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.