Off Limits: Exploring a long-abandoned Nike Missile Site in Annapolis

Nike — the Greek goddess of victory — was also the name of the Army’s “line-of-sight” anti-aircraft missile defense system.

Composed of 265 missile bases across the U. S. in the early 1950s, this ring of weapons surrounded critical government and military installations. Only a few of these bases remain intact.

W-26, as it was known, was one of three Nike Missile sites in Anne Arundel County. BA-43 was in Jacobsville, and W-25, in Davidsonville, is now the Anne Arundel County Police Training Academy.

The site eventually had 23 buildings. The battery contained 30 of the early Nike missiles, known as Nike Ajax, and, during 1960 and 1961, was converted to utilize 18 of the newer Nike Hercules missiles.

You might not recognize W-26 today, as The Capital discovered in a recent visit. Bay Head Park is overseen by Anne Arundel County’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The park features a children’s playground and a classic athletic field and the centerpiece is The Children’s Theatre of Annapolis.

But traces of the park’s Cold War history linger, as The Capital discovered during the visit. The park is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. Several surveillance cameras keep an unblinking eye on the area 24/7.

The remaining buildings in this area are further secured by heavy security locks and bars. The public is strongly advised to avoid this area of the park. Trespassers will be arrested.

The Nike missiles, launched from above ground, were stored in underground “magazines.” W-26 had three magazines, each with an elevator pad that could lift a missile to the surface. On the surface, the missile would be pushed by soldiers along a railing to a launcher. The missile would be raised to a vertical position and – theoretically – fired at a Soviet threat aimed at Washington D.C. or Baltimore.

Today the only visible magazine is covered with rusting metal plates, and steels bars are welded across the top to prevent entry. The seams were tarred to prevent leaks – but the tar has dried and cracked into tiny pieces. Rainwater can seep through – and does.

The other two magazines were filled with dirt and a parking lot built on top of them.

In a building adjacent to the magazine, sunlight dimly shown in, exposing broken plaster, bits of wood and filth that has fallen onto and covered the steel stairs. Rainwater has penetrated and destroyed the building’s roof. The sturdy cinderblock walls are a strong contrast to the rotting shards of roof hanging down and the rust-swathed stairs.

There is a strong odor of mold at the bottom of the staircase where a large, dark room features two inches of water on the floor. Vandals have gained entry, with one spray painting the line from the movie “It” on a wall: “We all float down here.” A hand sanitizer disposer and paper towel dispenser rust on a wall at the base of the stairs.

In November 1968, W-26 was deactivated and all its missiles were removed. Other sites around the country were, similarly, deactivated and closed. The area where the magazine once operated sits in water, parallel steel rails border a concrete platform. An apparatus at both ends indicates where the platform lifted, and mechanical works might be buried in the liquid-filled space beneath the platform. On either side of the platform are submerged, narrow stairs.

At the far end of the platform, a steel ladder leads to an iron-raised hatch on the surface, welded and chained shut. Next to the ladder is a large centrifugal fan, its yellow steel mesh arm covers some of the equipment.

On either side of the large room are exits to other small rooms and alcoves, and additional steel ladders. Rust, mold and peeling paint mix with dozens of non-working electrical outlets, switches, overhead fluorescent light fixtures, and control panels.

The second building, No. 216, has also suffered from heavy water damage. Large pieces of sheet rock have fallen onto the floors of what was one of W-26’s buildings housing offices, testing facilities, storage and a garage.

Shreds of asbestos are strewn throughout – and asbestos fibers drift in the air. Though its floors are dry, the strong scent of mold permeated through the building. Still attached to one heavy exit door, and covered with plastic, is a sheet of instructions for safely evacuating the building.

We evacuated back into the sunlight, took a deep breath and coughed.

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