The US is a country teeming with secrets buried underground, hidden behind razor wire, and locked in vaults. SPYSCAPE sussed out some of the most highly restricted areas in America to reveal what’s happening behind closed doors.
Trinity test site
On July 16, 1945, scientists detonated the first atomic bomb on New Mexico plains known as the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death). Nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer chose the top-secret code name Trinity. The bomb was atop a 100-foot-tall steel tower designated as ‘Zero’. The foot of the tower was ‘Ground Zero’. Witnesses first saw a flash and, within seconds, the first, deadly mushroom cloud. Trinity Test director Kenneth Bainbridge calls it “foul and awesome”. The explosion point on the White Sands Missile Range is usually closed to the public, but twice a year the US Army hosts a Trinity Site Open House.
Camp Peary, a 9,000-acre US military base near Williamsburg, Virginia, is widely believed to be the home of the CIA covert training facility known as ‘the Farm’ which trains CIA officers and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service. What happens at the Farm? Amaryllis Fox, author of Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA describes it as a simulated Truman Show set in a fictionalized country called the Republic of Vertania. Her grueling training included what Fox called ‘the Bond business’ – how to flip a car; use a Glock semi-automatic pistol; parachute; operate a speedboat; use a grocery bag and duct tape to bandage a wound, and; withstand torture.
North Brother Island, New York
North Brother Island lies between New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison and the Bronx, a 22-acre plot in the East River that is illegal to visit without permission – if you can get it, which is unlikely. The island once housed a tuberculosis hospital, Typhoid Mary died here, and North Brother Island was the site of unimaginable horror in 1904. The General Slocum ship went up in flames as it sailed nearby, killing more than 1,000 – mainly women and children. Asbestos-ridden buildings pose a health hazard. The island is mainly a bird sanctuary now so visitor permits aren’t issued from late March to September. RadioLab visited for a typhoid story in 2011, describing it as: “What will happen to the whole of our civilization when humanity is dead.”
Mount Weather, Virginia
Some call it America’s brain stem, others describe it as an ‘unacknowledged continuity of government facility’ – in other words, the US president’s bunker in case of a disaster. An hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. the Mount Weather High Point Special Facility is a top-security underground facility with its own replica mini-government, police, fire department, and even laws. Top Congressional leaders were reportedly taken here after 9/11. It is rumored to hold files on Americans and a studio for post-nuclear presidential broadcasts. Enter at your peril. It is managed by disaster relief agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers Office of Emergency Preparedness. Surrounded by tall, razor-wire fencing its signs warn: “US Property. No Trespassing.” They mean it.
Bohemian Grove, California
Traditionally, the US’s most powerful men – including ex-president Bush Sr. and G.W. – have descended on the restricted campground of Bohemian Grove in California in the summers. The property belongs to San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, a private members’ club for gentlemen. During the first weekend camp, robed figures sacrifice an effigy to banish worries from the gathered men. So what else do America’s masters of the universe get up to among the 2,700 acres of Douglas firs? Fly fishing, fine dining, chats about the role of nuclear energy in America, and apparently a bit of sly logging of old-growth forest. The Grove is famous for a Manhattan Project planning meeting held here in September 1942, which led to the atomic bomb.
Northwest of Las Vegas, Area 51 is so secretive the CIA didn’t admit it existed until 2013. It is part of a 368,000-acre military complex that includes the Nevada Test Site, established for nuclear weapons tests. Even the airspace above is restricted, triggering conspiracy theories about what the US is really hiding behind the warning signs, armed guards, and electronic surveillance. Aliens? Spaceships? Evidence that we do not walk alone in the universe? Stay tuned. Many of Area 51’s secrets have not been revealed.
The world’s largest collection of genealogical records is stored in a secure vault within the mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built its records’ vault in 1965 to preserve Church records, including family histories collected on microfilms. More than 3.5bn images from more than 100 countries are saved on microfilm, microfiche, and digital media but visitors are not allowed in for security reasons. Unless you are on the staff, you’ll have to settle for the Granite Mountain virtual tour.