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Canadian history deep beneath North Bay
Story and photo by Rob Learn
For sale: one large, gently used hole in the ground. Owner no longer has use for. Very secure.
That’s an ad that could be popping up sometime soon in a classified section for army surplus goods.
The space in question is “The Hole,” as it was affectionately referred to in its heyday. Near North Bay, 60 storeys beneath the Canadian Shield, it served as the nerve centre for North American air security.
Decommissioned in 2006, the military is preparing the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) base for dispersal, though what that might mean is very much up in the air.
And whatever it’s used for, the new role likely will pale in comparison to what went on in the bunker in its previous incarnation, when generals sent out their orders from the base at the height of the Cold War.
The Hole is set just off the heart of North Bay, across the road and rail line from the Ministry of Natural Resources office on the shores of Trout Lake.
It now mostly sits idle, save for the small force of maintenance staff keeping it operational and safe. It’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the 600 to 700 people who made their living keeping the base on guard for anything that looked like a threat from its enemies and their nuclear arsenal.
The Hole was a direct result of those nuclear arsenals that just kept growing after the initial deployment to end the Second World War. Started in 1959 and completed in 1963, the bunker was designed to be capable of withstanding a four-megaton nuclear warhead – a bomb 260 times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
To achieve this level of protection the military employed rock, lots of rock, 60 storeys of pure, unadulterated rock.
You get to The Hole through a tunnel, a 1.2-kilometre-long tunnel that runs from the entrance at the base of a ski hill to the CFB 22 Wing base atop Airport Hill. When it was operational, access to The Hole was by a bus that dropped off military and civilian personnel deep within the earth, where they went to work in what was essentially a windowless, three-storey office building.
But it was the construction of the office building that truly made it unique. The structure was housed in a man-made cave five storeys high with a footprint of about 240 feet by 430 feet. The whole building sits on large steel girders bolted to the Canadian Shield. The effect is a building that didn’t even flinch when the area was shaken by an earthquake that registered 5.2 on the Richter scale.
Access to the cave came through three doors that opened from the tunnel. The doors are nearly two feet of thick, solid steel with heavy-duty pins locking the 19-tonne pieces shut. The military says that the doors are capable of withstanding days of direct blasting.
The size of the building was most likely dictated by the technology that was available at the time of construction. It has the same square footage as the Northgate Shopping Centre and, until 1982, almost half of that – 11,900 square feet – was taken up by a single computer dubbed SAGE (Semi-automatic Ground Environment). Hard to imagine in today’s technological age of smart-phones, tablets and the like, but it was at the time of construction in the early 1960s the most powerful computer in the world. It took up the entire third floor and a good portion of the second floor and weighed 275 tonnes. It’s computing capacity? 256 kilobytes. It was used until 1982, when solid-state computers replaced the tubes.
The computer was connected to the air defense system of North America. From a command post, generals could see all of the information available and make decisions in real time.
In fact, the command centre was used extensively during the Gulf War, with live footage from Canadian F-18s shown on the monitors.
Which was the ironic part of The Hole. Despite its isolation, the computer was connected to the world long before anyone had dreamed of a worldwide web. And more than any other place in Canada, the base was directly affected in terms of alert levels and surveillance levels by other world events. For instance, in 1959, when the Iraqi government changed from being pro-Western to pro-Soviet, the NORAD complex was thrown on high alert.
So, how did this crossroads of air defense land in North Bay? The quick answer is Trout Lake. Being underground with that much computer equipment – old-style computer equipment – the primary concern of the designers was heat. To dissipate the anticipated heat, the building was designed like a radiator with eight-inch water lines delivering cold Trout Lake water to the building to collect the unwanted heat and disperse it back into the open water.
It is one of the design features that made life in The Hole bearable for periods as long as four weeks in total isolation. The facility featured a gymnasium, medical rooms, barbershop and chaplain office and they were put to use regularly. For exercises, the base would be shut down behind the 19-tonne doors for three days at a time to make sure everything was ready “for the big one.”
Power was even self-contained with three generators sitting on stand-by, each capable of producing 1.2 megawatts of either natural gas or diesel. During an outage, the lights don’t even flicker, with instantaneous backup coming from 388 batteries that fill in before the generators are called upon.
But that capacity became more and more moot as air defense was moved above ground. The place that at times had 500 people working in it during the day-shift now only has two working toilets and a skeleton crew keeping the alarms and lights on.
Major Delta Guerard says the military budgets $400,000 to $500,000 for annual maintenance just to keep the place somewhat safe while its future is sorted out at National Defense Headquarters in Ottawa.
“That’s a lot of money going into something that is really not serving much of a purpose,” said Guerard.
Are there any offers on the table?
“Not that we’re aware of. It’s a great facility and it would be nice to hear from someone who has ideas for it.”Advertisements