The vast expanse of sagebrush 15 miles south of Chugwater appears the same as many such stretches along Interstate 25.
To the west is an unassuming tan building with a brown roof and boarded windows. It looks like a generic storage site, except for the barbed wire protecting its perimeter.
The building’s interior is nondescript, too: a series of empty rooms where Air Force service members used to shoot pool, watch television, grill steak or sleep in bunk beds.
It’s not immediately obvious why the state Legislature recently agreed to turn this building into a state historic site in coming years.
The answer is 110 feet below the surface.
A freight elevator will take visitors deep underground. Below, they will face two blast doors, each 4 feet thick and weighing 8 tons. Beyond those is a long, egg-shaped chamber. In the center of the chamber, suspended by four shock absorbers thick enough a grown man can barely hug one, is a narrow capsule.
Until 2006, this capsule, scarcely wider than a hallway, was the nerve center for a fleet of 10 missiles, each equipped with up to 10 nuclear warheads. The silos for these 100-foot-tall, 195,000-pound missiles are scattered across the prairie, each marked only by a tall, thin white pole centered in a fenced area with warning signs.
“You probably drove by a few on your way in and didn’t even know it,” Col. Todd Sauls told the Casper Star-Tribune during a recent tour of the proposed historic site.
Sauls was a missileer in a similar capsule. About twice a week, two blast doors would shut behind him, and he and his partner would spend the next 24 hours locked inside.
The missile launch facility outside Chugwater, dubbed Quebec-01 was built in 1962, the year the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. The service members who manned Quebec-01 stood at the front lines of the Cold War. They held the trigger of America’s nuclear deterrent against Russia.
At one time, F.E. Warren Air Force Base helmed an arsenal of 150 Minuteman II and 50 Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“It’s part of our history that is very unique to Wyoming,” said Milward Simpson, director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources. “We don’t have a lot of other similar facilities we can point to that tell the story of the Cold War. It’s not significant just to the state but to the United States of America and the world.”
In its recent session, the state Legislature approved $175,000 to convert Quebec-01 into a state historic site. The military would repair and renovate the facility before handing it to the state. The work will take about five years before it’s ready for the public, Simpson said.
Eventually, Simpson wants former missileers available to provide visitors a sense of what it was like to work in the launch facility.
An active missile launch facility was cold and loud. Missileers shouted over roaring diesel generators and huffing air conditioners.
The most important sound was the blip of one of the four printers spitting out information. Those were messages between the missiles and the computer, and they told service members if something was broken or needed maintenance.
Sauls’ squadron comprised five missile alert facilities and 50 missiles. Something always needed to be fixed.
“After about 50 (shifts), when that printer would go off, it’s like you could hear it.” Sauls clucked his tongue against his teeth, imitating the blip. “Just by the sound of the printer, you’d know what it was.”
The second in command would silence the signal, rip the sheet off the printer and slide his chair across a rail to hand the information to his commander.
Both service members were buckled in so a missile attack wouldn’t knock them out of their seats.
Even when nothing was wrong, one of the printers still blipped every 66 seconds. It was an assurance all was well.
Service members slept in shifts. Some would watch movies or do push-ups and pull-ups.
Sauls often pored over textbooks while studying for his master’s degree. Other times he would base his actions on the various messages from the printer.
“It was like, OK, if this alarm happens, then I’ll do 20 sit-ups,” Sauls said.
Missileers had their own strange habits and silly routines. But they understood the job was deadly serious.
“You’re not guarding a parking lot, you know?” Sauls said. “There’s only so low of stress you can have with this job.”
At first, retired Col. Barry Kistler thought often about what it would mean if he was ordered to turn one of the two keys that would launch missiles at Russia.
“You got used to it . you’re on crew for four years, I knew I would have to deal with it,” Kistler said. “If I had to turn keys, I’d turn keys. That’s part of the mental preparation that crew members have to go through even today. If called upon . to wage war, can you do that?”
Kistler said Russians couldn’t fathom entrusting that level of responsibility to low-ranking service members like the United States did. Sauls was 22 when he arrived for his first shift.
Kistler served at the height of the Cold War, but he said the men and women manning launch facilities today have a tougher task.
“In my day, we knew who our targets were. Today, you don’t have the Cold War, but my sense is the world is a much more dangerous place because of rogue countries out there,” Kistler said. “It places a different kind of stress on crew members that they don’t necessarily know who their enemy is.”
Today’s launch facilities aren’t much different than those in which Kistler pulled shifts. Crew members sit side by side now, and the printers are gone, but the facility still serves as a deterrent against enemies. Opening Quebec-01 to visitors would be an important step toward educating people about both the past and the duty Air Force service members still serving today, Sauls said.
Simpson hopes the state historic site will be the capstone to a military history corridor that tourists can follow from Cheyenne, through Fort Caspar and up to the Heart Mountain internment camp near Powell.
If all goes to plan, within the next decade, a family road tripping through Wyoming could stop at an unassuming tan building with a brown roof in the empty prairie. Inside, they will make their way to the freight elevator. At the bottom, standing in front of a pair of steel blast doors, they will find themselves at the front lines of the Cold War.