Mt Lebanon Magazine

710 Washington Rd
Pittsburgh, PA 15228

Mt Lebanon Magazine

The official magazine of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania

Uncovering the Nike Missile Site

A Note from the Editor (scroll down to read the blog):

We were absolutely delighted by the popularity of this blog. We always think our content is pretty cool, but the stars really align in those instances when our readers overwhelmingly agree. However, because the Nike Missile Site is obviously a topic of interest for many, we’d like to make a couple additional points:

First, we do not condone trespassing. Ever. For any reason.

Second, in the blog below, our writer observed that the site was deserted and appeared “devoid of life,” but we received a handful of comments claiming that the Nike Missile Site is still in use … so we located and talked to an expert.

It turns out the commenters were right (and so was our writer—you’ll see what we mean).

Though now fully retired, Rick Minnotte, Abington Drive, spent many years as director of the Mt. Lebanon Percussion Ensemble while working as an air traffic controller. He started in air traffic control in 1982 and eventually went on to hold management positions at both the Allegheny County and Pittsburgh International airports. He retired from air traffic control in 2010 but maintains many of his industry contacts, including a current manager at Pittsburgh International Airport, whom he spoke with about this story.

Over the years, he gained a lot of inside knowledge about the former Nike Missile Site, but that actually wasn’t his only connection to it. His father, Jacque S. Minnotte, was chief of construction and engineering for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District, and managed the construction of the site in the 1950s. He remembers visiting it with his father as a kid, back when its purpose still involved missiles.

“Today it is used by the [Federal Aviation Administration] as a long range radar site for Air Traffic Control,” said Minotte in a comment below. “Specifically, it is now used by the FAA’s Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTC), located in Oberlin, Ohio. The Oakdale Radar is also used as a backup radar source for the Air Traffic Controllers at the Pittsburgh International Airport’s Terminal Radar Approach Control to safely guide airplanes in and out of the Pittsburgh International Airport and the various other small airports in the Western Pennsylvania area.”

While speaking with him further, he elaborated on the topic: Pittsburgh International Airport is only responsible for about three miles of airspace around the airport. The Cleveland ARTCC manages much of the rest of the region—in fact, its airspace stretches almost all the way to Harrisburg, which is why the former Nike Missile Site is now a part of their radar network. But Minnotte recalls instances in his job at Pittsburgh International Airport when the radar would fail, so they had to rely on the site’s long-range data.

The radar inside this Cold War relic now operates on its own. An antenna inside the dome spins around, making a full rotation roughly every 12 seconds, to locate planes in the sky.

“Long range radar is a different kind of radar [compared to radar from the towers that you see at airports]. It can see hundreds of miles,” said Minnotte. “Once [planes] get up to cruising altitude, then these en route traffic control centers—I think there are are 26 of them placed all around the country—Their job is to handle the air traffic in the middle part of the flight, once they’ve reach cruising altitude. To make sure they’re safe and sound and not going to whack into anybody.”

So there you have it, folks! The Nike Missile Site was created to help defend our region during the Cold War, and now it protects us as we leave the region for work, vacation and adventure.

As far as the brewery goes, Millvale-based Grist House Craft Brewery announced in 2018 (using some neat drone footage) that they bought part of the property and would be using the old Missile Command Center (not the domed structure containing the radar antenna) as their main production facility and eventually a taproom. Last year, they started selling cans and merchandise for pickup from this location, and they are continuing to work on the space. Follow their Facebook page for updates.

Without further ado, please enjoy this blog, written by Diane Vrabel, which has led us down an intriguing path of local Cold War history discovery.

-Katie Wagner, Senior/Online Editor

For years I wondered what it was, but was never curious enough to find out.

From various vantage points in the South Hills, I saw it in the distance poking its head above the horizon—a huge white globe perched atop a big brown block.

I observed it from Washington Road, across the street from Pamela’s Diner. I spied it through the trees from the playground behind Jefferson Middle School. I viewed it from Hilltop Road in Collier Township, from Carnegie Park off Greentree Road, and from Settlers Cabin Park in Robinson Township.

What could it be? Was it a water tower? An observatory? An alien spacecraft?

Seen through the eyes of a child, it was a scary sight. When my son was growing up, he described it as the monstrous head of The Wizard of Oz.

Finally, a chance conversation with a co-worker about a duck pond near the Panhandle Trail in Rennerdale led to a discussion about the ominous structure, which dispelled the mystery.

This puzzling structure was a radar tower from the Cold War era, used to conduct surveillance and detect enemy missiles and aircraft in the event of an invasion. My co-worker’s grandfather had worked there and told him the tower’s history.

Located off Nike Site Road in Oakdale—or Collier Township, depending on your reference materials—the radar tower was part of a military installation once known as the Nike Missile Master Direction Center.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, forcing authorities to confront the real potential for nuclear war. And those of us who grew up around here know that Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the world back then, making it a prime target for Russian aggression. So, it makes sense that officials took steps to guard the city against this dangerous possibility.

For security purposes, the military designated Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs as the “Pittsburgh Defense Area” and built more than a dozen missile launch facilities around the region.  These installations contained U.S. Army surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery and were equipped to be armed with nuclear warheads, if needed.

The Nike Missile Center in Oakdale served as the command-and-control post for these installations, also housing missiles, bunkers and weapons platforms next to the dominant, can’t-miss-it radar tower. Situated on a hilltop on one of the highest terrains in the region, the Oakdale tower was strategically placed to be on alert for enemy air attacks from its heightened perspective.

Once I uncovered the secret of the Nike missile site, of course I had to pay it a visit to see it up close. It wasn’t hard to find. And despite “No Trespassing” signs, the gate was wide open, posing no barrier to entry.

A stark scene lay before me, with no sound, no activity. The entire place was deserted and devoid of life. The radar tower loomed above me, resembling a giant soccer ball with convex pentagonal shapes outlined on its surface. It rested upon a cement monolith and overlooked a panoramic vista. Up close, it was impersonal, implacable and forbidding.

An abandoned military marvel, frightening in its implications. For I perceived this immense white globe as a symbol of the threat of nuclear war, humankind’s ultimate doom. The radar tower may now be just a vintage Cold War remnant, but it still portends the brutal potential for mutual self-destruction which everyone fears and which I hope is not inevitable.

Maybe it’s a positive sign that the Nike missile site will eventually be preserved as a brewery.  In 2014, the Federal government auctioned off parcels of the idled property and some parts are being renovated to produce craft beer. Better to serve a cold one than to serve a Cold War, I suppose. (Better yet to get blasted on beer than to be blasted by bombs!)

But the fact that we can see the Nike radar tower from everywhere is significant to me, regardless of its benign transformation into a beer factory. Its omnipresence is a constant reminder that danger in many different forms lurks around us and is unpredictable.

Somehow, I liked it more when the only image it evoked was a child’s fantastical vision of the Wizard of Oz.

Comments

  1. My father, Jacque S. Minnotte, was Chief of Construction and Engineering for the US Army Corps of Engineers – Pittsburgh District. He was in charge of the construction of the Oakdale Radar site.

    Also, the Oakdale Radar site is still operational, though not for launching missles. Today it is used by the FAA as a long range radar site for Air Traffic Control. Specifically, it is now used by the FAA’s Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), located in Oberlin, Ohio. The Oakdale Radar is also used as a backup radar source for the Air Traffic Controllers at the Pittsburgh International Airport’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) to safely guide airplanes in and out of the Pittsburgh International Airport and the various other small airports in the Western PA area.

    1. You must be very proud of your father for building such a significant structure. Thanks for the additional information. I’m glad it’s still being used. It looked like it was abandoned to me.

      1. Ms. Vrabel:

        Great article. However, I’m having a heck of a time downloading it. The reason it’s of such interest to me is that it’s located on the farm where my father and nine of his siblings grew up in the late 1920’s to mid 1930’s and where I, as a kid, hunted. Would appreciate a copy of the full article if you could e-mail it to me.

        As an aside, I’ve been unaware of the e-mail version of the magazine; we get the monthly hard copy of the magazine.

        1. Dear Frank, If you could email me your email address, I can send you the full article. My email address is dialmark@verizon.net

    2. Richard Minnotte,
      I’ve known you all these years and never knew your dad was in charge of this construction. That’s pretty cool. I remember in the 80’s actually going inside the “Golf ball” when I was in the Civil Air Patrol.

      I’m lucky enough that I live right next to the old Headquarters and Battery A; which is located on Gass Road at Valley Hi Drive, in Ross Township. That was the forerunner of NIKE missile defense and was a RADAR Control facilities for the NIKE missiles when we had them. In fact where my house sits now was part of the old base.

      Diane, what a great article. Thanks for the memories of my childhood in Lebo.

      Here a link to more info on the NIKE defense in Pittsburgh. https://nikemissile.org/sites/Pittsburgh/northHillsAaaDefense.shtml

  2. I graduated from South Fayette in 1965. Back them the Oakdale radar had a huge rotating antenna and every time it faced our school any electronic device would beep. It was annoying to be watching a movie and have that frequent beeping.

    1. Thanks for reading my article! That must have been quite something to experience during high school.

      1. I grew up right near there, in fact we could hear reveille being played in the morning to wake the troops. Growing up we called it king kongs golf ball… and for a brief period believing King Kong himself was being held captive under the huge structure.🙂

    2. Very good article! Being a loyal follower of Grist House beer, I’ve driven out to the site to pick up beer. Although they have a lot of work to do before being in business there, they do sell their beer at the site. The facility has a lot of potential with its spectacular view!

      1. Thanks for reading my article, Jeff. I really appreciate it. When I was there, I looked but I couldn’t find the brewery. Maybe they weren’t open. I agree, it’s a wonderful view!

    3. My Father was the Captain at the Oakdale site. Glad to see it’s not forgotten.

      1. Hi, Lynn. Thanks for reading my article. I’m sure you are very proud of your dad! I salute him for his service.

  3. The headquarters of the US Army Reserve was on the post where the golf ball is. We had offices in the base. The ball, last I knew, hold sa radar antenna for the Cleveland Air Traffic Control Center, formerly Pittsburgh Center. It guides air traffic for several hundred mile radius.

    1. Thanks for reading my article and for the additional information. I had no idea it was still being used for any purpose.

  4. Yep, we had them over here in Plum Boro and in the Fox Chaple area.

    1. Thanks for reading my article!

  5. back in the sixties before the dome you could see the radar as it rotated around
    If you were listening to the am radio every time the radar faced your direction you would hear a peep’

    1. I remember the old Nike site well, in the early 60s we’d drive to my grandparents house in Rennerdale and before the white cover was the old fashion tower which would affect your AM radio. Fast forward to the early 80s I was in the army reserves there, was the home of the 99th ARCOM military base. You’d be amazed at the number of bunkers in the surrounding the area. We trained at several sites.

    2. That must have been a sight to see in the sixties! Thanks for reading my article and for the additional information.

    3. Hi, Timothy. Thanks for reading my article. I would have loved to see the dome rotating. Must have been something! Like watching “The Outer Limits.”

  6. There is a lot more history to this. The actual missile sites include north park, south fayette scchool bus depot and an area just south of hollow oak land trust park. The latter is still easily accessible and the silos under the ground are still there as detected by “hollow” sounding paved over areas. Very cool. There is a bunch of old buildings just opposite walkers road off hilltop too. You can visit a remnant radar tower in Collier park. I have geocaches at the Collier site……

    1. Maybe that’s another article I can write! Thanks for reading my article and for the additional information.

  7. Appreciate the information

    1. I wish Ms.Vrabel would have done more research.

      1. Thanks, Frank, for reading my article. I, too, wish I had done more research since there is lots more to tell!

    2. Thanks for reading my article!

    3. Thanks, Dan, for reading my article.

  8. I remember it well, visiting relatives from Noblestown Rd in Rennerdale. In fact I knew people who were stationed there. Sorry to see it closed.

  9. It was part of the landscape most of my life.

    1. Thanks for reading my article. From what the gentlemen say in the other comments, apparently the radar tower is still being used by the FAA for air traffic control.

  10. I commanded a Nike Hercules missile battery (C/1/67) in Hardheim, Germany, during the Cold War in the 60’s. We had nuclear warheads, and our missiles could be prepped for surface-surface missions as well as high altitude aircraft intercept. We were part of the “Iron Ring” of 16 Nike units protecting Western Europe NATO countries from air attacks. When I came home to Pittsburgh in 1969, I did my final reserve duty at the Oakdale site and a firing battery in Indianola. Indeed, there were nukes at Indianola and most of the domestic Nike sites, and the warhead yields were the same as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW II. This article triggered many memories (all good!) and I thank you for writing it. (Note: We did track and attempt to shoot down a UFO, with some help from F-4 fighter jets. We were not successful. THAT is a memory I will never forget!)

    1. Thanks for reading my article, David, and also thank you so much for your service to our country! It must have taken lots of courage to do what you did. It sounds very frightening. I wonder what the UFO was?? Shades of Roswell, New Mexico! You must have some interesting stories to tell.

  11. This base played a huge role in my family’s lives. My grandfather was stationed at the base during its more active years. Later my mom would work at the base in several positions. Her last job was the admin for the base commander until it closed. My stepfather met my mom while writing a story about the closing of the base.

    1. Thanks, Ted, for reading my article. It does sound like the base played a big role in your family’s lives! A big salute to your grandfather and your mom for their service to our country!!

  12. I worked at that Nike Site as a Civilian when it was still operational in the early 70s. That area where the big ball sat on top of the hill was called the Missile Master. There were Nike Control and Launcher Sites that surrounded the Pittsburgh area. Each one of those sites had Family Housing sites situated close to the Control and Launcher sites to house the soldiers and their families..I believe they were all from the 18th Artillery Group. Here are the sites http://ed-thelen.org/loc-p.html#Pennsylvania

    1. Thank you, Joyce, for reading my article. Thanks also for your service as a civilian to our country. I will look up the link you included in your response. Very interesting stuff!

  13. I worked there as a clerk at the Missile Master in the early 70s. There were Control and Launcher sites surrounding the Pittsburgh area They were manned by the 18th Artillery Group. There were also Family Housing sites close to the each Control and Launcher sites that housed the soldiers and their families. They were scary times….I remember my parents being very frightened during the Cuban Crisis. You can see a list of all the Nike’s Sites here. http://ed-thelen.org/loc-p.html#Pennsylvania

    1. Thanks again, Joyce! Yes, the Cold War was a scary time, and the Nike radar tower still reminds me of that time, which is why I think it is so significant.

  14. I was stationed at the Elrama site from
    June 1972 till the installation was closed down because it was obsolete.

    1. Thanks for reading my story, Tom, and thank you for your service to our country!

  15. I went to school at Rennerdale elementary in the early 60’s. There was no dome back then. Just a huge radar revolving constantly. My father was still flying for the Air National Guard. He filled me in. But as a grade schooler it really didn’t sink in that we were ground zero for a Russian missile.

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Bernie. Thanks to your dad for his service in the Air National Guard! I agree–in elementary school, we had nuclear drills, but I was too young to fully grasp that Pittsburgh was a prime target for a Russian attack. I grew up in Brookline and went to Resurrection School.

  16. The site was built in the 50’s by a Mt Lebanon resident Jack Lang of Lang Construction who owned a home on Arden Rd.

    1. Thanks, Mike, for reading my article, and for the additional information. Was Jack Lang related to you? As a matter of fact, I live on Arden Road myself!! Small world.

      1. My father, we grew up at 304 Arden. We use to have a telephone pole with a 2-way radio antenna in our back yard that would work all the way to Ligonier.

  17. I was stationed there back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was a very active installation back then with multiple units operating there.

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Tom. Thank you also for your military service to our country!! It would have been something to see when it was really active.

  18. There were just up the road from where I grew up. I remember one time with Boy Scouts we went up there and went through the domes and watched radar screens, etc.

    1. Thanks for reading my article, David. It triggered lots of memories for people, judging from the number of responses to it. Must have been fun to see when you were a Boy Scout.

  19. In the 50’s and early 60’s you could get tours of the facilities. I lived in Wilkinsburg at the time and our church youth group got to do a field trip to the one I believe in the Irwin area. Awesome trip for the group.

    1. Thanks, Ceil, for reading my article. I wish I could have gone on one of those tours, but since I was in grade school in the early 60’s, I doubt I would have fully appreciated it. Maybe as a teenager I would have grasped its significance.

  20. There was a bunch of them around my kids went to school I’ll Saxonburg Boulevard there was a radar station at their school the missile site is now a soccer field probably about a mile or two away they didn’t usually keep them close if you found the radar station somewhere there is a bunker where the missiles were kept underground the doors are as long as a port authority bus there is a bunker in Northpark not too many people know about I remember they flooded it not sure if it was ever drained it is at the training facility

    1. Thanks, Martin, for reading my article. I understand there were numerous missile sites around Pittsburgh. Maybe someday I will look up the other ones, too.

  21. I grew up in Rennerdale and as a kid I called it the giant golfball. My family all moved out of the area and we haven’t been back in awhile so the pictures brought back a lot of nostalgia😊

    1. Hi, Ashley. Thank you for reading my article. Glad it brought back memories for you. Yes, it does look like a big golf ball, too!!

  22. I WAS STATIONED AT OAKDALE WITH THE US ARMY
    18TH ARTILLERY GROUP FROM 1960 TO 1961 AND MY DUTIES WHERE OPERATION OF THE COMMUNICATIONS CENTER AND CRYPTOGRAPHY SECTION AT THE NORAD CONTROL CENTER AND INSPECTING COMMUNICATIONS AT APPROXIMATELY 8 MISSLE SITES AROUND THE PITTSBURGH PA AREA. I ARRIVED AT OAKDALE THIS WAS A REGULAR ARMY INSTALLATION AND A HIGHLY CLASSIFIED AREA. NO PLANES WERE PERMITTED TO FLY OVER THIS INSTALLION. I WORKED IN THE AREA OF THE WHITE DOME IN NORAD CALLED THE BLUE ROOM THEY CALLED IT THAT BECAUSE ONCE YOU ENTERED IT WAS BLUE LIKE THE SKY AND YOU MONITORED THE SKIES FROM ALL OF USA AND THE WORLD.
    MILITARY POLICE AT THE GATES, MESS HALL AND ALONG WALK UP THE HILL TO THE NORAD CONTROL. I WAS ASSIGNED TTHERE ON A COMPASSIONATE REASSIGNMENT FROM KOREA BECAUSE MY FATER WAS DYING. I WORKED IN CRYPTOGRAPHY ROOM LOCKED IN FOR THREE DAYS INTERVALS AND THEN OFF

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Richard, and for your wonderful service to our country! Must have taken a lot of courage. I salute you. You had an interesting job in the military, for sure!

  23. The building on the left off of Hilltop Road housed a Transportation Office. When I worked there the office processed Transportation Requests to California for soldiers returning from leave. From California they returned to Vietnam. The other building housed the Readiness Group. I never knew too much about what their mission was.

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Joyce, and for the additional information! I guess much of it was top secret–hush hush!

  24. We lived just down the street from the Nike Site for 40+ years. Our sons called it King Kong’s golf ball! It is physically located in Collier Township, while the mailing address is Oakdale. All the previous replies are things we heard over the years including the underground silos. When the base was open and housed troops, it wasn’t unusual to see convoys going past on maneuvers. Our sons thought it was pretty cool when we would occasionally go there for lunch. The boys were impressed to see all those soldiers so close to our house. Big changes since those days!!

    1. Hi, MaryAnn. Thanks for reading my article and for sharing your memories. Yes, it could well have been a golf ball for King Kong! Now I understand why some references say it’s located in Collier and others say Oakdale. Thanks for clearing that up for me. Must have been really interesting to see those convoys and military men. I grew up in Brookline and have lived in Mt. Lebanon and only actually became aware of the Nike Site in recent years. I’m glad I finally learned about it and went to see it–a real piece of history in our region.

  25. I remember when this base was active FYI the base back in 1965 the 9th of December was dispatched to Kecksburg, Pennsylvania to recover an unknown object that crashed, there are reports that say it was a Soviet satellite while other eyewitnesses claim it was a UFO shaped like an acorn with strange hieroglyphics on it that was quickly loaded on a military truck under a tarp cover and hauled away to Wright-Paterson Air Force base in Ohio! Just a little interesting information when the base was Active to pass on!

    1. Thanks, Michael, for reading my article and for the additional information about the Kecksburg incident. I am also UFO buff and familiar with the Kecksburg “UFO.” But I didn’t know that military men from the Nike Site were dispatched to check it out back then. Very interesting information. I’m sure there are a lot of stories about the Nike Site which people could tell.

  26. It also controlled missle silos in Churchill Borough and West Deer Township. The silos were strategically placed in the outlying townships surrounding the Pgh metro area.
    Thank you for the nice article!

    1. Thanks, Robert, for reading my article. I am learning more and more about the missiles scattered around Pittsburgh. Very interesting stuff. Thanks again for the additional information.

  27. My husband is retired from the Army. We used to go to the commissary located at the Oakdale Army base there. Also we lived in the Army housing located in Dorseyville up off Rt 910 when he was active duty and stationed in Pittsburgh. The housing was down the road from that Nike site. At one time, the housing was for the soldiers with families stationed there.

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Peggy. Also thank you for being a military family member and thanks to your husband for his Army service!

  28. In Clinton pa by the “egg farm” there’s a place that held missiles and such under ground in the early 2000’s it was still abandon by the military but it held retaliation missiles today they repurposed it as a firearms training center for government agencies

    1. Thanks for reading my article, Andrew, and for the additional information about the Clinton site. I am learning there were quite a few sites like that around the Pittsburgh area.

  29. Back in the mid 90’s and up to 2001, I worked on the second floor of that facility with the 99th Army Reserve Command and our Army gym was on the third floor. I remember that facility well including on Sep 11th, 2001. The employees that worked on the 4th floor managed the satelite dish and were able to track the airplane that eventually crashed in Shanksville, PA.

    1. Thanks, Paul, for reading my article, and for the additional information you have shared. That must have been quite memorable on Sept. 11, 2001, for those employees to have tracked the airplane that crashed in Shanksville. What a tragedy! I have been to the Shanksville Flight 93 memorial site twice and it still brings tears to my eyes. The Nike Site contains a lot of history for our region. Thank you for your service to our country.

  30. Holy Conelrad Batman!2

    1. Thank you for reading my article, Bob!

  31. I remember that there was a real decent gym located on the third floor during the 80’s and 90’s for the soldiers and civilians that worked around the region and at the 99th. I used it extensively, especially before scheduled APFT’s. It was located there until the 99th’s move to Coraopolis, then the gym was moved down to a building below where it stood until the Army closed down completely and Collier took the land.

    1. Thanks, Jon, for reading my article. Glad it triggered some athletic memories for you! Thank you for your service to our country.

  32. There was also a site on 22 and 30, just west of Crafton, I was born by the Thornburg Bridge in the “gully” just down the road from the site. I was raised in military housing barracks (long gone) for the Nike Herc,in Thornburg The site was abandoned some time in the early 60’s. Oakdale Commissary was the support. I used to play in the silos as a kid,with friends.I thought no one remembered those times.Thanks, brought back memories.

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