NEKOMA, N.D. — Outside of the tiny town of Nekoma, North Dakota, population 31, the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex has become little more than a landmark that hints at North Dakota’s nuclear history.
The four-story high pyramid and surrounding buildings, created to defend the country’s nuclear weapons during the Cold War, have been empty for decades, but the abandoned military installation is set to take on new life in the near future.
In July, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced that data center developer Bitzero Blockchain Inc., which has a focus on cryptocurrency and sustainability, plans to turn the facility into a secure data center for high-performance computing and data processing, with an on-site greenhouse warmed by the heat produced by the data center’s servers.
But, before becoming a roadside attraction, and now a part of the crypto craze, the Safeguard Complex played a key part in U.S. Cold War strategy.
The pyramid was built as part of the Safeguard program, a U.S. Army anti-ballistic missile program developed to defend the Air Force’s Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile silos during the Cold War. The product of decades of research and development, the Safeguard Complex in Nekoma, which defended the Grand Forks Air Force Base, is one of 12 Safeguard systems planned for the country, and the only one competed.
Though the Safeguard Complex was the country’s lone anti-ballistic missile site, and was only fully operational for a short time, many, like retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Clinton Esckilsen, 86, credit the development of the Safeguard program for bringing the Soviet Union to negotiations.
Clinton served in the U.S. Army, and worked to train personnel for the Safeguard program at Fort Bliss in Texas. He originally came to Nekoma in 1974 and saw the program through until its end in 1976. Despite being a part of a program that helped reign in Cold War powers, he now recalls his time in the program humbly from his Nekoma home.
“Being in the military, you just accept the things,” he said. “You do your best, and when big things happen, you’re a part of it. You’re also grateful for it too.”
The construction of the Safeguard Complex in Nekoma started in 1970. After negotiations with the Soviet Union in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union were both limited to two anti-ballistic missile sites each.
As contracts for sites to defend the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota were already signed, those two projects moved forward. Construction of the system in Montana was started, but was delayed by labor disputes and never finished.
The Safeguard system was made up of several components. The Missile Site Radar, located in Nekoma, is the control aspect of the Safeguard system. The Perimeter Acquisition Radar, another massive concrete structure near Cavalier, North Dakota, was made to detect incoming ballistic missiles from the north.
The system also had four Remote Sprint Launch facilities, which housed short-range anti-ballistic missiles, armed with nuclear warheads. The RSLs were located 10 to 20 miles away from Nekoma, extending the range of the site.
The most recognizable part of the Nekoma site is the MSR pyramid. Its four feet thick concrete walls are nuclear hardened. The structure is made of 27,500 pounds steel and 714,000 cubic feet of concrete.
The MSR is accompanied by the Missile Site Power Plant and two missile fields. The power plant powered the site with six enormous Cooper-Bessemer multi-fuel generators. One missile field was equipped with 16 short-range Sprint missiles and the other was equipped with 36 long-range Spartan missiles. Both types of missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.
By April 1975, enough missiles had been installed in Nekoma to classify the site as “limited combat ready,” and by October 1975, enough had been installed to classify the system “fully combat ready.”
Thousands of construction workers and flocked to Nekoma to build the Safeguard Complex, and at its peak, 430 military personnel lived and worked at there. The complex also brought in 109 civil service members and 513 defense contractors.
Housing for army members and their families was provided on site at the Safeguard Complex. The site also had a community center, non-denominational chapel, officers club, bowling alley, bank, gas station, shoe repair shop, clinic and a host of other services, said Clinton.
“Everything that you would want,” he said.
During construction and early operation stages of the Safeguard Complex, the many contractors and sub-contractors working on the site, like Western Electric, IBM, Bell Laboratories, Raytheon, General Electric, Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas, Federal Electric and Pan American, were responsible for maintenance of the Safeguard Complex. Once it was completely combat ready, the system was fully turned over to the U.S. government.
“Congress about had a heart attack when they saw the cost of what it was going to take to maintain it,” said Clinton.
On Oct. 1, 1975, the Safeguard Complex reached full combat capabilities and on Oct. 2, 1975, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decommission the project. In April 1976, the Safeguard Complex was shut down.
“It’s a real punch in the gut when they say they’re going to close the site – you have spent all this time and energy, and the government has spent all this money, and then all of a sudden, they’re going to close the site,” said Joyce Esckilsen, Clinton’s wife. “You just wonder, well, was it all worth it?”
Along with the people working at the Safeguard Complex, its closure also affected people in the surrounding communities, said Joyce.
“They realized that the economy was going to go down too because there wouldn’t be people to rent their places, buy their food,” she said.
The PAR component of the system, near Cavalier, is still in use. After Congress voted to decommission the Nekoma site, the structure was given to the U.S. Air Force. Clinton helped with the transition. Today, it is home to the Cavalier Space Force Station, where the U.S. Space Force monitors for missile threats and tracks objects in space.
After the transition of the PAR site to the Air Force, Clinton and Joyce traveled for more military assignments. In 1985, after Clinton retired, they moved back to Nekoma to be close to family in the area, and have lived there since. Clinton gardens, Joyce quilts and the pair are avid bird watchers.
The Cavalier County Job Development Authority bought tactical portions of the Safeguard Complex in 2017, including the pyramid. For years, it has been looking for a company to develop it and create new jobs in the county, with a focus on data processing.
“That site cost $5 billion to construct in the early 1970s and then was abandoned, and that’s not a very good use of tax dollars,” said Carol Goodman, consultant for the redevelopment of the Safeguard Complex. “Knowing what the facilities could do, what their capabilities were, the construction, it made sense to continue to pursue with any possibility that those facilities could be used again.”
Bitzero has signed binding agreements with the Cavalier County JDA, and is expected to invest $500 million into the project by the time it is completed. Goodman says the JDA and Bitzero plan to close on the deal in mid-September.
Goodman compared the Bitzero development to the Safeguard Complex’s debut in the 1970s. Over the next five years, the company is expected to bring 35 to 50 jobs to the area. While it will not bring nearly as people as the construction workers, U.S. Army personnel and contractors brought by the Safeguard Complex, Goodman says the Bitzero project is “the perfect size, at least for the first stage” for Cavalier County, and will benefit wider eastern North Dakota.
“This community supported that project when it was here the first time around, so we have always had a sense of what kind of an impact on local community and local economy that scale of development can be,” said Goodman. “It’s going to be very much a stabilizing force for the economies, not just to Cavalier County.”