Minnesota’s Nuclear Missile Bases

During the Cold War, the federal government built a defensive nuclear missile ring surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Named for the cities they protected, the bases were designated ‘MS’. The missile sites were based on the Nike missile system which had a 90 mile range and could carry nuclear payloads. In the event that Russia commanded a formation of nuclear bombers to attack the city, just one of the nuclear-tipped missiles in the defense ring could bring the attack to an instant fatal end. The Nikes were built in cardinal directions around the Twin Cities:

Nike Base MS-40 near Castle Rock, as seen on Google Earth (photographed 2017).
  • North: MS-90 was located in East Bethel, Minnesota
  • South: MS-40 was located in Castle Rock, Minnesota
  • East: MS-20 was located in Roberts, Wisconsin
  • West: MS-70 was located in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota
Duluth’s BOMARC Base, as seen on Google Earth (photographed 1992).

Duluth, Minnesota was the home to a very different nuclear missile system, the BOMARC. Where Nike was a medium range missile system designed and built by Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, and Douglas Aircraft, BOMARC was a long range system, designed and built by Boeing and the Michigan Aerospace Research Center. It was the first long range surface to air missile system to see deployment. It was part of the muscle behind the country’s Distant Early Warning Line, a network of radar stations that constantly monitored the arctic circle during the Cold War, looking for signs of imminent attack by Russian bombers. Minnesota’s BOMARC system was built a short drive from the Duluth Air Force Base in northern Minnesota.

Deactivation

A scale model of a Nike base in Rhode Island, as seen in 1961. From Library of Congress HAER RI,4-FOST,1–8

1972 saw the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation treaty with the USSR, an attempt to deescalate tensions by reducing the number of weapons the countries were leveraging against one another. By the mid-1960s, advanced intercontinental ballistic missile technology had rendered long range nuclear bomber strikes, and the bases that protected against them, like those in Minnesota and Wisconsin, obsolete. BOMARC had the additional stress of a slow rollout; by the time Duluth’s missile base was operational it was effectively obsolete. By the time President Nixon signed the treaty, Minnesota’s Nike and BOMARC bases were being deactivated.

Deactivation meant the former bases were free to be sold as surplus, but reworking something as purpose-built as a nuclear missile base is no straightforward thing. Before being sold, all military equipment was stripped from the bases and, in most cases, the underground spaces were backfilled, including rooms below the Nike launchpads where missiles were loaded onto elevators for launch. Nevertheless, the bases still show many signs of their heritage…

MS-70: St. Bonifacius, Minnesota

Minnesota’s western missile base is flooded and backfilled. The local police use the empty buildings as a SWAT and K9 training space.

MS-20: Roberts, Wisconsin

The best-preserved base is MS-20, which is now occupied company that rents rooms in the old base as self-storage units. MS-20’s radar dome still stands near the driveway.

MS-90: East Bethel, Minnesota

For years, this former base served as the “Boy’s Ranch” for the county, often an alternative to jail or juvenile detention. Two radar towers still stand near the Integrated Fire Control buildings which are now being used as a residence.

MS-40: Castle Rock, Minnesota

MS-40 was reused by the Bureau of Mines as a testbed for water jet testing until 1995 when the Bureau was dissolved. More recently, it has been used as private storage and as a paintball course.

BOMARC Base, Duluth

Duluth’s BOMARC has been repurposed as a self storage, much like MS-20. The base design is very different however. Where Nike missiles were stored underground and loaded onto elevators for launch, like tiny versions of the Titan system, BOMARC missiles were housed in garage-like buildings above ground. During launch, the roofs on the launch buildings split and the missile is raised to launch position, not unlike the Atlas missile system. This meant the launch pad had to be much larger.