Clandestine Cold War Presidential Emergency Site: Fort Reno Redux

Last year I wrote an article for the Recent Past Preservation Network’s newsletter documenting presidential emergency facilities. These were subterranean bunkers with above-ground radio towers. Follow-up articles appeared in this blog.

Recent Internet posts have revealed the existence of photographs taken by the John F. Kennedy administration during the construction of the site in Washington, D.C., code-named “Cartwheel.” The site, with its masonry communications tower, is “hidden” among water towers in the capital’s Tenleytown neighborhood. The photos have been digitized and are available at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Website.

According to the information included with the digitized images, the Fort Reno facility was constructed in the summer of 1961 and it was sponsored by the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA). The images below are a few of the nearly 100 images from the JFK library’s collection.

Civil Defense

What would you do if you were sitting at the dinner table and a loud buzzer went off to inform you that the federal government had detected inbound nuclear missiles? Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s the government market-tested and field tested the National Emergency Alarm Repeater device to provide just such a warning.

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The Undisclosed Location Disclosed: Continuity of Government Sites as Recent Past Resources

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.

Corkscrew Tower Site, Lamb’s Knoll, Maryland. Photograph by David S. Rotenstein, 2004.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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