Chico’s Cold War Titan I Missile Base
By Tyler Ash
Beneath the soil lies a forgotten house of Titans, a subterranean facility known only to the locals. The remnants of the Cold War are still buried in the countryside outside our college town, overshadowed by student life and left to collect asbestos-ridden water, beer cans and graffiti.
Chico legend has it that during the heat of the Cold War, an inter-continental missile complex was built in the farmlands to defend our country from a possible attack by the Soviet Union. Another, even scarier legend is that one of the Titan I missiles it once held actually exploded underground, nearly wiping Chico off the map in one of the worst nuclear mishaps in U.S. history.
It has even been rumored that occult worshippers have used the site for their strange rituals. Many of the older Chico natives could tell you that the legends are true and some could say they’ve witnessed the buried behemoth firsthand, like Eric Norlie, 44, who’s been down in the bowels of the Cold War casualty close to a hundred times now.
“The earliest memory I have was my dad taking me out there and I was probably not even a teenager,” he said during a rainy day interview at Broadway Heights. “I can remember walking up to the edge of one of the silos and looking down into it and seeing all the scaffolding that was built into the structure.”
His father would take him from their house in Durham on salvage trips out to the site. Back then the owner of the silos allowed the public to buy leftover machinery and pieces of the complex for salvaging. He didn’t really think much of it until college, when he and a group of seven friends set out to explore the silos one night in 1985.
“The group that I went with the first time had a couple guys who had known how to get in there,” he said. “So they kind of led the way.”
To enter the Titan complex for the first time, they had to squeeze in through a hole in the ground that led to what was called the “propellant terminal” that once held a liquid oxygen tank that extended out above the ground.
“I can remember being the map-maker,” Norlie said, “just trying to jot down as much as I could in terms of where we went.”
Back then, there was a caretaker who lived in a mobile home on the premises.
“We were near the entry portal and eventually someone started hearing footsteps coming down the stairs,” he said. “So that was when we headed out as fast as we could.”
From then on Norlie started doing little missions at night and finally started parking out in front of the property and sneaking around during the daytime. He noticed that no one was really watching the place so he decided to look for the owner to see if he needed another caretaker.
He found Robert Lague’s name under the property listings and looked him up in the phonebook. After a phone conversation, the since-deceased Lague was happy to have some help with his property because there was a constant amount of work needed to mend the fence after each adventurous night of teenage mischief.
With the OK from the owner, Norlie was free to explore the manmade caverns at his leisure between 1990 and ’92. He researched the facility and found a cache of abandoned documents and operation manuals underneath the crawlspace of one of the control rooms. He figured that he could do a service to the community by writing a history of the covered colossus, listing all of the technicalities and contributors that went into to the construction of the site. It was one of the first books ever written on Chico’s Titan I Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Launching Base.
In 1959, the U.S. government seized 275 acres of land from Nathan H. and Harold V. Thomason under eminent domain, a legal action that allows the state to purchase land at its current market value without the owner’s consent and sell it to a third party for public or civic use.
The makers of the Titan I Missile, the Martin Marieta Company, headed the construction of the Titan (I-C) Missile Facility to be operated by the 851st Strategic Missile Squadron stationed at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville.
Four years earlier, President Eisenhower made the production of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) the highest national priority in response to the Soviet Union’s frightening progress in rocket technology. Northern California had been suggested for the location of Titan I missile facilities because its geographic area allowed access to areas crucial for keeping large missiles in low profile.
Chico’s I-C missile base was the third in a “triad” of facilities in northern California, including one in Lincoln (I-A) and one near Marysville in the Sutter Buttes (I-B).
Before the I-C facility was built, Norlie says that Chico was considered the alternate capital of the state.
“If Sacramento was ever attacked and there was a need to move the capital, it was Chico,” he said. “But that changed after the missile base was built.”
Construction took place between 1960 and 1962 with an initial cost of $30 million, removing approximately 650,000 cubic yards of soil. The materials that went into the structure of the base included 32,000 cubic yards of concrete, 7,500 tons of steel and 300 tons of brick. Four men died during the construction of the facility.
There were always extra security precautions on everything that went on during the construction.
“If you were working on the place, you never worked by yourself,” Norlie said. “You always had your work double checked so there wouldn’t be any sabotage.”
The facility is 1,600 feet long and 900 feet wide, it reaches 165 feet deep underground and was built to withstand a blast 50 times the force of gravity, which is more than the blast of a nuclear attack. It has a volume of 2.5 million cubic feet and a floor space of 100,000 square feet, including six floors per silo. There are approximately 2,000 feet of cement tunnels, 9.5 feet in diameter, which connect each area of the base.
When the base was completed in 1962, controls were turned over to the military staff. It was this same year that one of the worst nuclear accidents in our country’s history took place.
The civilian workers and engineers of the Martin Marieta Company needed to show the military how to operate the facility before it could take full control. During the early morning of May 24, safety engineer Joe Herrington was performing atmospheric tests in the missile silos during a fuel and un-fuel procedure. In Silo No. 1, the tests showed abnormally high liquid oxygen levels, which he reported to his superiors over several days.
When they finally went down to the bottom of the silo, officials discovered that ice had begun to form all around the base of the Titan I missile from a valve not properly closing. Herrington’s supervisor kicked the ice at the base of the missile and watched it shatter on the floor.
They began ascending the long stairs to the top of the silo when they came across a white, misty cloud seeping from one of the liquid oxygen lines connected to the missile. The two rushed up the remaining flights of stairs to warn the rest of the facility. Dark, thick smoke began pluming out of Silo No. 1.
Herrington hastened his attempts at evacuating the missile base personnel into a single, large elevator that led to the surface. He squeezed everyone into the elevator, but there wasn’t any room left for him. He ran up the remainder of the auxiliary stairwell with a failing breathing mask, inhaling the black smoke the rest of the way to safety.
At 7:08 a.m., right after everyone got up to the surface, the missile exploded, destroying the silo and sending large metal and rock fragments skyward with chunks of debris raining on the countryside as far as a quarter-mile away.
The two silo doors, each weighing 116 tons, were flung open like a drunken gunslinger bursting through swinging bar room doors. The silo itself channeled the explosive force straight into the air, acting like underground cannon.
At that time, a 21-year-old laborer at the base named Ralph Contreras saw the damage the explosion caused to the complex.
“When that silo blew up, it blew those doors right open and scattered cement all over the north of Chico,” said the now 72-year-old man. “It was a mess. There were over a hundred men working on that shift but nobody was hurt.”
No one died from the explosion but nearly 60 men were treated and released by Enloe Medical Center for minor injuries and smoke inhalation later that day.
In a 1992 Chico Enterprise-Record article recalling the explosion 30 years earlier, journalist Ed Farrell noted that “the only missile ever fired from the Chico base was done accidentally, and the only persons ever injured, were the crews trying to complete the job.”
“It was quite a shock for Chico,” Contreras said. “It scared a lot of people.”
He said that at the time, the No. 1 Silo was actually the best of the three. It was already going to pass inspection whereas the No. 3 Silo’s doors wouldn’t even open all the way.
“It would open halfway and stop,” he said. “So they were still trying to work on that one and then the Number One silo went out.”
The Chico missile explosion would have made national headlines that day, causing panic in an already anxious America. But the nation was more focused on watching Scott Carpenter in the Mercury spacecraft become the second American to orbit the Earth. It eclipsed the silo explosion entirely.
Reconstruction of the silo began immediately. It cost $20 million to repair, most of the money focused on replacing the incinerated Titan I missile. On Jan. 22, 1963 a new Titan I missile was placed in Silo No.1.
During the operational years of the base, it housed most of the Air Force personnel year-round. They had their own sleeping quarters, kitchens and even TV rooms.
“There was quite a city underneath there,” Contreras said. “It could have been a real nice club after they closed it down.”
The complex’s energy came from four large generators, which could produce enough electricity to power a community of about 6,000 people.
“Big ol’ diesels,” Contreras called them.
When all four generators were operating at maximum capacity, they used about 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month. The base had two 67,000 gallon and one 5,000 gallon diesel fuel tanks.
“You’d go down in there and you couldn’t hear anything,” he said.
Contreras recalled working at the facility when one of the rooms exploded, blowing one of the facility’s employees to bits.
A foam material that was supposed to be fireproof had been sprayed onto the walls of a room in the base. Later on they found out that it wasn’t fireproof so they had to go back in to take it off. Contreras and the other laborers used sandblasters to get the hardened foam off of the ceiling and the walls, but for some reason the base’s painters wanted their job sandblasting instead of painting. So the laborers gave it to them so they wouldn’t have to stay overnight.
Sandblasters release a lot of sparks when removing material.
“The sparks coming off the sand hit one of the gas pipes, and it just blew him up,” Contreras said. “After that, the painters didn’t want that job anymore so they gave back to the laborers.”
The laborers chiseled off the material, which worked much better than the sandblasters.
The missile base was operational for only three years, between ’62 and ’65. This was mainly due to the new developments in ballistic missile technology. Titan I missiles were hard to take care of and extremely dangerous to handle because of the explosive nature of their liquid rocket fuels. Not to mention the many risks of explosions during the fueling process, which the Titan I-C Missile Facility learned the hard way.
When the Department of Defense came out with the Titan II missile, which were much easier to handle and maintain due to the advancements in solid rocket fuels, the Titan I missiles were phased out of the military’s operational inventory.
“When we were working there they were already obsolete,” Contreras said. “They knew they weren’t going to last but we kept working there.”
Even with all the danger and doom lurking from the missile silos, they were a huge employer for local Chicoans looking for work. In fact, Chico Electric was the electrical contractor of all three Northern California missile bases.
The owner of the then-new company was Cecil Nielson, who said that Chico Electric had only been in operation for a year since 1960.
“We operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week because of the urgency of it,” he said. “It was a busy time. We didn’t have much sleep.”
While it was beneficial to some Chico locals, many others responded very negatively to the nuclear missile base. In fact, the Chico Peace and Justice Center also might not exist if it weren’t for the base’s peace-free, paranoid preparations.
During the construction of the missile silos between 1959 and 1962, as well as during its operational years, Wilhelmina Taggart started leading peace vigils with Florence McLane and Helen Kinnee to raise awareness about the horrific outcomes the missiles could bring.
“Wilhelmina was worried that this would target Chico and make us a spot for the Russians to send their own missiles,” said Steve Tchudi, media adviser of the Peace and Justice Center. “She was concerned about the escalations of the nuclear nightmare and the whole direction in which the world was going.”
They decided to continue their peace vigils after the Titan I missiles had been removed. In 1982, the three women founded the center and became a non-profit organization a year later.
“We can trace our lineage right back there,” Tchudi said about the missile silo vigils.
In 1964 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara instructed the end of the Titan I Missile series. By March of 1965, the missiles in Beale Air Force Base’s jurisdiction were removed from its three bases: I-A, I-B and I-C.
The 851st Squadron deactivated and disassembled them, shipping the fallen giants to the San Bernardino Air Material Area at Norton Air Force Base.
In a 2005 issue of Chico Beat, a now discontinued weekly publication, journalist Tom Gascoyne wrote about the current whereabouts of one of Chico’s Titan I missiles, which made it all the way out to Nebraska in 1968.
“Today the 95-foot tall missile stands on display in Gotte Park in the tiny town of Kimball, which proudly bills itself as Missile Center, USA,” he wrote.
The park boasts that it is world’s largest complex of ICBMs in the world.
After the base was clear of missiles and personnel, the Department of Defense hired Robert Lague to dismantle and salvage the valuable materials still housed within the Cold War crypt.
One of the provisions in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty states that the reactivation of the dismantled missile bases must take considerably longer than the construction of a new one. So the Lagues purchased the salvaging rights to the missile base from a government surplus land sale in 1971 and removed many of the large fuel tanks, equipment, piping, wiring and operation controls to sell at their salvage yard in Lathrop.
“For ten years we took out everything we could possibly take out of that missile base and sold it,” said Robert’s widow Margaret Lague in a phone interview, adding that the base was a “precious possession” of hers. She still reminisces about the goats, the sheep, the five dogs and the lake filled with big catfish.
But what appears to be a peaceful field above ground gives way to dark tunnels and a large, hazardous cavern below, filled with asbestos, contaminated water and sharp metal—not to mention whatever creatures have tried to eke out an existence down there.
According to a 1992 Chico Enterprise-Record article by Dirk Dusharmen, an 18-year-old Chico State student named Carrie Goff and a large group of trespassing teens were exploring the missile base. The teens hadn’t walked more than 500 feet of tunnel when Goff slipped through a hole on the second level and fell 20 feet down.
She hit a cement slab partially covering another hole and landed in stagnant water at the bottom of a large cavity, next to a missile silo. If she hadn’t landed on the cement, she could have been impaled by several metal poles protruding from the water.
Goff actually drowned before her friends climbed down and resuscitated her. The teens called the fire department, who torched a hole through the top of the shaft to hoist her out from 100 feet underground. She later recovered and was fined for trespassing along with rest of her group of friends.
A year later, in 1993, legislation from Congressman Wally Herger ordered a clean-up of the site, so that accidents like Goff’s wouldn’t happen again. The silo doors remained open to the public until this time.
The standing water, lack of protective railings and sharp metal scraps aren’t the only dangers that go hand in hand with exploring the tunnels.
“The place is contaminated with asbestos and they know it,” Mrs. Lague said. “I know it and everybody else knows it.”
Herger’s 1995 clean-up program organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that fuels, oils, solvents, asbestos, volatile organic compounds and possible radiation resulting from the 1962 explosion are all potentially lurking in the soil and groundwater surrounding the facility.
Although the contamination report noted that “no radioactive material discharges were reported or known” after the explosion, the City of Chico still exists today. Odds are that there wasn’t a nuclear warhead on the missile at the time of the accident.
“I didn’t realize what asbestos was until after someone described it to me,” Norlie said. “I realized ‘Oh yeah, I can remember seeing plenty of that.’”
Asbestos is a combination of six naturally occurring silicate minerals that was once used in products like tiles, insulation and shingles. The inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other serious illnesses.
Chris and Robert Ricken own the land today and say that the base has been sealed off from public access. The site is patrolled on a regular basis and the one of the two current property owners still lives on the property.
“It’s really just a piece of land now, everything’s closed up,” Chris Ricken said in a phone interview. “I don’t even go down in there.”
The silo doors have been sealed for public safety concerns and most of the equipment has been salvaged, so actually seeing the facility isn’t even an option anymore.
“If somebody comes out there all they’re gonna do is go ‘I don’t see anything out here,’” Ricken said. “There’s absolutely no way to get down in there at all.”
To even get onto the sealed-off property, one would have to walk through the neighbors’ grazing land.
“To get to my place you have to trespass through their land as well,” Ricken said about his home. “I just don’t want people coming out there and expecting one thing and then getting in trouble.”
Ricken won’t think twice about seeking prosecution for trespassing, a misdemeanor punishable by six months in the county jail or a maximum $1000 fine.
“It would be just like me trying to walk in your back yard,” he said. “You’d want to know what I’m doing there, right?”
He stressed that it’s simply just a residence now.
“It’s private property, it’s not a museum,” he said. “If they want to go see one there’s one in Tucson, Arizona.”
Tucson’s Titan Missile Museum, or Air Force Facility Missile Site 8, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994 and has regular tours that go all throughout the base.
Map of Chico’s TI Missile Base
In Norlie’s book about the Titan I facility, he created a plan to construct a subterranean entertainment complex, using the Power Dome for musical concerts and theater productions. He has a music degree from Chico State and would play his guitar in the Power Dome when he was the caretaker of the property, making use of the dome’s ample reverberation time of about two to three seconds.
“I appreciated the acoustics,” he said, adding that he was in the process of fixing the facility’s electrical grid when someone stole the tools he’d left out the day before.
“I was so upset,” he said. “I just decided ‘you know, why am I working this hard to be alone out here?’”
This was all during the first Persian Gulf Crisis and Norlie wanted to get the facility up and running so Chico could potentially have a bomb shelter.
“If there was ever a need, it was going to be available for the community,” he said.
Other ideas for utilizing the pre-existing structure have been mushroom farms and data vaults. A compost company wanted to fill the hole with compost to generate methane in the silo tubes.
Norlie said it has the potential to be an offsite campus of either Chico State or Butte College, who could design it as “a new facility that was for the community, not as a war machine.”
He said that the only way to reoccupy a facility of that sort would be to take advantage of the expanding airport area, already nearby; that way, there would be a much smaller road to get to the facility without destroying any residential areas in its path.
For now, the old I-C missile base is still buried, deteriorating more and more as the water table slowly trickles in each year. Its doors are sealed but its story lives on in a dark, abysmal gloom. Not a single Titan ever shot out of its silos save for the flames of the accidental missile explosion in 1962, proving that the sweat, lives and chemicals sacrificed during the existence of the base were of no ultimate use.
But when all’s said and done, Chico’s Cold War missile base has had quite an impact on our region’s history – and its soil.