Welcome to Nomehenge, residence of Alaska’s Soviet-era antennas
In the past when Howard Farley Sr. would go fishing for king crabs, aiming the bow of his ship at the rough and icy waters of Norton Sound. State mandates require that he and other crabs in Nome, Alaska be at least 15 miles from their town’s coast to drop their pots, but as the number of successful crustacean catches has declined in recent years, they often went further and further further away.
Farley was able to track his distance from home using GPS, but after a long day at sea, he didn’t really feel back until he could see the four ghostly structures on Anvil Mountain. “You can see them at least five or six miles on a clear day,” says Farley. “You were always there, part of Nome.”
Colloquially they are known as “nomehenge” or simply “the billboards”, but their concave shape makes them easy to confuse with unfinished skate ramps. They sit on the summit of the otherwise bare, 400-meter-high mountain that rises behind the city and are useful orientation aids for airplane pilots, boat captains, hikers and snowmobilers – especially in winter when it is dark for most of the day and the snow is deep enough to obscure most of the other landmarks.
However, during the Cold War, the structures were antennas intended as an important early warning system for Soviet attacks. Back then, the array and its now-extinct peers were known as the White Alice Communications System.
The coast of Nome.
At the beginning of the Cold War, opening up the Arctic was one of the primary goals of the US Air Force. At the time, Alaska had inadequate infrastructure to support these missions, with inadequate roads, ports, and railroads, and most of the military bases were in areas intended to meet a southern rival that did not come through the North Pole. The biggest challenge, however, was communication. When residents wanted to make a long distance call, they had to make a reservation to travel the city’s only route. Getting news across or outside of Alaska was not an easy process and was astronomically expensive. The White Alice Communications System has changed that. This made it easier for locals to keep in touch and enabled the Air Force to warn the mainland of incoming Russian bombers.
When the four towers at Nome accepted their first transmission in January 1958, tropospheric antennas (a type of technology that sends and receives signals by ricocheting off layers in the atmosphere) were ahead of their time. The Nome site was part of a larger system of 71 sites that functioned to receive radio waves from 200 miles away and relay the message down the line to the nearest location. A single location required the labor of dozens or hundreds of people and required almost constant tinkering. Dorms, cafeterias, guard posts, and other amenities have been added to most of the locations. Many sit on the coast, as close as possible to the enemy the country was trying to watch. The strategic value of their presence helped fuel Alaska’s pursuit of statehood in 1959.
But after the advances in satellite communications in the 1970s, White Alice was quickly becoming obsolete. In the following years all but the nome antennas were demolished. Many of the sites had been vandalized and contaminated with petroleum, lead and asbestos (all of which were used in the construction and maintenance of the sites). At the Nome site alone, more than 8 million pounds of contaminated soil was transported from the mountaintop to Arlington, Oregon, for treatment. “If there is potential liability, the owner will generally want to limit it,” says Bill O’Connell, who worked as an environmental consultant for the White Alice site clean-up in the early 2000s. “Nome had to lobby pretty hard to keep the structure going.”
Elsewhere in Alaska, only a few foundations remain of the White Alice system.
While the towers, the most well-known element of the White Alice system, have disappeared elsewhere in Alaska, there are some support facilities – mostly the original control rooms – that stand quietly in the vast landscape. Although these no longer use radio waves, they are still used to keep Alaska connected. Now they hold the networks that make up the internet, phone systems, cellular networks, and more, and allow roadless villages to connect (at least digitally) to the rest of the world. The majority of the locations are now owned by the telecommunications company AT&T, which is responsible for operating the next-generation systems.
While the White Alice system required teams of people to monitor it around the clock, today one person can do the work alone. “Our remote control [former White Alice] Locations can be operated for a full year without a visit, ”says Casey Anderson, outskirts technician for the telecommunications company’s core network operations. “Often that’s all I do: an annual check-up. Check if everything is okay, turn off the light, lock the door, fly to the next one. “
In the years after White Alice, much of the original furnishings in the outbuildings were replaced with modern equivalents and some of the buildings were refurbished, but they’re “a little creepy,” says Anderson. “Since they were built to withstand a nuclear explosion, the aesthetics of the buildings were not particularly important,” adds Anderson. “These are mostly inconspicuous buildings in the middle of nowhere, with no windows.”
Anderson took this photo while visiting Neklasson Lake, Alaska.
Since White Alice’s locations are the ancestors of modern day communication that makes up the bulk of his work, Anderson looks forward to visiting them – he even has a map of Alaska back home circling the places he visits Has. In 2016, Nome realized that others might be similarly interested in the communication antennas and fought to not only save them but make them a tourist spot as well.
In 2012, the land on which the Anvil Mountain White Alice site is located was to be transferred to Sitnasuak Native Corp. In order to keep the antennas, the Nome City Council offered to trade Sitnasuak for a much more valuable piece of land in the city. Sitnasuak accepted and the antennas stayed.
“I think people like the story behind it – it makes them feel like Nome is important to the outside world,” says Russell Rowe, the longtime Nome resident, adding that Nomehenge often appears on local t-shirts, like an unofficial mascot. “When it was said that it could go away, there were a lot of people who opposed it.”
For now, the city seems content with leaving the site as it is so that locals can use the surrounding area to relax. Rowe takes his little sons to the geocache, picking blueberries, and biking the trails in the shade of the 120-foot antennas about a dozen times a year. There are often other locals up there hiking, picnicking, or collecting the ultra-soft, incredibly warm fibers of musk ox that make great yarn. Occasionally, busloads of tourists attempt to cross the bumpy road to get closer to the site.
“From the White Alice location there is a 360-degree view of the landscape around Nome – all of the rolling tundra hills, the larger peaks to the north and then out to the ocean,” says Rowe. “It may sound strange, but it’s a nice place.”