Cold War Sites in Lorton: Hosting Prisoners, Soldiers & Students
[“Watching the Skies” … “NIKE-The Quiver of Zeus” * … “Defending the Capital”] Lorton Prison – Almost Stranger Than Fiction: Where once DC prisoners first farmed and later Army soldiers studied radar screens and nuclear fall-out dispersal maps (while looking for Soviet bombers attacking the Nation), soon County students will be studying laptop screens and human genome maps while researching the kind of knowledge that will enable them to serve the Nation in newer but somewhat different ways instead…
Like most Americans in the 1950’s, Fairfax citizens worried about nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The US and USSR had become adversaries after World War II. National policy makers worried that Soviet bombers might attack DC and other cities. As a key DC suburb, Fairfax was vulnerable in an attack. As a result, residents participated in air raid drills and some even built bomb shelters. The County also built schools able to withstand nuclear blast and fallout and the US Govt. established “secret” civil defense and nuclear-response facilities in specially-selected suburban and rural locations outside the Capital City.
On a national scale, the U.S. began to make defensive preparations for the possibility of such an attack. DesignatedThe Quiver of Zeus, the Army used the code-name NIKE (the Greek goddess of victory) to describe the new missile system. A ring of 11 NIKE anti-aircraft missile batteries was placed around Washington, with 3 in Fairfax County. The first and largest of the 250 sites nationwide was activated in 1954 in cornfields farmed by Lorton Prison inmates. The original barracks, warhead-assembly and fire-support buildings and the 6 launch pads for the 24 nuclear-tipped NIKE missiles at the Lorton site (twice the size of all other NIKE sites) are still visible today at the intersection of Hooes and Furnace Roads.
Ironically, prior to Lorton’s NIKE Site, our Nation’s Capital was protected from a surprise attack by prison inmates scanning the skies from their plane-spotting post in Penitentiary Tower #1, near to where the future NIKE Site’s Fire Control Area and the SC High School were to be built. Later on, the DC govt. (in concert with the Pentagon, CIA, FBI and other agencies that comprised the US’ homeland security community) set up a semi-secret Nuclear-Attack Response-Control HQ in a specially-designed half-underground bunker facility at the Prison’s Youth Center. [See page 2/over for highlights of Lorton’s roles in national defense.]
The NIKE battery’s proximity to the Capital City led to its selection in 1956 as the Nation’s NIKE Showplace via public announcement of the NIKE missile system and of the Army’s plans to deploy it nationwide. Designated the “National NIKE Site”, the Lorton emplacement offered an opportunity to reveal an entire operational battery to the country and the world. It became a famous showpiece for American officials and Congressional leaders, as well as for visiting foreign dignitaries interested in observing such a powerful example of America’s last-line-of-defense — which of course also served as a strong symbol of the Nation’s commitment to maximum peaceful deterrence of a then-unthinkable global thermonuclear war.
Due to budget cutbacks and a belief that threats from the Soviets were posed more by inter-continental missiles, the Lorton NIKE site, along with others, was closed in 1974. DC’s Civil Defense HQ Bunker at the prison also closed following the Soviet Union’s collapse; its archives and artifacts were donated to the new Cold War Museum at the CIA’s former HQ once located at the former Vint Hill Army Base in Warrenton.
The Soviet-Attack Watch-Tower System, the NIKE Missile Site and the Nuclear Attack Response Bunker are now pure history. But it’s important to remember these fascinating events from Lorton’s past. And true to how Fairfax likes to recall its even older heritage, the NIKE site may yet become another proud icon – along with an amazing interpretive relic – of Lorton’s history, not only via Cold War-related exhibits to be displayed in the new Workhouse Museum on the Workhouse Arts Center’s campus and via the possible rebirth of the Nike Launch Area as a Cold War Heritage Park, but also thru the adaptive reuse of its Fire Control Area as the newest middle school built in Fairfax County, next to South County High School.
[*From research by Dr. Chris Bright (Cold War-Era Historian, Frfx. Sta. native and W. Spfld. HS grad); see “Nike Defends Washington; Anti-aircraft Missiles in Fairfax County, VA During the Cold War, 1954-74”; Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1997]
- support us
- The New Lucy Burns Museum, 91 Years of Prison History at Lorton