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?