Cadets clearing sludge, debris to restore Nike missile base
Beneath Vernon Hills lies a piece of Lake County history
Visitors to the Lake County wastewater treatment plant in Vernon Hills might easily overlook the angled, steel-and-concrete hatch near the complex's parking lot.
The concrete pad on the northwest side of the center probably wouldn't appear to be worth a second glance either. Nor would the large, steel doors embedded in the ground nearby.
None of them seem out of place in the industrial setting. It'd be easy to think they're part of the treatment plant.
But they're not.
Not at all.
They're actually remnants of the site's long-ago use as a Nike missile base during the Cold War, chilling reminders of a time when countless missiles were pointed at the skies across America in case of an attack by the Soviet Union.
The weapons and the equipment needed to fire them were removed decades ago, but the hatches and the concrete pad -- and the bunkerlike magazine buried deep beneath them -- remain.
"You hear about the Cold War and read about it, but (here) you can touch it and feel it and know what it's about," said Lincolnshire Mayor Brett Blomberg, who has been leading a cleanup effort at the site.
Working with a youth group called the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets, Blomberg is dedicated to removing decades of sludge and grime and rust and debris from the bunker and restoring it as a piece of Lake County history.
"We have a little cleaning up to do," Blomberg joked. "It's a fixer-upper."
Base dates to 1940s
First called the U.S. Navy Libertyville Training Site, the land where the Vernon Hills Nike base was built is west of Milwaukee Avenue and south of Route 60, behind Vernon Hills High School. It initially was used to train pilots during World War II.
The Army acquired the property after the Nike missile program began in the mid-1940s. The base was established in 1954.
Surface-to-air weapons designed to shoot down invading aircraft, Nike missiles guarded population centers and strategic locations. More than 200 Nike bases once speckled the country.
The Chicago area was home to more than a dozen Nike bases. They could be found in the city and in Addison, Arlington Heights, Naperville, Palatine and other communities, as well as at Fort Sheridan near Highland Park.
The Vernon Hills base included six underground missile magazines, a barracks, a headquarters building and other facilities, all surrounded by what was then cornfields.
Along with the other Chicago-area bases, the site represented a last-ditch effort to destroy any enemy bombers targeting the Windy City. Coastal defenses and air-to-air combat efforts would already have failed to stop invading planes.
"If you were going to try to get into Chicago, we were going to make it difficult for you," Blomberg said.
All of the domestic Nike bases were decommissioned starting in the 1960s, prompted by the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Most were converted to other uses such as public parks, office complexes and schools.
Naperville's base is now an office complex and athletic park. Addison's is a public park, too. The Fort Sheridan site now is part of the forest preserve there.
In Vernon Hills, the Federal Aviation Administration was given some of the land to construct a navigational aid tower in 1971. That tower still stands.
The rest of the property was transferred to the Navy in 1972, and it was used for training and a firing range.
A 20-acre parcel later was given to the Lake County Public Works Department so the wastewater treatment plant could be built.
In 1982, all aboveground structures associated with missile operations on the site were demolished. Athletic fields and the Vernon Hills Memorial Arbortheater were built on the land in the 1990s.
The subterranean bunker near the treatment plant, the hatches and the other ground-level relics were essentially abandoned, left to rust and rot.
Until Blomberg came along, that is.
Restoring the site
Blomberg's efforts were inspired by a visit to a historic Nike base near San Francisco's famed Golden Gate Bridge about four years ago.
Part of the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it's the nation's only restored Nike base, complete with a museum and public tours.
The excursion got Blomberg -- a Navy veteran who volunteers with the Sea Cadets -- thinking about the old Nike bases here, especially the one in Vernon Hills.
Blomberg, 60, can recall sneaking up to the fence around the Arlington Heights Nike base as a youth who grew up in neighboring Mount Prospect. Once he and his friends even witnessed a missile drill.
"People talk about the Cold War, and this was a big part of it," Blomberg said.
After some research, Blomberg discovered the hatches, the concrete pad and the other Cold War artifacts at the sewage treatment complex.
"And I thought, 'That's pretty cool,'" he said.
It took Blomberg and the Sea Cadets three years to get permission from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and Lake County officials to proceed with the restoration project.
They began work in February, with a few hundred dollars in funding coming from donations to the Sea Cadets program. When Blomberg and his crew opened the access hatch to the magazine for the first time, they discovered the cavernous space was filled to the brim with stormwater that had seeped in and accumulated over many years.
Pumping the water out took two days. Letting the bunker dry took another two.
Then they had to remove 6 inches of silt that covered the entire floor of the complex.
"We've got a long way to go," Blomberg said. "We're in the dirty phase now."
'A piece of history'
Earlier this month, Blomberg and a team of cadets from across the country went at the mess in earnest, scrubbing and washing decades of rust and dirt off thick concrete walls, heavy blast doors and steel panels.
They've also recovered several interesting items left in the underground space, including light-bulb cages and signs that warned soldiers of the dangers around them.
"Caution. Do not store missiles with JATO fins extending over elevator pit," one badly corroded sign reads.
Once the space is clean, other Sea Cadets will paint it. Restoring the large hydraulic elevator that was used to lift missiles to the surface is on the to-do list, too.
For the cadets -- all teenagers who were born after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended -- the project is an exciting one.
"I like the idea of preserving a piece of history," said cadet Andrew Matthews, 16, of Libertyville. "I can't wait to see it fully restored."
Most of the cadets working on the site earlier this month came from other states. They bunked at the Great Lakes Naval Station near North Chicago during off hours.
Chase Lundmark, a 15-year-old from Ohio, is a military history buff who's restoring a World War II-era Jeep at home. Projects like these make history come alive, he said.
"This is as close to nuclear warheads as anyone can get in their lifetime," he said.
Blomberg envisions the site being completely restored, just like the San Francisco base.
"Short of having a live missile, we would like to have this fully operational," he said.
Blomberg doesn't know how much such an undertaking would cost. Typically, the equipment is salvaged or donated, he said.
The biggest cost often is shipping, Blomberg said. He'd like to find a trucking company that will donate or discount its services.
Meanwhile, Blomberg hopes local Boy Scouts will join the cleanup effort. He thinks students at area schools might be interested, too, and is working with the Regional Office of Education to turn the project into a field-trip opportunity for students involved in science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Vernon Hills Village Manager Michael Allison called Blomberg's restoration effort "fascinating." A history buff, Allison likes the idea of turning the site into an educational exhibit.
"I think it would be a great thing for people to see, to (help them) understand the Cold War," said Allison, who grew up in Milwaukee not far from a Nike base. "My hat's off to Brett. That's a lot of work."
Lake County Board Chairman David Stolman supports Blomberg's effort, too. He remembers how people in the 1950s and 1960s built home bomb shelters in case of Soviet nuclear attack and called the Nike base a bit of "Americana."
"I know this is a dream for him," Stolman said of Blomberg. "I'm thrilled he has a passion for it."
As excited as Blomberg is about the project, he knows it won't be easy.
"We're going to be at this for years," he said. "The project could outlive me."