At three Fairfax County parks, ghosts of Cold War missiles linger

Given a quick glance, Great Falls Nike Park appears to be just baseball fields, a trail, and a parking lot near an elementary school just off Leesburg Pike in Herndon.

Visitors who take a closer look, however, might stumble across a small, odd dome-like structure mere feet from a parked Toyota — a remnant of the key role that the Fairfax County park played in protecting the nation’s capital from a potential Russian missile attack during the Cold War.

Located 1199 Utterback Store Road, Great Falls Nike Park is one of three Fairfax County parks that were once home to anti-aircraft missiles designed to bring down Russian projectiles aimed at D.C. landmarks. The other two sites can be found along Fairfax County Parkway and in Lorton.

“We felt Russia, and other countries, had the ability to potentially attack us,” David Buchta, heritage conservation branch manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority, said. “And these missile sites were specifically designed to keep that from happening. The [parks] are certainly an interesting relic of curiosity left over from Cold War times.”

Despite the recent end of one war, the world hovered on the brink of another in the mid-20th century. The Cold War was a time of tension, particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the federal government felt like they needed to protect D.C. from attack.

So, the government acquired land around the city to set up sites for their anti-aircraft missile launch systems. They were christened NIKE sites after the Greek goddess of victory.

Due to the abundance of rural land available at the time, Fairfax County became the site for three of these military installations, which all opened between 1953 and 1955.

“The idea was to create a ring of defense,” Buchta said. “The range of the missiles was pretty limited, but it was enough that we could protect the entire corridor of D.C. out to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Straddling the Herndon and Great Falls border, the Great Falls site sat on land that was owned by dairy farmer Mark Turner before the government acquired it by exercising eminent domain. Another site cropped up off of Fairfax County Parkway at what is now Pope’s Head Park. The third and largest site was on land that was part of the Lorton Prison Complex.

Each of them consisted of a launch area and a control area that was located one to three miles downrange.

For the Herndon site, the control area was on Turner Farm, while the missile launch area was about a 1.5 miles west along Utterback Road.

The Herndon and Fairfax sites were smaller and very similar to one another, but a historical report produced by Fairfax County describes the Lorton missile site as a “double site” that served as “a national showpiece” for the NIKE program. In 1958, the missiles in Lorton were even upgraded to include nuclear warheads.

The Herndon site also boasted a special feature: a radar dome, a repeating structure that was intended to be reflective and bounce signals to another location, Buchta says.

The sites were not at all secretive, suggesting they were intended to be a deterrent against attack.

“For the public, there were open houses and visiting days,” historian Christopher Bright said in a video produced by the county in 2017. “And the soldiers stationed here were encouraged to get involved in the community.”

The missiles themselves were about 20 to 35 feet long and stored underground beneath metal doors that would have swung open, if the weapons were fired.

Of course, that never happened, and the sites were all decommissioned by 1963, marking less than a decade in operation.

The county acquired the land, perhaps as early as the mid-1970s. Forestville Elementary School, which opened early 1981, was built at least partially on the Herndon site.

Buchta says the Fairfax County Park Authority acquired the land at Great Falls and Herndon with the intention of making it a park, though he’s not sure about exactly when.

Prior to that, the Department of Defense knocked down many of the structures and scrubbed it clean of any hazards.

“Most of the Nike sites that the Park Authority has purview over don’t have much left on them,” Buchta said. “We’ve never located any type of armament or anything like that. All of that was supposedly long since removed.”

All that remains at the Great Falls and Herndon sites now is the radar dome and a few buildings, including one now used by the park authority.

The Lorton site, though, still holds some mystery.

“There are actual structures, and there is evidence of the magazine area where missiles were launched from,” Buchta said. “We actually don’t know what is underneath all of the missile staging areas. We’ve never opened them. They are welded shut.”

Buchta says the park authority monitors all of the parks and the remaining structures on them, conducting surveys two or three times a year.

The radar dome is metal, and as far he knows, no work has been done to it, but he says if it were to get damaged, the park authority would repair or restore it.

The hope is that these three county parks and the history associated with them will remain preserved for generations to come.

“We do consider it an important part of Fairfax County’s history, those Nike missile sites,” Buchta said.

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