Eisenhower's Beautiful Trash Heap

Eisenhower's Beautiful Trash Heap

We talk, not infrequently, of the Cold War.  We reference our political climate, we talk of tearing down the wall, and we discuss, with precise mathematical models, the rapid nature of our most famous arms race.  But rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge the physical legacy of the Cold War – after all, a decades-long staring contest leaves no forts or historic battlegrounds.  But there are remnants of that conflict, and they still stand, proud reminders of 1950s zeal, littering the Canadian north with rocket labs, airstrips, and launch towers.  

This graveyard of the Cold War sits in the northeastern edge of Manitoba, on a protrusion the size of New Hampshire that gently prods the icy Hudson Bay, provoking the chill of its ceaselessly swirling air.  On the northern tip of this subarctic jetty is the remote town of Churchill, accessible only by air, rail, or – at the very peak of the summer – grain ship.  The arctic climate, lack of incoming and outgoing roads, and annual polar bear migration should make life in Churchill unappealing, but the town has attracted residents (military and otherwise) for centuries.  

The sky here seems to resist quantification, but it is an unassailable fact that there is more of it up north.  With no trees in sight, the lone, small hill dubbed the region’s “Everest,” and the wispiest of clouds, there is little to hide the immensity of the heavens.  Compared to the domed fresco of the Churchill sky, a typical American sky is but a wrinkled 4”x6” postcard of what sits beyond.  If not for the occasional goose, the immensity would be almost nauseating.  

It is, in fact, this remote, uninterrupted sky that inspired our proudly anti-Soviet governments to make Churchill their outpost: what better place to shoot whizzing rockets than an inconspicuous corner of Canada?  There the Lacrosse missiles could fly for the first time, unimpeded by anything, in a climate that so closely approximated that of the frigid Russian enemy.   Our Cold War missiles, we’d discover, could fittingly fly in the coldest weather around.  

The pieces of the Lacrosse tests (and others) have an uncommonly beautiful resting place.  The spongy tundra ground, when not snow-covered, is spread with every shade of green, punctuated with bright orange lichens and the reserved sweetness of dark black crowberries.  The rusted shrapnel remains lodged deeply in mossy patches, alongside artillery rounds and, occasionally, unexploded ordnances.   This rubble is occasionally acknowledged, but more often than not ignored.  It doesn’t feel like living history as much as it feels like trash.  It is history though, for in a way that trash belongs to Eisenhower and JFK.   It may be garbage, but it speaks loudly of our national past: intermingled with the missile parts are bits of a less violent history rooted in the Space Race – the same facilities that once fired missiles later came under the purview of NASA.  

The very structures that housed these operations still stand – the cost of disassembly and removal of materials far outweighs the desire to demolish, bringing a new meaning to the “conservation” needed to preserve the arctic.  Some sit, abandoned, but others have been repurposed. If small towns are known for their anachronisms, Churchill is certainly no exception – the laboratory at the science base at which I work is housed in a corrugated metal building left over from the missile-testing all-American patriotic period of the 50s.  If you were to imagine what an arctic missile research facility might look like in the 1950s, you might think of the high tech fantasies we have about science, but it’s troubling to realize that the labs that housed our never-ending arms race were nothing like that.  Instead, they were built from metal and plywood.  There were chalkboards, a few analog instruments (they too were abandoned with the site), and a hand-painted sign that reads: United States Airforce. Office of Aerospace Research. Operated by Pan American World Airways, inc. Rocket Research Facility.

The fact that Pan Am was building our rockets in a freezing cold glorified shack at the edge of the Arctic is not a strong sign for the strength of our country at that time, but serves as a powerful reminder of the fragility of wartime operations.  

From the small, scratched, circular window embedded in the door to the lab, the launch tower itself is visible.  There’s a sort of triangular spire that erupts from an intimidating polygonal base, a building that now serves (depending on the season) as storage for a handful of snow mobiles or as many ATVs.  The original launch apparatus is still there, and may even be functional.  The walls still carry a few framed propaganda prints, and a few group photographs of their former inhabitants.  

The feeling in these mostly bare, cold rooms, is oddly powerful. As a child, I frequented the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum with my family, but had never really thought of space history as remotely recent.   The fact that these places still exist, untouched (and largely unlocked) was an exciting discovery for me.  That I could be doing research at the same lab benches as NASA once did, feeling the same uncomfortable draft, was enough – I never really wanted to be an astronaut, but I now knew I wanted to be a scientist.  

But though the buildings that housed them and their work still stand, the 800 people of today’s Churchill are a far cry from the bespectacled nerdy gentlemen and their subarctic housewives that adorn the black and white photos lining one of the walls.  Today’s Churchillians are an odd assortment – industry consists of three categories: grain exports, research, and polar bear tourism.  The grain season is limited to a few warm weeks each summer, and polar bear season is six weeks each October.  Research goes on year round.  The result is that many residents are left with an awful lot of down time, and, as I’m sure happens in any small town, that time gets filled in a wide range of ways.

I sometimes wonder how the people of Churchill relate to its military past.  They seldom discuss it (the daily gossip is, admittedly, fairly juicy), but it’s hard to ignore the significance of the history that’s present.  Native people have lived in the area since long before the arrival of Europeans to Canada, and Europeans have called the town home since 1717, when it was christened in the name of John Churchill, the governor of the British-colonial Hudson’s Bay Company and the first Duke of Marlborough, only to later be captured by the French, and then by the British, and now as part of the Canadian Commonwealth – the simple colonial fort has flown beneath many flags.  

 Politically, Churchill is surely a long way from the Cold War era.  Fierce nationalism, anti-communism, and militant patriotism have given way to a much more liberal community built on being friendly to tourists, and supportive to essential environmental research.  It’s funny to realize that my co-workers at the base, once a physical manifestation of the 20th century struggle against radical leftism, mostly identify as socialists.   There is a high tolerance for weirdness, and the residents live in friendly, largely unregulated lawlessness.

The summer days in the north are long.  The sun never fully sets, choosing instead to hover just below the horizon, as if waiting to come up for a breath.  The night never really fully catches hold, and in a way, it always feels like morning. In the winter, it always feels like dusk.  No matter the season, it never feels like the 21st century.  When you up at the sky, it feels just as likely to see a missile or a rocket as a tundra swan or helicopter. ■