French River missile base

Have you ever seen the red-and-white water tower near the French River on the North Shore and wondered why it was there? A tiny file in the News Tribune attic might offer an answer.

The Air Force activated a Bomarc antiaircraft missile base in the Town of Duluth in 1961. It included 28 missile-launch facilities with concrete silos, missile service and assembly shops, an auto maintenance shop, a dormitory, a fire hall and supporting utility systems. It reportedly was staffed by 157 airmen. The Air Force spent $3.65 million on the base before closing it in 1972 when the Bomarc missile became obsolete. The missiles were shipped to a naval storage depot in Virginia, and Air Force officials at the time said they might be used as practice targets for other missiles or aircraft. The first photo below shows the last of 28 missiles being hauled away in August 1972. The second is a 1968 photo of a Bomarc missile in the ready position.

Stories say the Town of Duluth bought the base for $126,00 in 1976, intending to sell it to the Mathisen Tire Co. for $140,000. The trail ends there. The former base apparently has been used by various local businesses over the years, but the News Tribune has no record of which businesses used it or when, or who owns the property.

Does anyone know if that water tower marks the site of the former base, who owns the property and how it has been used over the years?

19 thoughts on “French River missile base

  1. I was at the missle site from 69 to 71. We were stationed at the Cascade hotel. I was a clerk working in the orderly room and Col Van Saun was the commander. Some good times at the Cascade hotel and on park point. where did the time go?

  2. I served there from 1961 thru 1966 as an Electronic Tech Van Chief and have many fond memories of some of the finest men to ever wear the AF blue. I am still in contact with a couple of them via the internet after all these years. Thanks for the memories..—— Tom

  3. I was an entry controller and security guard in 69-70. I also worked on DIAP as a security guard and as a law enforcement specialist. I arrived at Duluth in June of 69, and departed for Japan in Aug 70.

  4. I was stationed at the French River missile site from 1966 into 1968. My responsibility was air conditioning and refrigeration. The mission preparedness of the missiles was ensured by a series of computer test routines that took weeks to perform on each missile. The computers in that era were vacuum tube behemoths housed in a semi trailer. They generated a great deal of heat so were cooled by the air conditioners I was assigned to maintain. Each year one missile was selected to send to Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle to live fire to prove mission readiness.

    All the assigned airmen and officers lived off base. The single enlisted men were billeted at that time in the old Hotel Duluth. This was a great assignment as most of my peers were rotating out to SE Asia. I loved Duluth from my time there and ended up moving my family back to Duluth in 1970 where we stayed until 1988.

  5. I can tell you first hand that the water tower was part of our missile squadron. In 1967 & 68 My duty section was in power production on that site. My normal duty was being locked inside the power plant with paint brush and broom in hand.Not being the most responsive troop at the base, one time I remember l was verbally reprimanded for something or other and ordered to climb that tower and change the light bulb.
    What a view!
    gv

    • I remember you Greg even though it has been 45 years. I was the fellow that left after a motorcycle accident in May 1968.

  6. I was assigned to the French River BOMARC site or the 74th Air Defense Missile Squadron from 1970 to 1972, as a Missile Launch Officer. I had just come from a four year Minuteman assignment, and I served with a great team of officers and enlisted men. Also, we endured some real fun winters, which brought a new meaning to the word “Cold War.” We were a part of the Aerospace Defense Command, under the command of Colonel Van Saun. I have very good memories of Duluth and surroundings.

  7. 1987 (i think) I worked up there for Alar Yachts. We were building fiberglass sailboats. Ed Alspach (sp) was the owner. His daughter and son worked there as well.

  8. The water tower was on the south central portion of the base with the missile launch sheds lined up to the North. I tried to buy one of the larger buildings back in the 70′s for a small manufacturing operation from the gov but they weren’t ready to sell yet.
    The Levine’s owned a part of it for a while. I took a tour with Jeff one day and walking through the rubble of what was probably the officers club was the motto on the wall “just say when”

      • Hello Bob,
        I was there as a Missile Mechanic from 1961 – 1964. Didn’t we arrive there from Chanute together?

  9. My Dad worked as a electrical technician in the Air Force for many years doing wiring on all types of aircraft and missles. He’s 81 now and still drives up from Alabama in order to visit. He will not fly and never has. After imploring him to not drive and please just take a few hour flight instead, he still adamantly said “No”. Pestering him, I said “Why in the world not??”. To which he replied very seriously “Because,” he said “I know how they are wired.”

  10. Bomarc missiles could be equipped with nuclear proximity warheads, which were supposed to defend the northern border against flights of Soviet Bombers coming over the north pole. Shoot one up into a formation, the whole thing could come down.

  11. We used to build sailboats up there. The missile silos are still used as rental storage spaces. Not sure what businesses are still up there.

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