is a popular location for recreational shooting: Empty shell casings and broken clay targets litter the ground. I found it somewhat amusing to think that there were now only .22 caliber cartridge cases and 12 gauge shotgun shell husks at a site that once held a 75 foot long missile with a 6500 mile range and a 3.75 megaton thermonuclear warhead.

To be continued...
 

Martinjmpr

Wiffleball Batter
Ghosts of the High Plains, part 4 of 4

After kicking the dirt a bit and shooting some pictures I returned back down the access road to Highway 14. My next destination was Atlas E silo #5, about 25 miles to the Northeast, up towards the Pawnee Buttes.
The buttes themselves were covered with a huge “wind farm” of giant windmills turning slowly in the high plains breeze - an interesting juxtaposition with the oil wells that dotted the landscape.

Heading North on County Road 77 from Briggsdale, the terrain again rolled up and down in typical plains fashion. Turning off the main road I passed through the tiny town of Grover, where the road turned to gravel. I’m not yet comfortable riding on gravel, so this slowed me down quite a bit. But my GPS showed that the silo was only about 5 miles away so I proceeded on.

As I approached the silo, I could see that it was in surprisingly good condition. The perimeter fence appeared to be intact and most of the structure was still there, including the mercury vapor light fixtures surrounding the launch facility itself. In addition to the inner fence, which was gated closed, there was an outer fence with a cattle guard in place of a gate.



As I rolled past, I noticed there was a car sitting at the cattle guard. Not just any car – a gorgeous, mint condition late 60’s Camaro wearing “collector” license plates and obviously lovingly restored.

I pulled into the dirt road leading into the silo and as I did the Camaro driver got out. I asked him if he was checking out the silo and he said “is that what it is?” He was just admiring the view of the buttes and the wind farm beyond it.
I started explaining to him what it was, how long it had been there, and so on, but just a few minutes later two cars pulled in behind us. We were just off the main road, so I wasn’t worried about being hassled for trespassing. Four or five people got out of the two vehicles, and immediately descended on the classic camaro. Of course, they asked what year it was, whether he had restored it himself, etc. The leader of this group, a man in his late 50s or early 60s then mentioned that he’d owned a similar car just before he shipped off to Vietnam with the marines.

After we talked “car” for a few minutes, he asked us if we were checking out the silo. The Camaro driver said he didn’t know that was what it was until I told him. So the leader of this group said to me “you knew this was a silo?” I said that yes, it was sort of a hobby of mine and that I had an interest in the old missile silos.

With that, his eyes lit up, he dug into his pockets and pulled out a set of keys and said “Well, how would you like a guided tour?” :Wow1:

Needless to say, we jumped at the chance and for the next half hour, we walked around the old complex. We didn’t go inside, as he didn’t have the proper keys to get in, but we had a good look at the grounds. The leader of this group (sorry, I’m terrible about getting or remembering names) is apparently interested in buying this site to turn into a home (there’s a similar site in Kimball, NE that has been turned into one.)




The missile was put in and taken out through this door:


My "host" standing on the entrance hatch cover


We got a nice look at all of the exterior details. The site is amazingly intact, probably one of the most intact Atlas E sites in existence. There is a large “hatch” about 10’ x 20’ in size that was used to install or remove large equipment, normally it was covered by a heavy concrete cover that could be lifted out by a crane, but the owner of the silo removed this cover and put in a kind of atrium/skylight. By looking down inside, we could see where he had installed some computers and some kitchen equipment.





Heading over to the roof of the silo structure, we noticed that the owner had dug a big hole just to the East of the launch building itself. According to our tour guide this was done to try and put in some kind of a septic system, but I noticed that the removal of the dirt had caused some of the concrete “shell” to subside and crack.





After our tour, I thanked our host and got back on the bike. It had been a great, serendipitous turn of events that put me at that silo at exactly that time – ten minutes earlier and I’d have stopped, taken a couple of pictures and then drove on.

On the way back I shot a final series of pictures of yet another abandoned ranch – just another ghost out here on the high plains, another relic of the past now long forgotten.

 

Hltoppr

El Gringo Spectacular!
How cool! I love learning the history of places...even when you think you're in the middle of nowhere...it's amazing what is there!

Great report!

-H-
 

ttora4runner

Expedition Leader
I remember seeing a program on TV awhile back about a couple that made there home out of abonded missle solo. Very cool.
 

kerry

Expedition Leader
I love the Great Plains. The metaphysical emptiness there in some ways is better than Nirvana. You just have to be there and it happens.
 
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