By David S. Rotenstein
[An updated version of this post focused on the Fort Reno facility in Washington, D.C., was published on the Greater Greater Washington blog in December, 2010]
[08/22/2011: Update: Read the follow-up post on newly identified photos showing the construction of the Fort Reno "Cartwheel" facility in Washington, DC]
In 2004 the State of Maryland was both project proponent and regulatory reviewer in the Section 106 consultations tied to the construction of a proposed telecommunications tower at Lamb’s Knoll, a mountaintop ridge that straddles Washington and Frederick counties west of Frederick. A Federal Communications Commission licensee, the State was required to identify historic properties, evaluate their significance under the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, and determine whether the proposed project would adversely affect properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Properties likely affected at Lamb’s Knoll included the Appalachian Trail, a 1920s fire observation tower turned telecommunications tower, and a Cold War-era army facility.
Maryland’s agency for emergency telecommunications infrastructure retained a cultural resource management firm to conduct the Section 106 compliance studies. The firm’s initial 2003 report noted the presence of nearby nineteenth century farmsteads and surrounding Civil War battle sites, but there was no mention of the twentieth century resources. The Maryland Historical Trust (the state historic preservation office) reviewed the 2003 report and concurred with its authors that no historic properties would be affected by construction of the proposed tower. Located less than 500 feet from the proposed tower site and rising approximately 100 feet above the mountaintop, the former Cold War facility was notably absent from all discussions turning on historic preservation and the proposed tower. Hidden in plain sight and visible from miles around, the Lamb’s Knoll facility is one of a handful of continuity of government sites built in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., that were designed to house large numbers of federal officials in underground bunkers while the exposed concrete towers that housed sophisticated radio equipment kept communications open among the survivors, the military, and civilian populations.
This article stems from my involvement in that 2004 project. I was retained by a coalition of environmental groups including the Harpers Ferry Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to evaluate the historic properties the groups believed that the State’s consultant failed to identify in the initial round of Section 106 consultation. Between 2001 and 2008 I did many Section 106 projects for FCC licensees and I had been working on histories of postwar telecommunications networks. By the time I had been brought into the Lamb’s Knoll project I was sensitive to the historical significance embodied in telecommunications facilities like the repurposed fire lookout tower and the Cold War facility.
Aided by an active Internet community devoted Cold War communications sites, especially Virginia resident Albert LaFrance’s copiously illustrated “A Secret Landscape: America’s Cold War Infrastructure” Web site and Cold War Communications listerv, I began to find the cracks in the top-secret cloak that enshrouds the Lamb’s Knoll facility and its sister sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic. LaFrance’s Secret Landscape site includes declassified document scans, articles from popular and trade publications, and first-person accounts from the engineers and others who built, maintained, and operated private- and public-sector Cold War communications networks. Although the Lamb’s Knoll project ended in 2004 when the FCC determined that the State of Maryland’s proposed tower would not adversely affect historic properties, my interest in the Cold War sites continued and in early 2010 I was able to conduct an oral history interview with a former army sergeant who spent two years assigned to one of the facilities. This article presents a brief overview of the facilities and the challenges they and other top-secret military and national intelligence sites pose to preserving the recent past.
When terrorists struck the morning of September 11, 2001, Vice President Richard Cheney was whisked from his Washington office to a secure “undisclosed location.” Cheney’s undisclosed location is rumored to have been a Cold War era facility buried deep beneath Raven Rock Mountain near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Located east of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, the Raven Rock Military Complex is also known as Site R and it was designed as the Alternate Joint Communications Center (AJCC) where senior military officials were to be taken in the event of a nuclear attack. Site R was among the first relocation facilities built in the 1950s and early 1960s as federal planners conceived of and realized a Federal Relocation Arc extending outwards from Washington where key documents and people could be sheltered during and after a nuclear exchange.
The Federal Relocation Arc included above- and below-ground sites located within a 300-mile radius of the nation’s capital. Sites included existing buildings like the Greenbrier Hotel and college campuses throughout the region. The sites were administered through the Executive branch’s White House Military Office. Communications personnel were attached to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). The Presidential Emergency Sites were “literally holes in the ground, deep enough to withstand a nuclear blast and outfitted with elaborate communications equipment,” recounted former White House Military Office Director W.L. Gulley. According to Gulley, funds to support the sites wound their way through a circuitous route in the Defense Department. “Authorization to spend the money, although it was allocated to the Army, was given to the Navy – specifically, the Chesapeake Division, Navy Engineers – who didn’t know what the fund was for.” All oversight for these facilities originated in the White House Military Office.
The sites in the Arc key to ensuring open lines of communications were built in a network that relied upon line-of-sight microwave technology, i.e., each transmitter and receiver had to have an unobstructed line-of-sight between its nearest neighbor for the network to be viable. These microwave hops were usually no more than fifty miles apart. “I’m assuming that when they did their studies they knew specifically where the main terminals were going to be and they looked for locations that they had line of sight to,” explained John Cross, a retired Army sergeant who was assigned to WHCA. “And they were all, you know, within probably maybe forty miles of each other.”
According to John Cross and other former government employees there were 75 Presidential Emergency Facilities among the 90 or so Federal Relocation Arc sites. Only a handful of the properties were designed as a key communications node in the continuity of government microwave network. The sites were known by their locations, i.e., Raven Rock or Lamb’s Knoll; and, they each had codenames, all of which began with the letter “C”:
Presidential Emergency Facility Sites
|Site Code Name||Other Name||Location|
|Crown||The White House||Washington, D.C.|
|Cartwheel||Fort Reno||Washington, D.C.|
|Crystal||Mt. Weather||Berryville, Virginia|
|Corkscrew||Lamb’s Knoll||Frederick County, Maryland|
|Cowpuncher||Martinsburg||Roundtop Summit, Virginia|
|Cannonball||Cross Mountain||Mercersburg, Pennsylvania|
|Cactus||Camp David||Thurmont, Maryland|
|Creed||Site R (Raven Rock)||Waynesboro, Pennsylvania|
Each of the sites included a 100-foot cylindrical tower, two-thirds of which was solidly built to house transmitters and receivers, supply rooms, and quarters for the skeleton staff which oversaw the facilities around the clock. The upper portions of the towers held parabolic antennas aimed towards the next facility in the network. These antennas were shielded by radio frequency-transparent plexiglass that protected the antennas from the elements and concealed them from view while enabling radio waves to pass through. The towers were connected to elaborate underground bunker complexes and entry to the facilities was through massive blast doors.
Because the towers were highly visible yet top-secret, no official explanations of their functions ever were released. Locals near the Lamb’s Knoll site speculated that the tower was a missile silo. Cannonball, where Cross was stationed, and Camp David’s Cactus site were believed to be water tanks. “People around Mercersburg thought it was a water tower,” Cross recalled. “We used to buy water from the City of Mercersburg and we had a water tanker that we’d haul water back up to the mountaintop so they saw that and they saw, you know, the water tanker and they just figured that they were getting better water pressure that way.” During Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to Camp David with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cactus facility’s tower sported an observation deck and signage to reinforce the perception that the structure was in fact a water tower.
The Cartwheel site is located among early twentieth century water towers in Washington’s Fort Reno Park: “Radar and other sound-sensitive antennas, dishes, and horns were installed atop a new brick tower at Reno — the one that does not hold water. The underground communications center reportedly links the White House with other larger centers in the Middle Atlantic states.”
Since the facilities were top-secret, few detailed descriptions of their interiors have surfaced. John Cross never photographed Cannonball or the other facilities he visited while assigned to WHCA. Cross has prepared several line drawings illustrating the interiors of Cannonball, Cactus, and Cartwheel. According to Cold War communications enthusiasts, the concrete towers were designed to deflect the force of a nuclear blast. Cross explains their construction,
Well it was solid concrete. You know the air system was filtered so that if anything did happen all the air intake would be shut down and you had a filtration system. Everything was I guess primarily engineered you know with the concrete. Now you know there was always some possible problems with the antenna decks where we had spare microwave dishes that could be put in temporarily if anything happened that, you know, a blast would be close enough to tear off some of the dishes. We had spare dishes that we could put in in a fairly short period of time, that we could replace them. But the structure itself with concrete was really about the biggest thing.
Listen to John Cross describe the facilities:
MP3 clips from the April 2010 interview
John Cross describes going to work for the White House Communications Agency
John Cross describes the Presidential Emergency Facilities
Hiding in plain sight: concealing the facilities
Planning for the unthinkable: nuclear war
By the early 1970s the Presidential Emergency Facilities were being decommissioned. Cross recalls closing down Cannonball in 1970 shortly after significant upgrades were installed. Changes in communications technology and continuity of government plans obviated the 1950s facilities. Most were transferred from Army control to other agencies. Corkscrew (Lamb’s Knoll) and Cartwheel (Fort Reno) were acquired by the Federal Aviation Administration and their towers remain in use. Mt. Weather remains a top-secret facility and Cannonball was abandoned and sold, its tower exposed to the elements and vandals. The towers at Cactus (Camp David) have been demolished and Site R is abandoned.
Each of the remaining Presidential Emergency Facilities may at some point become part of a Section 106 case in which the property’s eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places must be evaluated. Recent Past properties, especially those tied to military and intelligence infrastructure present unique challenges stemming from a lack of understanding of recent past resources, biases against properties of such recent vintage, and the added layer of secrecy inherent in such properties. In the Lamb’s Knoll Section 106 consultation from 2004, the State of Maryland’s consultant wrote that the Presidential Emergency Facility could not be evaluated for listing in the National Register because of its top-secret status. The Maryland Historical Trust agreed:
Constructed circa 1962, the U.S. Army Facility was evaluated against Criteria Consideration G for Exceptional importance and subsequently recommended as ineligible since the history of the facility and photographs are unobtainable due to security concerns. Until such time that the facility is no longer top-secret and the significance can be examined more thoroughly, the Trust concurs that the Lambs Knoll U.S. Army Facility is ineligible for the National Register.
As the federal agency responsible for complying with Section 106, the FCC issued comments that reinforced the State of Maryland’s. “The MDSHPO [Maryland Historical Trust] further advises that it is not possible to determine if the Federal Facility is eligible given the secrecy surrounding that property and its mission,” wrote the FCC in its final opinion issued in July 2004.
Sites like Cartwheel, Corkscrew, and Cannonball were critical continuity of government sites during the Cold War. Their highly visible towers became part of an industrial landscape defined by telecommunications infrastructure essential to the information-based third industrial revolution. Beyond their highly function roles in the ubiquitous military industrial complex, they also were places where people worked and lived daily. “I had a lot of fun, you know, even though it was a job, I had a lot of fun,” recalled John Cross during our twenty-first century interview using Skype. “You know, the funny thing about it, I worked with people that were both at Crystal and Cadre and Cartwheel for years after we closed down those sites. But we never discussed what went on at those locations.” As historic preservation practice matures and greater significance is attached to recent past resources, perhaps more may be known about these sites, their roles in American and global culture, and the people who built them and worked there.
Thanks are due to John Cross for sharing his memories in what turned out to be my first oral history interview conducted by Skype. John read a draft of this article and I appreciate his keen eye (and ear) for detail. Thanks are also due to the test readers who helped work out the multimedia kinks. The 2004 fieldwork at Lamb’s Knoll was sponsored by the Harpers Ferry Conservancy and the Recent Past Preservation Network and Society for Industrial Archeology have published the results of my work on telecommunications facilities in their newsletters and in the SIA journal. Albert LaFrance has been a reliable and valuable source of information on all things related to telecommunications infrastructure history. As always, I take full responsibility for the contents of this article.
[Note: This article originally was written for the Recent Past Preservation Network newsletter and was slated to be published in June 2010. I had intended to supplement the RPPN article with a blog post including the audio clips.]
 Laura H. Hughes and Gerald M. Maready, Lambs Knoll Telecommunications Tower, Frederick County, Maryland, Report Prepared for Maryland Department of Budget and Management, Office of Information Technology (Washington D.C.: EHT Traceries, Inc., November 2003).
 David S. Rotenstein, “Radio Towers: New Federal Policies Threaten the Legacy of America’s Communications Industry,” Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter 32, no. 3 (2003): 1-2; David S. Rotenstein, “Towering Issues and the FCC,” Forum News 10, no. 6 (2004): 1-2, 6; David S. Rotenstein, “Communications Towers: An Endangered Recent Past Resource,” RPPN Bulletin 2, no. 1, Newsletter of the Recent Past Preservation Network (2004); David S. Rotenstein, “New Federal Policies Endanger Historic Engineering Sites,” Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter 34, no. 3 (2005): 17; David S. Rotenstein, “Towers for Telegrams: The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Emergence of Microwave Telecommunications Infrastructure,” IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 32, no. 2 (2006): 5-22; David S. Rotenstein, Western Union Telegraph Company Jennerstown Relay, Westmoreland County, PA, U.S. Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), No. PA-636 (Washington: Library of Congress, 2007), Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa4014/.
 Steve Goldstein, “’Undisclosed location’ disclosed A visit offers some insight into Cheney hide-out,” The Boston Globe, July 20, 2004, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/07/20/undisclosed_location_disclosed/
 David F Krugler, This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War, 1st ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
 Ibid., 95-96.
 Bill Gulley and Mary Ellen Reese, Breaking Cover (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 35.
 Gulley and Reese, Breaking Cover, 36.
 Gulley and Reese, Breaking Cover, 36; John C. Maxwell III, “Current Information on Abandoned Site 2 (Cannonball) at Cross Mountain in Franklin County, Pennsylvania,” Memorandum for the Record, 31 May 1988, Scanned document available online at <http://coldwardc.homestead.com/files/cannonball/maxwell1.htm>.
 John Cross, “Interview,” interview by David S. Rotenstein, Digital Audio (Skype), April 13, 2010.
 Judith Beck Helm, Tenleytown, D.C., Country Village into City Neighborhood (Washington, D.C: Tennally Press, 1981), 225.
 Cross, “Interview.”
 Amy Worden and Elizabeth Calvit, “Preserving the Legacy of the Cold War,” CRM 16, no. 6 (1993): 28-30; Mary K. Lavin, Thematic Study and Guidelines: Identification and Evaluation of U.S. Army Cold War Era Military-Industrial Historic Properties (U.S. Army Environmental Center: Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, 1998).
© 2010 David S. Rotenstein