Nestled behind a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., an abandoned relic of the Cold War is hiding in plain sight behind nothing more than a chainlink fence. The Nike missile battery W-92 is one of a dozen that ringed the Capital Region and stood guard against Soviet bombers from 1955 to 1974.
During the Cold War, hundreds of Nike batteries were deployed around major American cities as the last line of anti-aircraft defense. The station at Gaithersburg followed the typical layout with three missile silos, a missile assembly building, an acid fueling building, and a kennel for the guard dog. A nearby sister facility operated tracking radar and housing for 50 Missileers.
The proximity to Washington gave this battery a particular importance. ‘‘We were on our toes the whole time. Not like the outer [Nike] sites where it was laid back, with everyone walking around having fun,” Richard Choy told the Gazette News in 2007. Though W-92 never had to fire a missile in anger, their daily drills involved prepping the underground weapons and loading them onto missile elevators for surface firing.
The program came to an end after the introduction of ICBMs, which decreased the likelihood of a bomber strike on the continental United States. In Gaithersburg, the missiles were carted off and the real estate passed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which was headquartered next door and still holds the keys to this day.
Other than the lack of weaponry, the W-92 battery is essentially unchanged from its days as a military facility. The elevator that once carried missiles still works. And NIST has found a continued use for the ordnance magazine, which it uses to store data collection equipment.
Meanwhile, suburban development swept through the area in the late 1980s, trapping the property within a ring of single-family homes, townhouses, and a strip mall. The surrounding streets look like any other in America. Few of the residents know what lies behind the fencing marked “U.S. PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.”
While memory of the W-92 battery has faded, the same cannot be said of the weapons’ environmental damage. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent a reported $121,000 cleaning up hazardous waste that had contaminated the groundwater, a byproduct of the rocket fuel stored onsite in underground tanks.
Update May 2020: The site has been put up for sale by the U.S. government.
Know Before You Go
The photos above were taken by an authorized NIST employee. Unless they tell you otherwise, we recommend considering this one to enjoy from behind the fenceline.