In 1957, the town of Sugar Grove in Pendleton County, West Virginia, had a population of twenty-one residents. A single crossroad marks the center of the community, with the post office, general store, and gas station combined in a single structure overlooked by a church from across the street. The rest of the town’s center would have consisted of a few houses lining Sugar Grove and Moyers Gap road. These roads, like most in this part of Appalachia, follow the curves of fluvial plains long dammed up by civil workers employed through the New Deal. Although rich with sediments, the rocky soil would only yield a limited number of plots suitable for agriculture, thus limiting the effects of any consequent population booms. And so whereas towns like Charlestown and Harrisonburg saw upticks in both population and wealth, Sugar Grove remained small and remote. Few who heard the steady beep from the Soviet satellite Sputnik that October could have imagined its ramifications on the small town.
With the launch of Sputnik and Sputnik-2 the following month, the Soviet Union had not only demonstrated to the world their ability to project communications into outer space, but more to the point their ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And if they were capable of launching something as heavy as a satellite into orbit—with a passenger in the form of the dog Laika, in the case of the latter—there was nothing to stop them from mounting a nuclear warhead atop those very same rockets. Overnight the strategic advantage in the delivery of nuclear armaments which the United States possessed over the Soviet Union evaporated. The fleet of long-range strategic bombers which had been the focal point of Curtis LeMay’s post-war Air Force were all but rendered obsolete by Sputnik.
In response, the Eisenhower administration began an effort to accelerate America’s own stalled rocketry program, resulting in both a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and the Space Race. But ICBMs were only be capable of delivering blows against the enemy, and therefore they alone could not shield the United States in the event a total catastrophe. What use would there be to initiate nuclear holocaust if even a technical victory would only result in your own annihilation? Seeking to neutralize this concern, the Federal government began to a process of constructing underground facilities to serve as centers for the continuity of government following a nuclear strike.
Although nuclear bunkers were in time constructed beneath many of the principal buildings of government in and around the D.C. area—such as those beneath the White House, Pentagon, and Naval Observatory—it was understood that advances in nuclear weaponry would in time render even these formidable defenses obsolete. The Federal government therefore canvassed the surrounding countryside for other potential sites, ones which would not be dependent entirely on human construction for shielding but could instead benefit from the security of mother nature. The stone of the Appalachian Mountains, compressed over hundreds of millions of years, met these necessary requirements, and so the Federal government undertook a series of secretive construction projects across the region. By 1959, the subterranean facilities at Mount Weather in Bluemont, Virginia, were completed, while excavation began beneath the Green Brier luxury resort nestled in the safety of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. The mountains thus would provide shelter from the blast, fires, and fallout, while the various ridgelines acting as shields for the next. Construction on further underground facilities resulted in a chain of such complexes stretching from as far south as Roanoke, Virginia, to the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Adams County, Pennsylvania.
Just as the Eisenhower administration had predicted, advances in nuclear weaponry allowed ICBMs to go from strictly stationary emplacements in the earth to the mobile platform of trucks, warships, and most significantly, submarines. This was the beginning of the American Nuclear Triad which distributed responsibility for the delivery of nuclear payloads among the branches of the military: ground-based ICBMs under the Army and then later the Air Force, long-range strategic bombers under the Air Force, and submarine-borne ICBMs aboard purpose-built Navy submarines. Of these, the most secretive, plentiful, and critical of these three elements remains the submarine lurking the waters of the world’s oceans. Where missile silos could—and in the event of nuclear war, would—be targeted by enemy’s own ICBMs, and where strategic bombers could be shot down or preemptively destroyed still on the tarmac, nuclear-powered submarines could remain beneath the waves for a near-indefinite amount of time, surfacing at a moment’s notice to unleash their belly of warheads before disappearing beneath the waves to fight another day. This unique characteristic of the nuclear submarine force—its relative survivability over other such American assets—make them a critical component in the plans for continuity of government drawn up by the United States. Were the United States to be successful in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, it would be necessary to shield her submarines against annihilation.
Although underground shelters might be sufficient to save persons and critical groups, one can obviously not construct a series of underground shelters for submarines. There are certainly rumors of such constructions in existence, however, such as the rumored subterranean waterway which spans the Pacific Northwest from Lake Pend Orielle in Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. Because of the lake’s uniquely deep waters, it is used by the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Bayview for the training and evaluation of submarine technologies, with facilities known to be active on the floor of the lake for those training in submarine operations. It is rumored by locals that an underground river allows regular submarines—as opposed to the smaller training ones at Bayview—to enter the lake. Far-fetched as this may seem, for those who are familiar with Roman history of the Late Republic, this may sound strangely familiar.
During the last round of civil wars which wracked the Republic, the tides of fortune could and often did turn on a dime (on a denarius?), and erstwhile allies would very quickly become enemies of the highest order. Such was the case with Sextus Pompeius, the son of the prior generation’s preeminent general Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), whose rivalry with Octavian—adopted son of Pompey’s own rival, Julius Caesar—exploded into internecine warfare in 37 BCE. In this conflict, neither side could outmatch the other, for where the young Caesar possessed the advantage on land, the young Pompey possessed the advantage at sea. This latter advantage allowed Sextus Pompey and his faction of exiled republicans to operate as he pleased from his base in Sicily, while ensuring that Octavian would not be capable of constructing a fleet to invade. Without such a fleet, Octavian risked losing the war through sheer attrition as the blockade quickly starved Italy into submission. It fell to Octavian’s righthand Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to undertake the seemingly impossible task of raising a fleet on the shelter of land which could then be put to sea. He began by having the fleet constructed in the waters of Lake Avernus, just a few miles from the Bay of Naples. While he and his deputies trained the fleet, Agrippa simultaneously undertook the task of construction a naval base for the Caesarian faction at Misenum, near the site of ancient Cumae. Portus Julius—named for the deified Julius Caesar in whose name the Caesarians ostensibly fought—would harbor the new fleet which would in time give Octavian his much-vaunted authority over land and sea, and it would serve as the stage for a letter by Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus recounting the memory of his uncle launching rescue operations from Misenum following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
But what good was a fleet of warships in a lake when the enemy stalked the waters of the Mediterranean Sea? With Roman loyalties then being divided and confused among numerous warring factions, Agrippa and his deputies understood the importance of discretion—the same reason they had been forced to construct the fleet in Lake Avernus would inform how they would transport said fleet to the sea. Canals would have seemed the obvious option, enlarged versions of the Roman aqueduct, but open-air canals alone would be too obvious for would-be spies, even in a world before spy planes and orbital satellites. It was here that Agrippa demonstrated the true measure of Roman genius, for not only did he direct the construction of canals connecting Lake Avernus to the Bay of Naples, he had the portion leading to the sea constructed underground. The porous volcanic stone was already replete with channels carved out by subterranean water over the millennia, and so through an operation consisting in part of expanding existing tunnels and in part carving new ones, the Roman slaves and soldiers put to the task carved an entrance to the sea beneath the acropolis of Cumae. Proof of this plan’s success comes not only in the victory over Sextus Pompeius and his faction on Sicily, but the ultimate victory at the Battle of Actium five years later which cemented Octavian’s hold on power.
Visitors to the archaeological site at Cumae can even today still see the subterranean canals carved out more than two thousand years ago. If such an enormous undertaking could be accomplished using hand tools and verbal directions, it is well within the realm of possibility that an American Agrippa of the Cold War might have undertaken a similar task in the connection of protected inland facilities with their primary theater of operations. The rumors of a second, similar facility shielded beneath the islands of the Puerto Rico archipelago may add credence to this larger possibility—or may simply be fodder for conspiracy theorists.* Whether or not such facilities exist is largely irrelevant, however; for such facilities would not exist to shield submarines from nuclear annihilation—miles of oceanwater ensure that. Thus, where survivability and the continuity of operations are concerned, the preservation of the primary elements—the submarines themselves—is not as critical as the preservation of their command and control. Shielding submarines would mean shielding their command elements.
In the early 1960s, the Navy found a solution in the form of their own underground mountain complex. Located only a few miles from similar hardened facilities at Greenbrier, Mount Weather, View Tree Mountain, and Green Bank, Sugar Grove Mountain was selected to house the Navy’s nexus for continuity of operations. Nestled in a valley between the Appalachian Plateau to the west and Shenandoah Mountain to the east, the site had always been remote and uninhabited but for some Forest Service logging operations. From the ridge that runs from the town of Sugar Grove to the next town north at Brandywine, one can catch glimpses of the facility through the tree line, but the better view can be found on the eastern side, atop the narrow ridgeline of Shenandoah Mountain. In the days of its construction, even the most intrepid adventurer would rarely have come this deeply into the Forest, and they would almost certainly have no knowledge of the underground facilities around and beneath them. It would have been doubly more difficult for Soviet eyes to pick it out.
The site was established as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility for the purpose of intercepting Soviet undersea communications. If the underground facility was the shield against a loss of command and control, then the command’s purpose was to safeguard the assets it had deployed across the globe. With nuclear weapons not as a pressing a threat, the submarine’s only natural predator remained other submarines, and so establishing the status, location, and various other bits of intelligence about the Soviet fleet could mean the critical difference between the America’s survival or destruction. The large, cage-like radio telescopes used in subsurface intercepts were the first residents atop the hardened facility, but the advent of orbital communications very quickly rendered these pieces of hardware obsolete, and subsequently many of these odd-looking satellite dishes were removed, with only one remaining visible in the present. The facility adapted to the changing landscape of communications, being known to have been used for the purposes of intercepting communications of the Soviet space program being bounced off the lunar surface. But with the removal of the submarine-intercept dishes came new members of the Upper Base: a large, solid satellite dish oriented to the east, and a host of smaller satellite dishes pointing in a variety of directions. These communication arrays, unlike their predecessors, possess solid dishes and are therefore identifiable as over-the-air radio telescopes—i.e. not for intercepting subsurface communications.
And in fact, we know precisely what these dishes are used for, and a mere Google search for the terms ECHELON and PRISM in this context should be sufficient for those who wish to do more reading on the matter. In the case of the larger of the satellite dishes, their eastward orientation fulfills the mission of passively intercepting international communications entering the Eastern United States. The smaller dishes are, as demonstrated by their size, intended for the passive collection of local communications. That is to say, domestic communications.
The underground facility is colloquially known as the “Upper Base,” as a way of distinguishing it from the smaller navy base of Sugar Grove located just to its north along the same ridgeline that connects Sugar Grove and the town of Brandywine. The construction and maintenance of the two bases represented the greatest population influx experienced in Pendleton County’s history, more than doubling or even tripling the population of Sugar Grove in the span of a few years. The “Lower Base” within Sugar Grove is a town unto itself, containing operation and support facilities, as well as accommodations, for the assigned personnel and their families. The base was home to a Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA), indicating the Lower Base’s initial purpose as the security element for the Upper Base, but with the end of the Cold War and a general easing of tension in the 1990s, the base transitioned to the control of Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC). Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the majority of military signals intelligence assets were placed under the overall control of United States Cyber Command in its civilian guise as the National Security Agency, and the operations and facilities at Sugar Grove were no exception. With changes in the approach taken towards warfighting and the collection of intelligence in the post-9/11 world, it was decided that the Lower Base at Sugar Grove would be decommissioned but its fate today remains in limbo. The Upper Base would undergo extensive upgrades collectively referred to as Timberline, and today the facility remains operational as a National Security Agency listening station. Indeed, if one searches for “Sugar Grove Station” on Google Maps, the satellite dishes which populate the top of the Upper Base are readily visible alongside the disconcerting label of “Sugar Grove NSA Listening Station.”
* Here are some examples of underground submarine bases around the world:
“The U.S. Navy Has A Critically Important Submarine Test Base Tucked Away In Alaska” (The Drive/The War Zone, 2018)
“Did the U.S. Navy Build a Secret Submarine Base to Hide from Russia?” (The National Interest, 2019)
“Secret Secret Submarine Base? Why the U.S. Navy Might Have Built a Sub Hideout” (Yahoo News, 2019)
“The Navy’s Secret Undersea Lair” (War is Boring, 2013)
“Chinese Navy Submarines Are Protected By Underground Tunnels” (Forbes, 2020)
“Afternoon swim at the abandoned underground submarine base” (Skiing the Planet, 2019)
“Swimming the Yugoslavian submarine tunnels” (Strel Swimming)
“The sleepy Croatian island with a secret military past” (Independent.co.uk, 2018)
“Vis Island” (Atlas Obscura)
“Report encourages Norway to reopen Olavsvern submarine support base” (The Barents Observer, 2016)
“Swedish navy returns to vast underground HQ amid Russia fears” (The Guardian, 2019)
Ukraine (Russian-annexed Crimea)
“Now A Museum, This USSR Submarine Base Was Built To Endure U.S. Nukes — And Retaliate” (NPR, 2018)
“Look inside an abandoned Soviet submarine base that was hidden from the public for decades” (Insider.com, 2020)