Cold War tensions escalated on August 12, 1961 when Communist soldiers sealed off West Berlin with barbed wire barricades. In Washington, D.C., construction of a different sort was also underway that day, as the White House Signal Agency moved forward with a top-secret communications facility in Tenleytown.
When it was completed, this unassuming brick tower concealed a microwave dish antenna that linked Washington via microwave relay with the Mid-Atlantic “federal relocation arc.” In the event of a missile exchange, the tower—codenamed Cartwheel—would function as the central spoke connecting whatever remained of the continuity of government system.
It’s located in Fort Reno, a public park in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The spot may seem odd for a classified military project. It was selected because of Reno’s elevation, which is the highest in the city, and because the 100-foot-tall tower could blend in amongst the two preexisting water towers.
Elevation is key because the microwave relay employed line-of-sight technology; the antennas at each relay literally had to be able to “see” one another. A network of similar towers were spaced out roughly 50 miles apart and allowed the signals to jump from Washington all the way to facilities in Pennsylvania.
The facade of the top section of the Fort Reno tower is painted Plexiglas that conceals the Cartwheel antenna. A crew lived and worked in the tower 24 hours a day. A two-story bunker underneath housed the electrical generators and food stocks that would supposedly see the crew through World War III.
Of course, the whole thing was a little ridiculous. Early civil defense concepts were based on outdated World War II-era notions of air power, where an attack might constitute a single (relatively low yield) atomic bomb. By 1960, both the Soviet Union and the United States had developed intercontinental missiles that could carry vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapons. In the event of war, several of these weapons may have been fired at Washington.
In the 1970s Cartwheel was deemed obsolete and transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration, who found a civilian use for the communications tower. It is still in use.
Know Before You Go
The Cartwheel tower is closed to the public, and located behind a fence in the middle of Fort Reno Park.