A Cold War relic, the East Haven radar station closed 50 years ago

The East Haven Radar Base on East Mountain in full operation. Photo courtesy of John Blodgett

The East Haven Radar Base on East Mountain in full operation. Photo courtesy of John Blodgett

Editor’s Note: This article was written by James Jardine of The Caledonian Record, in which it was first published Aug. 8, 2013.

EAST HAVEN — It was 50 years ago this month that the radar base on East Mountain closed, ending its service as an early warning station designed to alert of an attack by the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

The functional life of the East Haven Radar Base was brief; it opened in 1956 and was in operation for less than seven years, but remnants of the United States’ defensive presence in the Northeast Kingdom remain in the form of abandoned buildings and memories including decapitation, a UFO sighting and an attempt to erect a wind farm.

Once a thriving air base with 174 military and civilian personnel, the base now includes a few buildings and a paved road from East Haven Village to the top of East Mountain. At the foot of the, 27 ranch houses – built as a small housing development in an open field – are now owned privately by individual families. When the structures were built, they provided housing to enlisted men, officers and their families.

The base was part of a defense strategy that called for 44 mobile radar stations to provide early warning and protection for Strategic Air Command (SAC) air bases. Its early warning detection systems could scramble aircraft to intercept threats detected by the radar links.

The arrival of the base and the corresponding defense dollars and workforce wielded signficant economic and social impacts on East Haven and North Concord residents.

John Blodgett, 72, was a staff sergeant in the Air Force and was still at the East Haven base the day it closed in 1963. A native of Franconia, N.H., Blodgett liked his tour of duty on East Mountain. He worked on the base five days a week and had every weekend off. He returned to Franconia for the weekend. He was single at the time and shared quarters with about 150 to 170 enlisted men living on the base in barracks.

On base, there was a bowling alley and a recreation hall with a bar. There was also a bus that drove the men to St. Johnsbury every night so they could shop, go to the movies or hit the bars.

After retirement, said Blodgett,”I just kind of liked the area so I just kind of settled back here.” He’s lived in Newark for 35 years.

In addition to its economic impact, the base also became the backdrop for some interesting stories.

Prior to its closing, a UFO sighting was allegedly observed from the radar station in 1961. It was shortly thereafter that Barney and Betty Hill famously reported being abducted by aliens in Franconia Notch, N.H.

In 1969, four years after the base was purchased by the late Ed Sawyer of East Burke, snowmobilers were using the property without permission when one of the snowmobilers hit a chain slung across the road and was decapitated. About 23 years ago, someone roaming the property died in a fall from one of the buildings.

In 1965 Sawyer bought the base from the government for $41,500 and ran a woodworking shop on the mountain. He also dismantled surplus property and sold it for scrap. Eventually, Sawyer sold the East Mountain property to Matthew Rubin, who hoped to install a wind farm there. After several years of effort attempting to get a permit from the state, Rubin eventually put the wind farm on hold.

In 1998 an Essex County Sheriff deputy fires warning shots at a trespasser on a motorcycle who refused to stop. The deputy was charged with reckless endangerment, and the incident ended his career in law enforcement.

Sawyer, in a 2000 news article, said the base was “in pristine shape” in 1965. He described living with his family in a quonset hut. However, trespassers and vandals discovered the base and ignored Sawyer’s efforts to keep them out. He went through dozens of padlocks in a year just to secure the main gate closing the access road. Sawyer reported he had to shoot at trespassers to protect himself. As vandals and severe weather combined to tear at the base, it increasingly took on a haunted, desolate look resembling the setting for a horror movie.

Truman Austin, Jr., 73, a lifetime East Haven resident and one of a very few residents whose life in East Haven spans the presence of the radar base, said the population of East Haven doubled with the arrival of the base and its workforce. Today the population is about 300 residents.

When the base was first built, the only access was through North Concord and Victory. Later, a paved highway was built from East Haven on Route 114 to the top of East Mountain. The highway remains in place today and is gated and locked. Rubin opens the gate for moose season, Austin said.

The road went through Austin’s parents’ pasture on their small farm. Carol Austin, Truman’s sister, of St. Johnsbury, recalls being a toddler when the road was built “right through the middle of my playground.” She recalls sharing her displeasure with the construction crews who paved the pasture.

Another longtime resident, David Lund, recalls being a boy when the houses were being built. As he and a companion walked by the new houses under construction, they’d keep an eye out for open windows on the parked cars belonging to the construction workers. If they were lucky, they could make a quick grab through the open window and steal a couple of cigarettes.

According to Lund, when the base closed, the housing development that was adjacent to the base was sold to a construction firm, Coffee and Teachout, for a bid of around $41,000. The firm sold the nearly new ranch houses to the public for $8,200 apiece. Lund was the second owner of one of the houses in 1971. He says the houses are built on slabs without a full basement. He said, “for the time they were built, they were well-built, but heating oil was 19 cents a gallon at the time.”

One lady who still lives in one of the houses is Beatrice Lang. Originally from Long Island, she and her husband bought the house in 1971 as a second home or vacation home. They decided to move to Vermont in 1981 and Beatrice has never regretted it. She said she’s never had a desire to leave Vermont and loves the house in East Haven she’s lived in for 32 years.

Blodgett said there was “no ceremony” when the base closed and “a lot of old stuff went to the salvage yard.” He said new technology made the base obsolete, but he felt the base “was necessary at the time.” He said the base had a serious mission which it fulfilled, addressing the Cold War threat.

The radar base also made the state’s list of hazardous sites after the soil was found to be contaminated with oil and other motor fluids.

Comments

  1. Great read and an amazing photo.

    Having only experienced it as a hulking ruin, I would love to see more pictures of the base while it was inhabited. Hopefully Google will yield something tasty.

    A lot radar bases were getting “UFO” readings due to cold war Electronic Counter-Measures testing, much of which remains classified to this day. The use of “allegedly” indicates there’s not a lot of skin on those bones, though.

  2. Karl Riemer :

    “called for 44 mobile radar stations”
    Mobile?

  3. Karl: obviously the radar installations themselves were not cavorting around East Haven, but “mobile” radar means it can be aimed. Often referred to as “height-finding,” too, it offered a more three dimensional picture of the airspace being surveyed.

    • Karl Riemer :

      Ah! Thank you.

      • Craig Kneeland :

        Very interesting. I worked for Westinghouse on the installation of the FPS-27 Radar at several US and Canadian sites, but not at East Haven despite my several attempts to be assigned there.

        I thought the term “mobile” referred to the ability of the scattered sites to “had off” targets from one site to the next as the target aircraft left one area of coverage and entered an adjacent coverage area.

        I became good friends with many who worked at those small radar sites during the cold war days. I only wish I had kept in touch with more of them.

    • No. “Mobile” literally meant mobile. To appease Congress in order to get funding for these additional radar stations, ADC designated these sites as mobile, meaning the radar equipment could be relocated in case the mission changed. The radar stations, in actuality, were anything but mobile. But that’s is how they were designated.

  4. Ralph Colin :

    From 1956-1957 when I was a First Lieutenant on active duty in the Air Force, I was assigned as a Radar Controller at an AC&W site in Highlands, NJ. We were, as was the site on East Mountain, a unit of the Air Defense Command (not of SAC as suggested in Mr. Jardine’s article) and were responsible for identifying all incoming aicraft from the Atlantic Ocean towards our eastern coast, specifically covering the area from Montauk, at the eastern point of Long Island, to Philadelphia. If we were unable to make a postive ID of an aircraft via it’s flight plan to which we had reference or by it’s specific position which showed up on the radar, then we scrambled fighters from McGuire Air Force Base, NJ (from which I also did my regular flying as an Air Force pilot) or from Newcastle AFB and Dover AFB in Delaware or Suffolk County AFB on Long Island.
    We, too, had numerous sightings of UFO’s as reported to us by both Air Force and by commercial airline pilots with all of whom we had constant communication. In the case of larger aircraft, many of the sightings were being confirmed by multiple crew members aboard the reporting aircraft. Infrequently, we witnessed the alleged UFO’s on our own radar.
    Among the more interesting experiences I had while on duty
    during the 4PM to midnight shift was the sinking of the Andrea Doria off the Nantucket coast. We had marked the spot on our screens where the sinking occurred and vectored both aircraft and ships to the site all night long. We also were a primary controller to vector emergency aircraft to the site of an accident of a South American commercial aircraft which took off from JFK one evening and crashed somewhere along its ocean flight path (I can no longer recall all the details) to its S. American destination.

    As at East MMountain, the Highlands AFS was deactivated in the mid-1960’s. While I was there, we had over 600 airmen and around 15 officers assigned to the station. As one of my additional duties (over and above my primary specialties as a pilot and Ground Control Intercept officer) was that of being the base Provost Marshall, the militasry equivalent of police chief. As such, because our radar operations buildings were top secret installions surrounded by 12 ft high wire fencing, they were patrolled, particularly at night, by Air Police with their canine companions, so I had 8 very highly trained – and potentially dangerous – dogs under my jurisdiction at the station as well. We used to put on occasional demonstrations for the local community on what could happen if someone might attempt to scale a fence or otherwise tangle with one of the dogs. Needless to say, the locals were usually pretty impressed and we rarely had any attempts at interloping on or near the base.

  5. Steve Weatherly :

    More info on the 911th Radar Squadron
    Lyndonville AFS (North Concord), VT
    is at radomes.org/museum.

    I was at the 689th Radar Squadron, Mt Hebo AFS, Oregon from 65-67.

  6. Randy Brown :

    I was stationed at the 911th from 1960-1963.
    Life was hard on the mountain. My memories of 911th, St. Johnsbury and surrounding areas are fresh in my mind. I met so great people on and off the base.

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