I’ve been to the place where the world ends. It’s in an out of the way spot, far to the north, near a beaver dam and an abandoned air force base that most people have forgotten even existed. A wildlife refuge surrounds this strange little grotto of man-made hillocks that abides there quietly, a vestige of a time that all too unfortunately has not yet passed from our world. Days go by and no human visits. I walked there with my brother and we moved amid the bunkers, squat tomb-like structures built to withstand a nuclear blast unbothered by anyone or anything but a lonely crow flying over the barest whisper of a breeze. If I didn’t know better, I could swear I heard someone say something there, something like a prayer. Perhaps that person was me.
I grew up about fifteen miles away from this place and for the entirety of my life in my hometown of Caribou, Maine, I knew that the military had nuclear weapons nearby. After all, it was the middle of the Cold War. Loring Air Force Base was even mentioned in the movie ‘Wargames’, a film I watched at the local Caribou Theater. In it, a nervous airman answers the call – if the Russians launched an all-out nuclear attack on the United States, Loring would be the first target. Yes, I knew we had bombs. But walking among the bunkers where the nation’s first batch of bombs waited in readiness to destroy life on Earth, it brought all that fear and helplessness back to me. It reminded me that I had grown up on the edge of oblivion. We all did.
The former site of the North River Depot is in Limestone, Maine. It was built here before the nearby Loring Air Force Base, which itself is now only a memory. The bunkers we walk among are easily viewed on Google Earth but at one time in the early 1950s, this was one of the most secure and secret sites on the planet. Inside this strange and haunting set of structures half buried in the earth, the United States stored enough nuclear warheads to destroy the earth several times over. These are the depositories of doom and they are as quiet as the grave. They stand today as a testament to a period of time in our history when the words ‘the end of the world’ were no longer a metaphor. This was the place where the end of the world could easily have begun.
In the aftermath of World War II, for a while, the United States was the sole superpower on the planet. Two nuclear fission bombs had been dropped on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan, ending the greatest war this planet and humanity had ever known. The United States had only two bombs at the time and both were used, with the threat that we had many more at our disposal if the need arose to bomb the country of Japan into submission. When the Emperor of Japan signed the documents ending the war, the United States had no nuclear weapons left. The tactic worked. The arsenal was actually empty, but not for long. Armed with the recipe, the building of bombs began in earnest and with the true start of the military industrial complex came the need for a place to store these weapons, a place where no one would even think to look. IF you’re going to stockpile something above top secret, you’d better find someplace no one would ever think of looking. In 1947, a new joint service military organization called the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project began its task of assessing the readiness of the nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. government. When they got to Los Alamos, they discovered that there were, in fact, no new nuclear weapons to assess. Since the end of World War II, not a single nuclear bomb had been constructed. By the time the inspectors left Los Alamos, there was one bomb that t thought capable of detonation. The Special Weapons project set up shop in neighboring Sandia Base in New Mexico in that same year, which was also the year that the Truman Doctrine became US policy – a doctrine that offered to ‘support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ The Truman Doctrine would usher in a period of political tensions that would result in the Cold War, once the USSR also possessed the power of the atom. The US arsenal grew by jumps and starts and by the end of 1947, there were at least fifty-six functional nuclear bombs ready for deployment with a fleet of thirty-five silver-plated B-29s to deliver them.
On August 29, 1949, the USSR detonated its first device. The two forces that helped end the war in Europe were now both in possession of nuclear weapons and they were not on the same team anymore. With the tensions growing, it became clear to the powers that be that what was needed was a place to store these weapons.
Caribou, Maine is a small city that calls itself the northeastern most city in the country. It is an agricultural country with long, rolling hills, millions of trees, lakes and rivers, and more deer than humans. That was true in 1947 and it is still true today. There were only a few roads into and out of Aroostook County. In 1950, the entire population of Aroostook County was 96,039. This quiet, nearly forgotten part of the country was chosen as the first site in the history of the world to store a nuclear arsenal. Eventually, four more sites would be chosen, but Caribou Air Force Station, also known as North River Depot and then East Loring, was allegedly the first to be built and manned.
When you look at an aerial photo of the North River Depot, it is easy to confuse it with a small housing development, but without houses. Instead, you will see over forty small hillocks, covered with grass, masking something larger underneath. These mounds are concrete bunkers built to withstand a nuclear blast. Inside of these structures were stored the bomb housings that, once the detonators were inserted, would each become a means to an end – each designed for the end of someone’s world. Looking closer, you will see a road circling the small facility. There are no fences. Instead of fences, a constant patrol circled the bunkers twenty-four hours a day, always in motion. If someone wanted to infiltrate this place, they would have to get there first and then pass through marsh and forest before encountering armed resistance.
There are other structures. There is a huge concrete cube that is designed to look like a building. It is modeled to have false windows, false doors and it might be mistaken for a dormitory or office building. If an enemy viewed the building from above, the idea was that they would not view it as a target because of its drab, nondescript design.
In fact, despite its size, it has only a few small chambers inside it which you can peek at if you step onto the landing, though it is still off limits to the public. You can see an open vault door a foot thick, open to the elements. Pictures from the decommissioning show shelving with cubicles. This concrete cube housed the detonators, the highly radioactive elements that, once inserted into the bomb housings, would make the bomb capable of detonation and destruction. It was thought safe to store these away from the housings as a precaution against any accidents that might occur. When required, they could quickly be delivered to the adjacent bunkers and gingerly inserted into the bomb. It is rumored that there were underground tunnels running underneath each of the bunkers and from the cube so that in the event of a heavy winter, nothing could stop the efficiency of the bomb’s delivery to the aircraft that would ultimately deliver them to their final destinations. In the end, this cube had to be abandoned because it was so heavy, it was sinking at an angle into the ground. Another facility was built and this one was sealed for decades. In January of 1992 when Loring Air Force Base was being closed, twelve workers cut into the door of the cube of Building A and were contaminated by radiation. The Air Force and Congressional representatives investigated the claims. The Air Force explained to the investigators that the building was unknown to them. They didn’t know it existed. Officially, the end cause of the illness of the men who cut into the building was that they suffered a massive dose of radon gas that had accumulated in the thirty years it stood there, sealed against the world. This explanation seems weak given that it was once the single place on planet Earth that housed all the man-made radioactive detonators capable of global devastation. Today, there is no door on the building and the winds whistle through the barred doorway. No radon gas can accumulate.
For a few years, this site and four others across the country housed Armageddon. The Russians had their storage facilities, as well. So did other nations as the years passed. The long-range bombers used as delivery systems remained but were largely replaced by newer missile systems to deliver the ultimate payload. In 1988, the Cold War effectively ended and Loring Air Force Base closed. Today, it’s a hauntingly silent place, still maintained by the local authorities, with one of the largest arch hangers in the world and one of the longest runways, too. There are a few businesses, a nature preserve, a motel, and a museum on the site, but it is always strangely quiet and one might even venture to say haunted- not with ghosts – but with memories. Ask anyone who served at Loring and you’ll hear a fondness for the place in their voice, even though the winters were long and cold and it was situated in the middle of nowhere. You’ll hear a fondness for the land, for the people, and for the former mission of the base. Time is having its effect on the buildings that are not maintained and it is only a matter of time before much of it returns to the wild. One day, perhaps thousands of years from now, the concrete bunkers that housed the bombs and the sinking concrete cube that housed the detonators will also crumble, but by that time, who knows what the humans of the distant future will think if they stumble upon these curious ruins and wonder, what was their purpose? Who built them and why?
I’ve been to the place where the world could have ended. That the world still exists over seventy years after it was constructed is a testament to the tenacious nature of Humanity. But how strange it is now to walk among the grassy hillocks and into the cavernous mouths of the bunkers and think of things that might have been. It is a lonely, cold feeling, after all, because those things that might have been? Well, the pity is, they still might be…
Garbinski, John C., North River Depot, 2011
Rhodes, Richard, Dark Sun The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, 1995, Touchstone
Loring Remembers the Skies for Us, “The History”
Declassified U.S. Nuclear Test Film #69