Peaceful Murphy Dome was once a Cold War radar surveillance site
Murphy Dome, named by prospectors in the early 1900s, is a 2,930-foot-tall mountain 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks. It is the highest point in the area, and with a summit almost 2,500 feet above the Tanana River Valley, it has a commanding view of the countryside. Easily accessible via Murphy Dome Road, it is popular with recreational users, whether berry-pickers and hikers in the summer, or aurora viewers during the winter.
However, 50 year ago, a different clientele frequented the area. Beginning in the early 1950s, Murphy Dome was the site of a major Cold War-era radar surveillance facility.
After World War II, relations between the United States and its former ally, the Soviet Union, quickly soured. In response to the Soviet military threat across the Bering Straits, Alaska became important for the strategic defense of the United States.
According to Air Force Environmental Restoration Program reports, as part of a comprehensive air defense system, 12 Aircraft Control and Warning (AC&W) stations were constructed across Alaska during the 1950s. One of those, the system’s Northern Alaska Control Center, was built at Murphy Dome.
Construction of the Murphy Dome Air Force Station began in 1950. The facility was completed by autumn 1951, and fully operational by spring 1952. At the height of operations, the facility covered 846 acres, with four radar domes and 18 other buildings, including barracks for about 140 bachelor military personnel and a handful of civilians. All buildings were connected by enclosed passage-ways. The facility was considered a remote station and there was no family housing. Because of its classification as remote (even though there was a road to nearby Fairbanks) tours of duty were limited to a year.
The facility did have a few amenities. The station had a rec hall, as well as a softball diamond and ski area. The website “Alaska’s Lost Ski Areas,” states that the station had a small ski slope with a lift cobbled together using car wheels as pulleys for a rope-tow.
In addition to radar surveillance, the site also hosted telecommunications facilities. In the early years of Alaska’s strategic defense system, communications between scattered remote sites were limited to high-frequency and very-high-frequency radio. Beginning in the mid 1950s the Air Force constructed a more reliable microwave telecommunications system. This system, called White Alice, linked not only AC&W sites, but eventually Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites. A White Alice station was installed at Murphy Dome in 1957.
With the advent of satellite communications, beginning in the late 1960s the White Alice system was gradually phased out. The Murphy Dome microwave facility was deactivated in 1979.
In the early 1980s a new regional operations control center for state-wide military radar surveillance was constructed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. Modern satellite communications systems allowed the new center to manage all air defense operations in Alaska. Manned remote radar sites were no longer required, so in 1983, the staffing at Murphy Dome was reduced to 10 civilian personnel.
In 1986 the Murphy Dome radar site was converted to a minimally-manned radar station (MMRS), with radar information automatically relayed to Elmendorf AFB. Only maintenance personnel are needed, and they are not required to live on-site.
In 1987, the site was cleaned up and most of the buildings were demolished and buried on-site. The only buildings that remained were two radar domes, the decommissioned White Alice site and several ancillary structures.
Now, only one radar dome and its support facilities remain. While people can roam most of Murphy Dome’s summit, the still-active radar facility is in a restricted area. Take photos, but don’t trespass.
“Alaskan Air Defenses.” On “Online Air Defense Radar Museum” webpage, www.radomes.org/museum. No date
“Final Site Investigation Report, Murphy Dome LLRS, Alaska.” United States Air Force. 1993
“Management Action Plan, Final, Murphy Dome LRRS, Alaska.” United States Air Force Environmental Restoration Program. 1995
“Murphy Dome AFS Rope Tow.” On “Alaska’s Lost Ski Areas Project” webpage, www.alsap.org. no date
“Murphy Dome Air Force Station.” On “Fort Wiki,” a website documenting the historic forts of Canada and the United States, www.fortwiki.com. no date