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Echoes of the Cold War in the Tropical Warmth of Everglades National Park

Former missle base in Everglades NP.

The Nike Hercules site from an earlier era. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

For most people, the name Everglades National Park conjures up a variety of mental images: alligators, birds and other wildlife; tropical swamps and a "River of Grass;" mosquitoes and hurricanes. The Everglades may not immediately bring to mind a historical site from the Cold War, but that's the latest visitor attraction at the Florida park.

In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union perilously close to war, and in the midst of the Cold War, security against a possible Soviet attack was a national priority in this country.

In response to those concerns, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed four Nike Hercules missile bases in South Florida: one in north Key Largo (now Key Largo Hammocks State Park), one in Miramar (now the site of a Publix shopping center), one that is now the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Krome Detention Center—and one in Everglades National Park.

Military use of the Everglades site ended in 1979 and the facility was turned over to the NPS. The park announced this week that the area will now be open to the public for guided tours.

A park press release notes:

This significant historical site is physically the best overall example of the nation’s missile defense system close to Cuba and remains virtually the same as it was when official use of the site was terminated in 1979.

The base was listed on the U. S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places on July 27, 2004, as a historic district. The area includes 22 contributing buildings and structures associated with events that have made a significant contribution to American history and embodies distinctive characteristics of the period.

Among the structures that are part of the tour are three missile barns built to contain 41-foot missiles (some with nuclear warheads), a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel, barracks, and control centers within berms that served as blast protection.

The interpretive tours will be held every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. through March 28th. The tours are free, but park entrance fees apply. To join a tour, reserve a space by signing up at the park's Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, or by calling 305-242-7700. Reservations will be taken up to 30 minutes before each tour.

The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is located 9 miles southwest of Homestead, Florida on State Road 9336. Tours will be by car caravan. Participants must arrive in the park by 1:30 p.m. and be prepared to drive 14 miles round trip from the visitor center.

In addition to a glimpse into the not-so-distant past, this tour also offers a chance to explore the dilemma facing the NPS when it inherits such facilities. I'd be willing to bet that during the three decades since the missile site was handed over to the park, there's been some lively debate about what to do with it.

One option would be to remove it and restore the site to natural conditions. That would have been a logical choice for a modern intrusion in a park, but it would have an expensive one, requiring funds that were almost certainly not available unless they were diverted from other needs.

Option two: The buildings could have been converted to some use by the park. Was there a need—and what about funds to pay for recurring costs for utilities and upkeep?

A third option would be to view the facility as a relic of an important era in our history, the Cold War, and preserve it for its historical value. That decision would also carry its own set of costs to maintain the facility in a safe and usable condition—no small feat in the subtropical climate of the Everglades.

The question of the site's value as a historical resource can fuel a lively debate of its own. For most Americans younger than the Boomer generation, the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis are simply terms in a history book. Can this place serve a useful function by helping current and future generations gain a better understanding of that part of our nation's history? That would be a challenging but probably appropriate theme for an interpretive tour of the facility.

Since the decision was made in 2004 to list this site on the National Register of Historic Places, it's unlikely that it will be removed. That being the case, it seems reasonable to open it for some type of visitor use. It will be interesting to see the public's response to the upcoming tours.

Perhaps these programs will offer one answer to the question of what to do with similar facilities which have come to the end of their original purpose: If you save it, will they come?


Jim, your last sentence sums it all up.

I think more than a few readers will agree that many of us are pack rats, unable to throw anything away. In the case of the Park Service and the Nike silo, it seems as if there's a little pack rat mentality going on. Too, I wonder if the lack of funds to adequately remove the footprint of the missile base wasn't the deciding factor on how the NPS should react to this unexpected "gift."

Had the Everglades been a DOD property rather than an NPS property I think a strong argument could have been made for preserving the base for its historical nature. And if this particular base was the last of its kind I think a somewhat strong argument could be made for not removing it.

However, I struggle to see the unique historical significance of the base, especially when out west they at one time had so many missile bases that some have gone into private ownership. In other words, the government couldn't wait to be rid of them.

Though I'm not sure exactly where in the Everglades this base is located, in light of the environmental threats facing the Everglades and the resident flora and fauna, my vote would have been to raze this relic and restore the land.

I'll be very interested to see some feedback on the Nike base, such as visitation numbers.
My local NPS site has a Nike base within it's boundaries, which now serves as park headquarters, as well as other facilities. Needless to say it's being put to good use.
The history buff in me has wondered what shape an interpretive program on this Nike site would take.

There are many NPS units that combine natural, cultural, and historical resources. Just because a park's main resource is natural shouldn't preclude interpretation of it's other resources, no matter how many similar resources exist elsewhere within the NPS.
I give kudos to Everglades NP for shining a light on this piece of American history that so few really know about or understand. From a cultural resource standpoint this site's proximity to Cuba makes it the likeliest choice of any for this interpretive experiment. Sure it's unfortunate the base was originally located within such a fragile ecosystem, but there it stands. Why not interpret it?

As for lack of funds for removal... well we all know there is an expense in developing an interpretive program for the site. Sure the cost of interpretation is far less than the cost of removal, but the expense is a conscious choice to interpret this resource which has been available for almost 30 years. Seen through cultural resource eyes, what a waste to have done nothing for the last 30 years to tell this story.
Land may be a finite resource, but our history is ongoing, and new stories that need to be told will continue to appear as long as humans inhabit this land.

For goodness sake, if Flight 93 is a story the NPS is going to tell (that site being established in record time after the unfortunate tragedy on September 11, 2001), then the NPS most certainly should get on the ball and start telling the Cold War story.
Maybe no one will show up for the tours, and the information delivery method will be shifted to passive interpretation, such as a wayside or two. Perhaps the tours are being used as a decision maker: if no one shows up, we'll spend the money to remove it.

But I sure hope it stays, I'd like an interactive learning experience to help me learn just how significant the Cuban Missile Crisis was in shaping national defense strategies, especially in light of the world we now live in.

When I worked as a ranger at Everglades aeons ago, they used the "Missile Site" essentially as a dump. As a child of the Cold War, I thought it was way cool. I have photos of the structures covered with weeds, with piles of trash covering them, etc. Kinda poingnant really, "rust in peace." Still, while part of me wants it naturally restored like the rest of the "Hole in the Doughnut" area, another part of me says that while interpreting Cold War history is not Everglades' mission to America, parks cannot pick and choose what history took place within their borders.

I'm glad to see it at least being taken care of and not used for dumping anymore and I look forward to visiting it next time I visit the incomporable and irreplaceable River of Grass.

I think Nike missile bases are cool. I have horse back ridden on some old ones and seen the land used for other recreation, such as agility dog trainining in MD. These were not handed over to NPS but state and local counties.

I have visited Everglades several times and never knew about the Nike site. I would love to visit for the historical purpose and I am sure many young people would find it neat also. I am glad that one has been left to show a story of our past that many are ignorant.

The NPs has already one Nike site and interprets the history of the Cold War there. It is site SF-88 in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area: The site is almost fully equipped, visitors can see the rocket being lifted up for launch, can see the bunker, the controls and almost everything else from the 1960s. The Everglades site is just the concrete shell - no installations there anymore. Frankly, I don't think it's worth preserving, and lack of funds to remove it should not be used as an excuse.

PS: This website works with Firefox 3 again, the layout finally looks fine. Thanks for repairing it.

Yeah, sorry it took so long for FF3. Hopefully we'll have more regular site maintenance going forward.

True 'nuff MRC, and the Golden Gate site looks awesome! Thanks for telling us about it. I certainly hope to go there now, but it is a full continent away from Everglades, which is one reason to preserve the Everglades Nike base. The second is that the Everglades site addresses a specific event, the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Goga is more generic. The Cold War shaped a half century or more of our history and we need more than one site to address it. It (and Goga and the Badlands ICBM site) help make up for the shortage of parks telling the stories of either the Korean or Vietnam Wars, stories that must be understood within the context of the Cold War. How many Civil War sites are there? Was the Cold War less important?

Anyway, it probably costs less to pull the weeds, stabilize the cement, paint some stuff and throw up a few waysides than it would to fully restore the site with the consequent removal of the soil, regrading, restoring sheet flow, etc. It's hard to rebuild the Everglades! (and the money would be better spent in the big Everglades restoration projects.)

Just an aside, sad what we've come to when the webpage asks me to "prove I'm human" when making a comment! LOL

Have lived in Miami for over 50 years and visited Everglades N.P. hundreds of times. However, I was not aware (nor was it advertised) that there was a Nike missle base within the park. When we found out that they were giving tours of the site for the first time ever, we immediately called to make reservations. The tours were to be given every Saturday at 2PM through the end of March, with a maximum of 15 cars per tour. We were told that the demand was so great, that the only remaining space on a tour was on March 14th (so we made the reservation). Last Thursday, they called us back and told us that because of the number of people on the waiting list, they had decided to open up tours on Sunday as well as Saturday. They also wanted to know if we wanted to take the upcoming Sunday tour instead of in March (which, of coarse, we did). The tour was incredible start to finish (petty much everyone else on the tour with us said the same thing). The interpreter (Gregg) was very knowledgable about the bases history and had ample blow-ups of aerial and ground photos of the base the way it was in the 60's. Plenty of time was allowed for questions and comments at the various stops on the tour. As a result , a tour that was scheduled to last one hour, lasted almost two. I certainly hope that the Nation Parks Service takes notice of the demand that has been exhibited for this tour and will choose to continue ot expand it in the future. We would certainly like to take this tour again, as it shows an important aspect of this part of South Florid's history.

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