House of Titans
The myths and truths behind Cold War-era missile silos in north Chico
Chico legend has it that during the height of the Cold War, a huge intercontinental missile complex was built in the nearby farmlands to defend our country from a possible attack from the Soviet Union. Another even scarier story says one of the Titan I missiles it once held actually exploded underground, nearly wiping Chico off the map in one of the worst nuclear mishaps in U.S. history. It even has been rumored that occult worshippers used the site for rituals.
Few Chicoans have heard of the behemoth buried 6 miles north of Chico. But many of the older residents could tell you that the legends are true and some could say they’ve witnessed them firsthand.
Eric Norlie is one of them. The 48-year-old Chicoan has been down in the bowels of the Cold War casualty close to 100 times.
“The earliest memory I have was my dad taking me out there, and I was probably not even a teenager,” he said. “I can remember walking up to the edge of one of the silos and looking down into it and seeing all the scaffolding that was built into the structure.”
His father would take him from their house in Durham on salvage trips out to the site. Back then the owner of the silos allowed the public to come out and buy leftover machinery and pieces of the complex. Norlie didn’t think much of it until college, when he and a group of seven friends set out to explore the silos one night in 1985.
“The group that I went with the first time had a couple guys who had known how to get in there so they kind of led the way,” he said.
They had to go in through a hole in the ground that led to what was called the “propellant terminal” that once featured a liquid oxygen tank that extended out above the ground, he said.
“I can remember being the map-maker, just trying to jot down as much as I could in terms of where we went.”
There was a caretaker who lived in a mobile home on the premises, and in the event the group was discovered, they decided on a code word, “Blackjack,” which meant it was time to start running.
“We were near the entry portal and eventually someone started hearing footsteps coming down the stairs, so that was when someone yelled ‘blackjack!’ and we headed out as fast as we could,” he said.
From then on, Norlie started running little missions to the silos at night and finally started parking out in front of the property and going in during the daytime. He noticed that no one was watching the place, so he decided to look for the owner to see if another caretaker was needed.
He found Robert Lague’s name under the property listings and looked him up in the phonebook. During their conversation, the now-late Lague said he was happy to have some help with his property because a constant amount of work needed to be done to mend the fence after each adventurous night of teenage mischief.
With the owner’s permission, Norlie was free to explore the manmade caverns at his leisure between 1990 and ’92. He researched the facility and found a cache of abandoned documents and operation manuals in a crawlspace of one of the control rooms.
He figured that he could do a service to the community by writing a history of the covered colossus, listing everything that went into to the construction of the site. What resulted was one of the first books written on Chico’s Titan I Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Launching Base. He also was willing to share his wealth of knowledge with this reporter.
In the late-1940s and early ’50s, the Cold War took center stage in the minds of millions of people around the globe. For 46 years (1945-91) the international arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union made many people nervous and fearful that the world as they knew it might end in a nuclear holocaust, all at the push of a button. Land-based intercontinental missiles, long-distance bombers and submarines all laid in wait to be given the go-ahead to launch their atomic payloads. The Cold War affected the world politically, ideologically, economically and even culturally. The small town of Chico was no exception.
In 1955, President Eisenhower made the intercontinental ballistic missile the highest national priority, in response to the Soviet Union’s frightening progress in rocket technology.
Northern California had been suggested for the location of Titan I missile facilities because its geographic area allowed access to secluded regions crucial to keeping large missiles in low profile.
In 1959, the U.S. government took 275 acres of land north of Chico from Nathan H. and Harold V. Thomason through eminent domain. This would be the site of an enormous Titan (I-C) missile facility, 1,600 feet long, 900 feet wide, and 165 feet underground. The makers of the Titan I missile, Martin Marieta Co., headed the construction, which cost $30 million and included 7,500 tons of steel, 32,000 cubic yards of concrete and 300 tons of brick. Four men were killed during construction, which lasted from 1960-62.
The complex’s energy came from four large generators, which could produce enough electricity to power a community of about 6,000 people. “Big ol’ diesels,” Ralph Contreras called them. He was a laborer at the time, just 21 years old.
When all four generators were operating at maximum capacity, they used about 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month.
“You’d go down in there and you couldn’t hear anything,” he said.
Contreras, now 75, recalled being at the facility when one of the rooms exploded, killing one of the facility’s employees.
A foam material that was supposed to be fireproof had been sprayed onto the walls of a room in the base. Later on, after finding out that it wasn’t fireproof, they had to go back in to take it off.
Contreras and the other laborers used sandblasters to get the hardened foam off of the ceiling and the walls. Sandblasters release a lot of sparks when removing material.
“The sparks coming off the sand hit one of the gas pipes, and it just blew him up,” he said.
Until construction was complete, the workers and engineers actually controlled the base. When it was finally completed, controls were turned over to the 851st Strategic Missile Squadron at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville under the Strategic Air Command. It was during this time leading up to the command handoff that one of the worst nuclear accidents in our country’s history took place.
During the early morning of May 24, 1962, Joe Herrington, a safety engineer, was performing atmospheric tests in the missile silos during a fuel and unfuel procedure.
“This was the final inspection, and they had the warheads on them. We didn’t like that idea that the warheads were on there, because any little thing … could set them off, but we were just laborers,” Contreras recalled. “We just worked there and stayed out of the Air Force’s way.”
In silo No. 1, the tests showed abnormally high liquid oxygen levels, which Herrington reported to his superiors over several days.
When they finally went down to the bottom of the silo, they discovered that ice had begun to form all around the base of the missile from a valve not properly closing. Herrington’s supervisor reportedly kicked the ice at the base of the missile and watched it shatter on the floor.
They began ascending the six flights of stairs to the top of the silo when they came across a white, misty cloud seeping out of one of the liquid oxygen lines connected to the missile. The two rushed up the remaining stairs to warn the rest of the facility as dark, thick smoke began pluming out of silo No. 1.
Herrington hastened his attempts at evacuating base personnel into a single, large elevator that led to the surface. After he squeezed everyone into the elevator, there wasn’t any room left for him. So he ran up the auxiliary stairwell assisted by a failing breathing mask, inhaling the black smoke the rest of the way to safety.
At 7:08 a.m., just after everyone got safely to the surface, the missile exploded, destroying the silo and sending large fragments of metal and rock skyward, with chunks and bits of debris raining on the countryside as far as a quarter-mile away. The two silo doors, each weighing 116 tons, were flung open like saloon doors. The silo itself channeled the explosive force straight into the air, acting like an underground cannon.
“When that silo blew up, it blew those doors right open and scattered cement all over the north of Chico,” Contreras recalled. “It was a mess. There were over a hundred men working on that shift but nobody was hurt.”
No one died from the explosion, but nearly 60 men were treated at Enloe Medical Center for minor injuries and smoke inhalation.
“Fire erupted during defueling of a propellant terminal at the Titan Missile Base this morning causing an explosion that damaged a silo and a missile, destroyed two quonset huts some 500 feet away and sent 59 civilian workers to Enloe Hospital. There were no fatalities in the blast …” the Enterprise-Record reported at the time.
“The missile itself was still straight up and down in the hole, believe it or not, and had the warhead on it and everything,” said Contreras, who was not present during the incident but reported for work later that day. “It was quite a shock for Chico. It scared a lot of people.”
At the time, the No. 1 silo was actually the best of the three, he said. It was already going to pass inspection, whereas the No. 3 silo’s doors wouldn’t even open all the way. “It would open half way and stop,” he said. “So they were still trying to work on that one and then the No. 1 silo went out.”
The Chico missile explosion would have made national headlines, causing panic in an already anxious America. But on that same day, the country was more focused on watching Scott Carpenter in the Mercury spacecraft become the second American to orbit the Earth, eclipsing the Chico silo explosion entirely.
Reconstruction of the silo began immediately. On Jan. 22, 1963, a new Titan I missile was placed in silo No. 1. During the base’s operational years (1962-’65), it housed Air Force personnel year-round. They had their own sleeping quarters, kitchens and even TV rooms.
“There was quite a city underneath there,” Contreras said. “It could have been a real nice club after they closed it down.”
Despite all the danger and doom lurking around the missile silos, they were a huge employer for Chicoans looking for work. In fact, Chico Electric powered all three of the Northern California missile bases.
Cecil Nielson had opened the company just a year before Chico Electric got the contract.
“We operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week because of the urgency of it,” he recalled. “It was a busy time, we didn’t have much sleep.”
But while it was beneficial to some, others responded negatively to the nuclear missile base. The Chico Peace and Justice Center can trace its roots to the base and its war-time implications.
During the construction of the base, local activist Wilhelmina Taggart started leading peace vigils with friends Florence McLane and Helen Kinnee to raise awareness about the horrific outcomes the missiles could bring. The movement was dubbed the Chico Peace Endeavor.
“Wilhelmina was worried that this would target Chico and make us a spot for the Russians to send their own missiles,” said Steve Tchudi, a CPJC representative. “She was concerned about the escalations of the nuclear nightmare and the whole direction in which the world was going.”
They decided to continue the vigil after the Titan I missiles had been removed and eventually, in 1982, the Chico Peace and Justice Center was founded.
“We can trace our lineage right back there,” Tchudi said.
In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced the end of the Titan I Missile series. By March of 1965, the missiles of Beale Air Force Base’s jurisdiction were removed from its three bases.
“When we were working there they were already obsolete,” Contreras said. “They knew they weren’t going to last but we kept working there.
“It was quite a place,” he added.
The 851st Squadron deactivated and disassembled them and shipped the fallen giants to the San Bernardino Air Material Area at Norton Air Force Base. It is rumored that one of Chico’s Titan I missiles now stands in Gotte Park in Kimball, Neb.
After the base was clear of missiles and personnel, the Department of Defense hired Robert Lague to dismantle and salvage the valuable materials still housed within the Cold War crypt, to people like Eric Norlie’s father.
So the Lagues purchased the salvaging rights to the missile base in 1971 from a government surplus land sale and removed many of the large fuel tanks, equipment, piping, wiring and the operation controls to sell at their salvage yard in Lathrop, near Stockton.
“For 10 years we took out everything we could possibly take out of that missile base and sold it,” said Margaret Lague, Robert Lague’s widow, in a phone interview.
She said the base was a “precious possession,” as she reminisced about having goats, sheep and five dogs on the property. There was also a lake filled with big catfish, she said. But what appears to be a peaceful field above ground gives way to dark tunnels leading to a large, hazardous cavern below, filled with asbestos, contaminated water and sharp metal; not to mention whatever creatures have decided to eke out an existence down there. According to a 1992 Chico Enterprise-Record report, an 18-year-old Chico State student named Carrie Goff had a tragic accident while she and a group of trespassing friends were exploring the missile base.
They’d walked more than 500 feet of tunnel when she slipped through a hole on the second level and fell 20 feet. She hit a cement slab that was partially covering another hole and landed in stagnant water at the bottom of a large cavity next to one of the silos. If she hadn’t landed on the cement, she could have been impaled by several metal poles protruding from the water. Goff nearly drowned.
The Fire Department was called and torched a hole through the top of the shaft to hoist her out from 100 feet underground. She recovered and, along with rest of her friends, was fined for trespassing.
A year later in 1993, Congressman Wally Herger passed cleanup legislation to make the site safer so such accidents wouldn’t happen again. The silo doors had remained unsealed until around this time. However, the standing water, lack of protective railings and sharp metal scraps aren’t the only dangers lurking in the tunnels.
“The place is contaminated with asbestos and they know it,” Lague said. “I know it and everybody else knows it.”
In 1995, Herger’s cleanup program, organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, found that fuels, oils, solvents, asbestos, volatile organic compounds and possible radiation resulting from the 1962 explosion are all potentially lurking in the soil and groundwater surrounding the facility.
The site is now patrolled regularly and one of the two current property owners—Chris and Robert Ricken—still lives out there. They say the base has been closed off from public access.
“It’s really just a piece of land now, everything’s closed up,” Chris Ricken said in a phone interview. “I don’t even go down in there.”
The silo doors have been sealed for public safety concerns and most of the equipment has been salvaged. So seeing the facility isn’t even an option anymore.
“If somebody comes out there, all they’re gonna do is go, ‘I don’t see anything out here,’” Ricken said. “There’s absolutely no way to get down in there at all.”
Ricken won’t think twice about seeking prosecution for trespassing, which is a misdemeanor punishable by six months in the county jail or a maximum $1,000 fine. He stressed that it’s simply a residence now.
“It’s private property, it’s not a museum,” he said. “If they want to go see one there’s one in Tucson, Ariz.”
He was referring to the Titan Missile Museum, or Air Force Facility Missile Site 8, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and has regular tours throughout the base.
In Norlie’s book about the Titan I facility, he created a plan to construct a subterranean entertainment complex, using the power dome for music concerts and theater productions. Back when he was the caretaker of the property, Norlie, who has a music degree from Chico State, would play his guitar in the power ome, making use of the dome’s ample reverberation time.
“I appreciated the acoustics so I’d play music out there,” he said.
During the first Persian Gulf crisis, Norlie was actually in the process of fixing the facility up as a potential bomb shelter for the city. He was working to get it back on the electrical grid when someone stole all of his tools.
“If there was ever a need, it was going to be available for the community,” he said. “I was so upset that I just decided, ‘You know, why am I working this hard to be alone out here?’”
Other ideas for using the pre-existing structure have been mushroom farms and data vaults. A compost company once wanted to fill it with compost to generate methane in the silo tubes. Norlie said it has the potential to be an offsite campus for either Chico State or Butte College, which could design “a new facility that was for the community, not a war machine.”
But for now the old Titan I missile base is buried, deteriorating more and more each year. Its doors are sealed but its story lives on.