On a sunny Sunday morning, we decided to take a drive toward North Bay. To this point, I hadn't been here very often except going through on my way to somewhere else. Today would be different though, as I hoped to chase down a few places of interest on my list. One in particular fascinated me, but I had already resigned myself to the likelihood that I wouldn't get past the gate.
When we arrived at the BOMARC missile complex, just outside of North Bay, I was surprised to see the gate wide open, inviting me inside. I accepted the invitation and parked the vehicle. Soon, I noticed two men working, loading some things onto a large truck and I went over to introduce myself. As luck would have it, one of those men was the property owner and he was a little hazy on the history of his recent acquisition.
In the later years of the 1950's, world politics were turbulent and John Diefenbaker struggled to navigate his party and his country through murky, troubled waters. He found himself faced with difficult choices on how Canada would contribute to the fledgling NORAD alliance designed to protect North America from the threat posed by the Soviet Union, just over the Arctic Circle. A new interceptor, the Avro Arrow, was being designed, but the US was applying pressure to deploy a new surface-to-air missile (SAM) called the BOMARC.
Diefenbaker ordered the end of the Arrow program and agreed to host the missiles in two locations. The first, just outside of North Bay. The second, La Macaza, Quebec. Since the missiles came in two variants, one with conventional, high-explosive warheads, the other with low-yield nuclear warheads, it was uncertain to most Canadians which they were getting. This uncertainty ended in 1960 when it became known that the warheads would indeed be nuclear. This sparked debates and controversy until the collapse of Diefenbaker's government in 1963. He was replaced by Lester Pearson who, after considerable reservations about the issue himself, ordered the receipt of the nuclear warheads.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) formed the 446 SAM Squadron in North bay, and later the 447 SAM Squadron in La Macaza. Both units were disbanded in 1972 after the Government of Canada decided that the BOMARC no longer served a useful purpose and closed the missile sites.
Some time after the base was closed, it was acquired by Canadore College and was used as a helicopter training facility. As that program grew in popularity, an opportunity came about to move to the airport, and once again the base was closed and put up for sale.
The owner and I stood and chatted for some time as I filled him in on some aspects of the site's history. He wasn't sure at that point what he was going to do with the place, but was cleaning up a lot of the waste and debris that had accumulated over the last three decades. In the meantime, he indicated they would be there for another hour or so and that I was welcome to look around until they were ready to leave. Knowing the clock was ticking, we set out immediately to photograph as much of the site as possible.
As we walked about the base, the most prominent feature is, of course, the rows and rows of identical buildings. These are shelters that housed each individual missile. Upon getting the word to launch, the missile was prepared by ground crews, the roof split in two and slid out on rails before the launcher lifted the missiles from a horizontal position to vertical. When launched, rockets would fire lifting the missile from the ground and giving it an initial kick of speed. Then, having reached a speed of almost Mach 2.5, the missile engaged two RAM Jets for cruising toward the target. It was guided by radio signals from the SAGE computer system using tracking data from various radar sites. Once near its target, the missile would activate its own on-board radar to fine tune its terminal course.
When we had finished our look around, I returned to where the owner was working and informed him we were leaving. I offered my thanks for his indulgence and we went on our way. A slim chance paid off in ways I wouldn't have imagined and I was smiling quite broadly as we passed through the gates to Highway 11.
UPDATE February 22, 2010:
This location is now being used for commercial storage. The YellowPages ad can be found here.