Suburban Arsenals: Planning for a Post-Cold War Future in New Jersey

Suburban Arsenals: Planning for a Post-Cold War Future in New Jersey

By Brian Kempf – NJ Urbanthinker

March 1st, 2017

For those of us that weren’t alive for the Cold War, it’s difficult to comprehend the morbid vagaries of preparing for the possibility thermonuclear war. These days, we practice fire drills at school or active shooters drill in our workplaces. But it doesn’t quite compare to air raid drills and the sinister regularity of preparing for an unseen force existentially threatening the country. The idea that the country could be strafed at any given moment, though certainly an apocalyptic threat, seemed a distinct likelihood in the years after World War II.

To help protect the homeland from aerial bombing, the US Army implemented a missile defense system capable of taking out enemy bomber aircraft flying into American airspace. This project was known as Project Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory. The premise was simple enough: provide one of the last lines of defense for strategic metropolitan regions by intercepting enemy aircraft with missiles, some of which were nuclear-tipped. A graphic explanation of this system is shown below from an Army reference book:

Image from ed-thelen.org

As far as NIMBY land uses go, missile bases tend to rank among the likes of Superfund sites and crematoriums. The quality unique to missile launching sites is that in a worst-case scenario, missile sites can function as both Superfund sites and crematoriums. However, the same locational benefits and cheap land that enticed developers and urban families to move to the burgeoning and bucolic suburbs of New Jersey served a strategic purpose for the US Army, who found the fringe areas outside New York City and Philadelphia very desirable for siting facilities defending major metropolitan areas. The idea of ringing economically invaluable, densely populated areas with defense sites is certainly not novel – think Fort McHenry in Baltimore or Hadrian’s Wall – but there had not been a ground war in the United States since Pancho Villa attempted a raid in New Mexico in 1916. Pearl Harbor and the West Coast fire balloons had occurred about a decade earlier, and the threat of attack on American soil loomed large. So in the hills and farms of Central Jersey, just over 25 miles from Lower Manhattan, the US Army built its shield of defense protecting the airspace of one of the most populous and economically prosperous regions in the county.

The actual Nike bases were likely not disruptive intrusive in of themselves. In many cases they were sited in some of the more remote suburban fringes and were not especially large in comparison to larger military posts like Fort Monmouth or Picatinny Arsenal. Nike missile bases were typically comprised of two separate sites. One site would house the crew and equipment that would scan the skies using radar, while a separate site would have missile silos and launching facilities. Military installations scattered throughout New Jersey served ancillary roles; Camp Kilmer (currently Livingston Campus of Rutgers-New Brunswick) was a missile maintenance facility, and a hilltop overlooking New York City in Highlands, New Jersey served as a command post. The Nike facilities on Sandy Hook in Monmouth County were some of the largest in the area and was comprised of a radar and missile site each approximately 15 acres in size located just over a mile away from each other. In Holmdel, the sites were somewhat smaller and positioned about a mile and a half away from each other across Pleasant Valley.

According to military historian Don Bender, Nike missile and radar bases could be found throughout New Jersey. A work-in-progress map of sites in New Jersey can be found below:

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/1/embed?mid=187WVggxKS1BaQCacOa7E79i4QYQ&ll=40.40455062443953%2C-74.7170949&z=9

For a snapshot of the mounting development pressures and the race to provide services in New Jersey, the fate of the Nike sites in Middletown of Monmouth County encapsulates the suburban story. Located along New Jersey’s northern bayshore and just inland from the beach, the farms and forests of Middletown proved irresistible for development. With both train and Parkway access, the Township had ample room to grow and absorb a burgeoning suburban home market. Today, Middletown is one of the largest municipalities in the State with a population of over 66,000 residents.

Just over a half-mile up a windy country road from the Evil Clown of Route 35, a missile facility stood between a few farms along a military railroad servicing an ammunition depot. Though many Nike bases stood as silent sentinels, the Middletown base gained a tragic notoriety when in May of 1958, ten base workers (six soldiers and four civilians) were killed when missiles were accidentally detonated when being removed. The disaster resulted in a media firestorm and rallied community opposition to the program, or at least the location of missile bases in their backyards. A newspaper article (http://www.gendisasters.com/new-jersey/14060/leonardo-nj-nike-missile-explosion-may-1958) published at the time of the incident reported that the construction of the site 18 months earlier drew neighborhood protests, indicating that some of the worst fears of nearby residents were not as immaterial as they had been told. The Middletown base was decommissioned in the early 1960s, though a few nearby bases remained operational for another decade or so.

 

While the Cold War grinded on Monmouth County’s population increased from 225,327 residents in 1950 to 461,849 residents in 1970, constituting a 104.9% increase over 20 years. The population of the United States, meanwhile, only increased by 34% in the same time period. Middletown’s population trajectory was beginning its steep climb from 16,203 residents in 1950 to 39,675 residents in 1960 to 54,623 residents by 1970. By comparison, the protection afforded by Nike missile bases did not last very long. According to Nike historian Ed Thelen, the first base became operational in 1953 and closures of the Nike Ajax bases began in 1964. All Nike bases were closed by 1974.  Once the intercontinental ballistic missile was developed and deployed, the threat of enemy bombing raids from aircraft was drastically reduced. The Nike system, once state-of-the-art, was obsolete not long after the program began. The Army moved to shutter the facilities, leading to an age-old question: how does one go about repurposing abandoned missile silos and radar tracking sites?

The answer lies with the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, located in the obscure regions of US Public Laws between legislation increasing compensation for municipal employees in Washington, DC and a 1950 appropriations resolution. The Federal Property and Administrative Services Act authorized the federal government to dispose of surplus property via the General Services Administration. According to the law, land deemed surplus by the General Services Administration or by another executive agency must be disposed of pursuant to terms described in Section 203 of the Law.  Unless the property is abandoned, destroyed, donated, or conveyed through contract brokers, lands deemed surplus by the federal government must be sold through a public bidding process. But under a few other conditions, the bidding process can be skipped entirely:

  • If it is deemed necessary in the public interest during a time of national emergency
  • Public health, safety, or national security will be promoted by disposal
  • Urgency forecloses the need to advertise properties for sale
  • If personal property involved would impact industries that adversely affect the national economy and the price can be obtained through negotiation
  • The property’s fair market value exceeds $15,000
  • Bid prices were unreasonable or not “independently arrived at in open competition”
  • The character or condition of property or unusual circumstances make it impractical to advertise
  • The property will be disposed to States, Territories, possessions, political subdivisions thereof, or tax supported agencies https://www.epw.senate.gov/fpasa49.pdf

Back in 1949, the federal government realized the need for expanded schooling facilities and added a clause to the Act that allowed the General Services Administration to donate surplus land to “tax-supported school systems, schools, colleges, and universities” as well as non-profit education systems http://legisworks.org/sal/63/stats/STATUTE-63-Pg377.pdf

Back in 1949, the federal government realized the need for expanded schooling facilities and added a clause to the Act that allowed the General Services Administration to donate surplus land to “tax-supported school systems, schools, colleges, and universities” as well as non-profit education systems. (http://legisworks.org/sal/63/stats/STATUTE-63-Pg377.pdf) Once the Nike program effectively ended, the site sat vacant for a couple of years with its missile launching facilities, barracks, pump stations, and mess building intact. Monmouth County eyed the approximately 19-acre missile site located off Kings Highway East for an educational facility, and in 1964 the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare conveyed the land to the County’s Board of Education of Vocational Schools. By this time – nearly a decade after the tragic explosion — , the farmland surrounding the base was subdivided and turned into 45 residential lots.

While the landscape around the former base urbanized, the base itself stood the test of time, if only for a little while. A provision of the Secretary’s deed to the County held that the land could only be used for educational purposes for a period of 20 years, ending in 1984. Less than five years later, the County determined the land was no longer needed for its school, and transferred the land to Brookdale Community College. By 1978, the College no longer wanted the property, and asked the government to once again re-transfer the land to the Middletown Township Board of Education without the initial deed restrictions. Despite being the fourth owner of the site in 15 years, the Township Board of Education had no luck developing the site into a school. A letter dated May 6th, 1980 from the Board of Education Secretary stated that the Launcher Area property “is of no further benefit to the school district” and that budgetary constrains squashed the ability of the Board to use the site. With the site’s deed restrictions still in place, the Township transferred the land (which still included buildings and missile launching/storage facilities) back to the federal government.

The fate for the Nike site was sealed in 1983, when the General Services Administration formally quitclaimed and sold the land to Lincroft Enterprises, Inc. for the 2016 equivalent of $484,000. Incidentally, this same group bought 21 acres of the former Coles Area Subinstallation of Fort Monmouth for an adjusted $2.1 million two months earlier. That land consists of the office complex on the eastern side of Half Mile Road in Lincroft at the foot of the Parkway’s Exit 109. The owners of the former missile site wasted little time redeveloping the site, and in 1985 they received subdivision approval for a couple of dozen homes with half-acre lots.

Before and After

NY-53 in 1970 (HistoricAerials.com)

The neighborhood in 2013 (HistoricAerials.com)

Among the installations in New Jersey, the Nike base in Middletown is remarkable in its wholesale redevelopment but not in its lack of preservation. The missile silos and radar sites of the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area still stand and are open for historic tours. The facilities that managed to escape the wrecking ball into the 21st century have not been so lucky. The Lumberton facilities were recently demolished, and the relatively-intact Woolwich site is also slated for redevelopment. In Holmdel, the former housing at the radar site stood until the mid-2000s, when they were finally demolished and incorporated into a veterans’ memorial section of Phillips Park. Just across the Parkway, the missile site had been transformed into tennis courts and playground facilities in the upper section of Holmdel Park. Across New Jersey, future re-uses were far more varied: In East Hanover, the launch area also became a housing development, while its radar site became an art park. Just outside Berkeley Heights, the launcher area became incorporated into the Watchung Reservation, and the radar site became part of a high school (Route 78 now traverses the valley between them). In South Plainfield, the missile and radar sites were demolished and became part of a sprawling commercial and industrial center along Route 287.

As the communities around them grew, missile and radar bases were among the last conspicuous holdouts of the Cold War era, and evolved to service the needs of the burgeoning populations. This was more or less the intent of the 1949 surplus property law all along, though it came at the expense of a largely erased military history. Tragically, had it not been for the explosion in Middletown, the program and its legacy likely would have fallen into deeper obscurity. The memorial dedicated to the victims of the explosion is not located in Middletown but instead is six miles away at Sandy Hook, where one of the last intact Nike sites open for tours remains. The places that served as the last line of defense for the United States were seamlessly incorporated into the suburban landscape- just barely remembered. But like anywhere else in New Jersey, they are hardly ever far away.

Where Are They Now?

Site Radar Site Today Missile Site Today
NY-53 Middletown Unknown, possibly on Earle Naval Weapons Station Property (demolished) Housing development (demolished)
NY-54 Holmdel Phillips Park (demolished) Holmdel Park tennis courts (demolished)
NY-55DC Highlands Hartshorne Woods Park (demolished) N/A
NY-56 Fort Hancock Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway NRA (intact) Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway NRA (intact)
NY-58/60 Old Bridge Field (demolished) School bus parking (demolished)
NY-65 South Plainfield Industrial park (demolished) Shopping plaza (demolished)
NY-73 Summit Governor Livingston High School ballfields (demolished) Watchung Stables (demolished)
NY-79/80 Livingston/East Hanover Riker Hill Art Park Townhouses on Nike Drive (demolished)
NY-88 Wayne/Mountain View Residential subdivision (demolished) Rutgers Cooperative Extension (partially intact)
NY-93/94 Franklin Lakes Wooded area and fields off Shadow Ridge Road (demolished) Field behind residential development along Degraaf Court (demolished)
PH-23/25 Lumberton Public safety center (demolished circa 2015) Public safety center (demolished circa 2015)
PH-32 Marlton Wooded/forester (demolished) Largely intact
PH-41/43 Berlin Demolished/vacant (Williamstown Erial Road) Demolished/vacant (field)
PH-49 Pitman Gloucester County Christian School (demolished) Farm operations (private)
PH-58 Swedesboro Largely intact Largely intact
PH-64DC Pedricktown Salem Community College (partially intact) N/A