TNB Night Owl – Titan I Missile Complex

Inside an abandoned Titan I complex. Image captured by the News Blender.

When I was young and stupid, I did some dumb things and lived to tell about them. This is a brief story about one of those escapades. To more clearly define the particular age of young and stupid that I was at the time, let me say, unequivocally, that it was several decades ago and should not be confused with much more recent years of being young and stupid. That said, I believe I and my friends were all about twenty years old when this tale took place.

One of my buddies, an inquisitive and curious type, learned there was an abandoned Titan I missile complex several miles outside the city. Sleuthing it out via research at the local public library (that’s the way I heard it) he discovered its location and recruited a group of us to go exploring. We were a physically fit bunch, which mattered a great deal as we’ll soon see.

The Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile was the second American ICBM placed in operation, but the first to be based underground in hardened silos. In service for only three years, from 1959 to 1962, it was decommissioned when its replacement, the Titan II, became operational. The first U.S. ICBM, the Atlas, was never a silo-based missile, but it was the first active strategic defense system America had, beating the Titan to duty by a few months. Anyway, the takeaway here is, the Titan missile base was underground which meant we were going spelunking. Here’s a cutaway drawing showing the layout of the subterranean complex.

Titan I missile complex cutaway.

The video below shows a series of still photographs from a Titan I site virtually identical to the one we explored. Between the cutaway drawing and the video ‘slideshow’ you ought to have a fair idea of what we saw down there, the main difference being that our complex was in far worse shape.

“Titan I Missile Silo 724-C Denver, CO [Vol. 1]” (5:59)

We faced our first hurdle upon arriving at the site. It was on private property, part of a ranch, and the owner had made it clear with signage that visitors were not welcome. Of course, being a group of young guys, no one wanted to chicken out in front of their buddies so we made a collective bad decision and went in anyway. Our tour organizer (that’s the guy that found the place to begin with) had been told by his sources that all the entrances to the underground were sealed off, save one.

Every missile silo complex has an escape tunnel through which military personnel could exit to the surface should the normal everyday entrance be destroyed in the event of war. Supplies down in the hole were finite after all, enough food and water to last a few weeks maybe, so eventually the men would want to get out of there after the threat of fallout had diminished. The escape tunnel was a vertical shaft that connected an underground tunnel to the surface, maybe fifty or sixty feet above. The shaft was four feet in diameter at the most, with a steel ladder bolted to one side. There was a hatch at the top and another at the bottom. The entire shaft was filled with sand when the site was operational, to provide radiation shielding in case of a direct hit by an enemy nuke. (This is what cold war thinking was like.) To use the escape shaft, the hatch at the bottom had to be opened to allow the sand to fallout (pun intended). Personnel could then climb the ladder to the top where, hopefully, the top hatch wasn’t fused closed.

The only way into the complex was to climb down the escape shaft. We all had flashlights but basically they were useless beyond a few feet looking down this hole. (There had been some prior discussion of taking road flares down there to see by, but it was decided that might be dangerous as we didn’t want to asphyxiate ourselves, and we didn’t know if there were any explosive gases in that environment, so flashlights it was for all.) There we were, negotiating our way down this shaft, one at a time, not able to see anything below us. Our guide had told us the rancher had dropped a dead calf down the shaft to discourage our sort. Sure enough, there it was at the bottom of the ladder. Fortunately, it had been there a long time, and didn’t smell or look disgusting.

Once everyone was down the ladder, we began to explore. Everything seemed to be covered with dust, dirt, or paint flakes (ugh – lead paint). Some of the tunnel walls seemed to be covered with black soot, as if some rocket scientists had built a campfire in the limited-oxygen environment. The first tunnel we took led us to one of the three missile silos on site. This tunnel ended abruptly at the silo. Pointing our flashlights down into the silo, I don’t believe we could see bottom, just darkness. Someone had spray painted a warning there on the tunnel wall that a teenager had fallen to their death at this spot. I don’t know if that was true or not, but we all were extra careful after reading that.

Water had penetrated the command and control dome, leaving many surfaces wet. Nearly all the equipment had been pulled. There were some console cabinets still there that technicians would have sat at, something like NASA mission control. Three huge industrial fans, maybe fifteen feet in diameter each, occupied one end of the dome-shaped room. They were built-into the dome, abandoned, too difficult to remove when the rest of the place was stripped. There had been a raised floor, the kind you find in computer rooms that allow air conditioned air to flow under the computers, keeping them cool. The raised floor, like the computers, was long gone, leaving only steel posts sticking up vertically like spikes.

For reasons I do not recall we climbed up on top of a steel frame that had once supported the second floor of this dome. We then walked across the wet steel girders, going somewhere (where, I don’t remember). Below, the computer floor spikes would have gored anyone who slipped and fell off the wet girders. Ah, youth; invincible. If any one of us had been injured down there, or worse, we all would have been in a world of hurt. Not only would we have been charged with trespassing, we would have been in big trouble with the Air Force. Didn’t I mention? We were all young enlisted airmen at the time. Young and dumb.

Question Of The Night: What poorly thought out mischief did you get into when you were too young to make good decisions?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.