Mar 04 2013
When driving across South Dakota on I-90 en route from more eastern states to the Black Hills, there are a number of attractions and tourist traps that can provide a break from the ribbon of highway. Wall Drug, Mitchell’s Corn Palace, 1880 Town, and a roadside sculpture park are all worthwhile stops along this stretch of road, but if you want to visit a real piece of history, find your way to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Growing up in North Dakota in the 1970s and 80s, missile sites were commonplace. We passed one underground missile silo on the way to school each day, and there was a control center near one of the other small towns in our rural school district. As kids, we were aware of the sites and of the fact that though farmers could farm around the sites, messing with the fences was not a good idea. The import of the sites and the reason for their existence was lost on me.
We stopped at the Minuteman Missile site mostly because of curiosity on my part, to see what was inside those high-security areas that were a part of my childhood. What we got, however, was a primer on the Cold War along with our tour of the site.
Our tour began with a short video at the visitor center; we chose the kids’ version which was very informative. It described the Cold War and the reasons for having the missile sites throughout the Midwest. If the Russians were ever going to try to send a missile our way, we were going to fire back with more power. It wasn’t perhaps the most neighborly of situations, but it was effective. No one ever wanted to use the missiles, but they were there if the necessity arose.
After the video, we drove to the next Interstate exit and met a park ranger for our actual tour of the control site. This fenced-in house-like structure was indeed homey inside, with bunk rooms, a kitchen and dining area, living area/rec room, and other things you’d expect to find for servicemen who were on duty for extended periods of time.
Unlike a regular house, though, there was a secure entrance area with very specific protocols on who was allowed into the building, and a security detail that was prepared to use force if necessary.
From the security room, we took an elevator below ground to the actual missile control facility. Located in a small vault-like room, with huge shocks to absorb the impact of a potential incoming missile, two people were always on duty, ready to send out the missiles if necessary.
Precautions included communications with another site, and a physical distance between the two buttons that would need to be pressed in order to launch a missile so that no one person could do it on his own.
I would encourage travelers to take the time to stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site when passing through South Dakota. (There is also a similar site, the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, near Cooperstown, North Dakota, run by the ND State Historical Society.) This piece of our country’s more recent history is well-preserved and presents a mindset that is no longer part of our national culture. All of the missile sites were dismantled several years ago, so only those preserved as historic sites remain to show and tell the story of this part of our history.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site has a Junior Ranger program for children, and though guided tours aren’t always favorites with our kids, I did not get one comment about boredom while we were there. Our kids learned from the video, and while we were at the site, asked questions to learn more about the site.
Tours are given twice a day; if you have questions, contact the staff at the site, who were very helpful in recommending arrival times and providing a description of the tour and directions to the visitor center. Note that all tour visitors must be able to ascend a ladder unassisted in case of an emergency when the elevator will not operate.