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Armed, Roving Enforcers

Over the next year, until late 1997, I returned now and then but never made it my regular route, usually opting for shorter, flatter runs around Lake Miramar that, while less interesting, were considerably easier on my knees. But whenever I gathered the stamina and nerve to go back, I ventured a little deeper, treating each winding segment as another step closer to a point of no return. The first structure I encountered was an antenna of some sort, a metal gridwork tower topped by a large, white ball that reminded me of an industrial, vanilla ice cream cone. The antenna, perhaps a mile and a half in, was apparently still in use and surrounded by a network of barbed-wire fences.

A little past the antenna, looking north, I saw a large compound of what looked like serious electrical equipment — transformers and such — which I later learned was, and still is, an SDG&E substation. On one occasion, I ran about two miles down the road, where I found my first “mystery” buildings — two structures whose ambiguity of identity and purpose struck an unmistakable, if ineffable, chord.

The first building was a rectangular, two-story job, architecturally undistinguished and apparently abandoned, its windows boarded up. I assumed it to be military in origin.

I could not tell how old it was but was confident that it held no military antiquities — nothing, say, on the order of a Revolutionary War musket or even a WWII pamphlet on the use of the stimulant Pemoline. Even though its fences had long since been breached — it was now guarded solely by a phalanx of weeds thrusting through broken pavement — I did not think to go inside. Its companion in ignominy was smaller, wooden, and painted green. Its fences seemed sturdier and newer, and although I could detect no activity on the premises, it fairly bristled with antennae that looked as if they might be operational. Along with the customary “US Government — No Trespassing” postings, it bore a sign reading “Forestry Service Radio & Repair Station,” which conjured up the notion of conducting surveillance on subversive oaks or rogue redwoods.

As it turned out, I never encountered armed, roving enforcers and, save for a camouflaged jeep traveling a dirt side road in a canyon to the south, didn’t spy much evidence of military activity. I saw a few vehicles from time to time, mostly big rigs hauling cargo to and from sites I hadn’t yet reached. Yet I never saw another runner or a cyclist.

Was there a reason for this? Why would the inventive recreational athletes of San Diego spurn such an area? Moreover, who owned this place and what, if anything, still went on there?

That was as far as I ever ran down the road. Sometime later, my right medial meniscus gave out; after arthroscopic surgery and a short rehab, I was back running — but not hills.

Still curious about my former (occasional) haunt, and having noted that the gate was open at least as often as it was closed, I decided to drive the road one crisp Saturday morning in January. In some ways, this made me more apprehensive than running the road had because — in the eyes of gun-toting “authorities” — the mere act of driving a car in certain places constitutes such an incendiary act of unbridled chutzpah that it justifies the seizure of one’s automobile or (in the case of resistance) summary disembowelment.

Because the pavement was slick from rain the night before, I made a note to take it easy on the throttle; even under the best of circumstances, my ’95 Mustang Cobra, heavily modified, would fishtail like crazy around these hairpins, and I didn’t relish calling the Auto Club to winch my car from the bottom of a ravine. But there was no deadening the exhaust note: anyone skulking in the canyons of East Elliott would know that an interloper was cruising around, perhaps even peering at things that some entity had gone to great lengths to hide. As it turned out, there was no one to confront me, and as before, I saw no one at all.

After passing the buildings I’d encountered on foot, I drove on, climbing and descending a series of increasingly steep hills, all the while twisting and turning deep into what I’d begun to think of as a no-man’s-land — hopefully minus the Claymores. I found myself amidst larger, more imposing installations that looked, well, more military, more industrial, altogether more threatening. These were relics from the era of Thunderbolt air-raid sirens and Frenchman Flat tests — quaint Civil Defense exotica — or were they?

In volcanic terms, they seemed neither extinct nor active. Rather, they appeared dormant. Silent and windblown, yet surrounded by high fences and plastered with every manner of signage, they were suffused with the eerie ambiguity that made the “forbidden area” both vaguely frightening and inescapably fascinating.

There were huge buildings that looked like warehouses or factories and smaller structures that might have been offices. Everything was metal, some of it painted green that had mellowed in the canyon sun to a quasi-pastel.

At one complex, there were rows of long metal tubes and other items that could have been weapons components, or perhaps something much more prosaic, less romantic. Whatever they were, they appeared to be in a state of disuse but not disrepair. Was anyone watching me? Could there be a cluster of penny-ante fascists in those buildings, ready to pounce with lights and sirens? Perhaps I was the only guy who’d toured the place by car, but that seemed unlikely. Maybe no one gave a shit, and this was just paranoia, the feeling that comes on late at night after too many bong hits.

A moment later, I reached a gated dead end that thwarted my plan to make a round-trip back to Pomerado Road via Beeler Canyon Road; it required a U-turn to get out of this military-industrial ghost town. A jolt of fear coursed through me: What if — during the time it had taken me to get here — the entrance gate had been locked, trapping me? So I didn’t linger to get closer, to take notes.

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Ponzi April 2, 2008 @ 1:21 p.m.

As a teenager in the late 70's I used to drive to Santee Lakes and cross over the water treatment ponds or bypass some fences to get on a dirt road that took me close to the eastern test site. There was a hole in the fence and a well traveled path from people visiting the abandoned facility.

There were several crate sized boxes mounted on the side of the canyon which we assume were for cameras to film the tests. My friends and I would go and crawl into the bunkers underneath the "missile pad." There was just a lot of wire racks, electrical apparatus and large stainless steel plumbing fixtures.

Ironically, in 1990 I was working for General Dynamics on the Altas-Centaur program at Plant 5 in Kearny Mesa. There was a massive clean room that housed the Atlas rockets where they were stretched, inflated with gas (to keep them from crumpling) and where the engines were mounted and inspected. The Tomahawk was also assembled at Plant 5. Many parts of the Atlas II were also assembled at Air Force Plant 19 on Harbor Drive. Now part of the SpaWar facilities.


Sandy_Yago April 2, 2008 @ 9:06 p.m.

I see where the writer is coming from. I myself, in a parallel fashion, never wanted to move to National City — not with its swarming drug dealers and brown-power, Aztlan-is-ours ethos, its dust covered streets, its homies in SUVs, that whole dangerous ghetto scene. And where the hell was the “nation”?

The only difference is that I would not boast about my prejudices in a publication.

Well ... probably not the only difference...


Burwell April 2, 2008 @ 9:32 p.m.

I used to own Sycamore Canyon and Mission Trails park when I was in High School in 1973-75. I rode a 250cc Kawasaki motorcycle and almost every day after school I would take a two hour trail ride through the area, which was largely intact and almost totally undeveloped. It was completely deserted. During that time period there were very few houses in Tierrasanta and the areas around Pomerado road were totally vacant. The area was leased by the Army during WWI and used as a massive artillery range. At one time during WWI over 20,000 mules and horses were quartered at what is now University City. A large veterans hospital was also located in Univerisity City during WWI. After WWI, when the Army returned the land to the original owners, the owners sued the Army for damages because the land was filled with tens of thousands of unexploded artillery shells and was essentially worthless. The history of this area is described in detail in Mack Copper Co., vs. US 97 Ct. Cl. 451 and West vs. US. 73 Ct. Cl. 201. I have never been able to locate any other source that describes the history of this area.


MarkScha April 4, 2008 @ 10:17 a.m.

In the mid-1970s I bicycled quite a bit around Poway. Starting on the east side of town, I went west, followed two-lane Pomerado Road (unchanged from its days as US 395) south, and went up Beeler Canyon Road. I saw something I believed to be a set of rocket engine static launch support equipment: tanks of hydrogen and helium, pipe, and iron framework. I don't remember seeing an oxygen tank. What amazed me is how new it all looked. I pressed on past the gate you mentioned, which was open. Up the road to the mesa, with a building at a t-intersection, surrounded by barbed wire but obviously abandoned. I saw someone but was left alone.


Jay April 4, 2008 @ 11:14 a.m.

These sites and test areas are hardly national secrets. San Diego is full of retired engineers who spent plenty of time at and among them. If there was something worth hiding or protecting...it would be hidden and protected. Moss, are you looking for "The Man" where he isn't.

I don't live there, but why bash Scripps Ranch? By all accounts it is clean, orderly, comfortable and safe. I believe those characteristics are what most of the global population strives for. Spend a little time in any one of the very many crap holes that make up much of the world and Scripps Ranch will soon seem like heaven.


william April 4, 2008 @ 6:41 p.m.

I just wanted to confirm Ponzi's first and second paragraphs. In 1990 i was 16 and pretty much did the same thing, rode bikes and hiked to these sites and managed to climb down into one. I saw the racks, saw the electrical componets and plumbing fixtures. The only thing I would like to add is when we got about 30 feet into the structure, I could sware I heard fast running water. Almost like a quick moving stream or something. To this day I'm still not sure exactly what that source of water was but I'd sure love to know. Well, thanks to the paper copy of the Reader with the proper placemarks of these sites I'm off to Google Earth to post them all. I noticed only one has been posted :)


JF April 4, 2008 @ 10:02 p.m.

Moss, Just one little comment. I suppose you missed the fact that the actual Scripps Ranch site still exists. It can even been seen from the freeway just northeast of I-15 and Pomerado Road, up on the hill. There was a bad fire there in the mid 1990's that killed a couple of members of the Scripps family.



rb1980 April 6, 2008 @ 1:28 p.m.

When I worked at Maxwell Labs in the '90's as an IT support guy, I had to on occasion travel out to Green Farm to work on their computers. I remember the eerie feeling driving out there on the single-lane road to the site, which took about a half-hour to reach. It was a less than impressive operation run out of a few portable trailer offices and a couple of corregated metal outbuildings. There were stories of them blasting holes thru all kinds of fun stuff like one of the companies' old decomissioned mainframe computers. I did have the privilege of being out there one day when they were doing a "test shot" of the rail-gun and seeing how it's plastic "bullet" penetrated a 3-inch sheet of steel. Talk about eerie.


ChuckD April 7, 2008 @ 6:40 a.m.

I worked on the Atlas program from its beginning in the mid-50's. I witnessed many test firings at the Sycamore Canyon sites.

The most memorable was on a Mother's Day Sunday when a fully fueled Atlas blew up a few seconds after the engines ignited. The fireball was huge. A UT account the next day included an interview with a private pilot who happened to be flying over the facility when the accident happened. His description was very interesting.

No one was hurt, but an adjacent Centaur upper stage test tower was damaged. Needless to say, everything above ground at the Atlas site was demolished. A small brush fire was contained.

I know that Santee residents of the time will remember hearing the roar of the Atlas engines, and some must have heard that Mother's Day boom.

Those were exciting days


Ponzi April 7, 2008 @ 7:57 p.m.

Here's an Sycamore Canyon Atlas tribute http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFnhlB...

And a web site with pictures of various Atlas assembly and test sites in San Diego.. http://www.siloworld.com/MISSILE%20BUILDERS/GDA/sycamore__canyon.htm


dannyboy7293 April 10, 2008 @ 12:09 a.m.

Are there really people with this world-view still around in the 21st century? Yes, I guess so, and they write for the Reader.

Got a news flash for ya Mossie baby: almost all of those scary, toxic hazardous substances you list in the article as having been used at Sycamore canyon exist in some form or another in your home (whether it's in tres-chic Del Mar or your new and oh-so-boring Scripps Ranch locale), your place of work, or, heaven forbid, your surfboard, the maker of which used the frightening high-explosive "MEKP" (methyl ethyl ketone peroxide) to harden the fiberglass resin.

I can't wait for the Reader cover story expose on the yuppie lawyer who endangered his Scripps Ranch neighborhood with the chromium, lead, cadmium and countless petrochemical compounds he recklessly leaves in his driveway every night when he parks his car.

It's enough to give you Bush Derangement Syndrome.....


DHol89 April 14, 2008 @ 8:39 p.m.

Hey, this is pretty coincidental that this story just came out. Myself and a couple of friends have been going back in that area exploring for over a year now... of course everything is pretty much destroyed but it is still interesting!!


pinkshoes April 17, 2008 @ 1:30 p.m.

MY GOD MAN! Do more research! Ask someone who actually WORKED for General Dynamics/Convair, instead of taking the word of some character that you met in a bar! THOUSANDS of people were employed in the Aero-space industry here in San Diego. I'm certain that, had you tried, you could have found someone more qualified to answer your questions. There are still plenty of them around. One more thing; Fences are also used to keep idiots safe.


Ponzi April 17, 2008 @ 1:48 p.m.

It's a story, not a documentary. Too many anal engineer nerds getting bent out of shape.


tape April 17, 2008 @ 8:32 p.m.

In the early seventies, a bunch of friends told me about this place called "Moon Base" out past Santee Lakes. One friday night armed with a shopping cart of beer, we slid past the lakes and a few miles of dirt road and came to a fence with a big hole in it. We parked the cars and walked for a while, I don't remember how far but maybe 1/2 mile or so. We came to a concrete retaining wall on our right that we passed and turning a corner I beheld one of the most amazing sites I've ever seem. A huge metal tower, sort of like an old fashioned oil derrick but much wider and bulkier. It was at least 6 or 7 stories tall and built next to the side of a small hill. This is what held the rocket engine for testing. Off to the side of it, actually coming out of the hill below, was an exhaust port that looked like half of a giant accordion. It was hollow and came straight out of the hill and then curved upwards. As a rocket was tested, it's blast would go down and then be redirected down, sideways then up and away. It was maybe 2 or 3 stories at it's highest. I was amazed and felt like I'd come upon a Buck Rogers movie set. Standing at the base of the metal tower, opposite the exhaust port, was a concrete slab, maybe 10 feet wide that led a couple hundred yards over to a concrete bunker. We entered the bunker and discovered it went about three stories underground. After we descended a couple stories, we found a passage that went back under the concrete slab up top and one could walk all the way back to the metal tower. About half way, the hall way opened up and became a metal cat walk that you could cross or climb down another story. I think there was also a metal ladder that went to a hatch up top. It was secured shut. At the end of the passage there was a metal door that we also couldn't open. This was an amazing place that became a fun destination that we frequented more than a few times. Years later, i put two and two together and remember that as a lad I could occasionally hear this enormous sound that shook the earth and it was obvious that it resonated from miles away (I grew up near Fletcher Hills). I would ask my mom "What is that noise?" and she would say that they are testing rockets!


mycatwilatackyou Sept. 22, 2008 @ 7:30 p.m.

I posted the tribute on youtube. I along with some friends used to frequent the "Annex" from green farms and burner 3 to the other complexes. We used to take our 4x4s out from the pomerado side and park on the hills to use our cb radios and drink some beers. One night we made a right at the huge eucalyptus trees and drove down into the valley. We then went right passed a couple of structures one was "burner 3" and then through an old open gate to green farms. We actually played with the still working electric gate 3 small houses as I remember. One had sea containers that were open and contained all shape and sizes of plastic There were also giant pieces of aluminum. A large metal building which was new at the time was also there.. Another time My girlfriend and I were just out for an evening drive and we happened to find ourselves on the missile base road again entered from the top with her driving. there is a spot on the upper road where there used to be a gate that was always open but this one night. a guard stood at the gate and I was like tell him we are lost. My girlfriend told him we were trying to get to poway and for whatever reason he opened the gate and told us we could get to poway by going through and taking the road he was guarding. so we went through and we came upon the parking lot cars were actually parked on the road and all the people were at the end of the parking lot gathered around some device that pointed towards the stars So a day later during the day I went back to see what was up there and they had a huge like hot air ballon sized blue dome cover over the whole parking lot. They were hiding something lol. Another time my friend and I watched security open the gates that led down to on of the old sites in the valley. After the car went behind the hill we quickly drove over and shut the gate behind him then retreated to out hilltop. He came back up the hill and found the gate shut and hit his blinky flashy lights. We were rofl. He never saw us but I'm sure was a bit spooked. I knew a gal who worked on the ACM and showed me a pamplet showing the underground workings at the area last to be abandoned. I did relieve whoever of a couple of signs words DANGER missile test and research area general dynamics. Another sign I had was Maxwell Labs Green Farms electromagnetic gun facility,Both My friend still has a window off burner 3 about 2" thick and 14" diameter. I was able to see 35mm prints of osciloscope traces as well as some cool looking 4" dia brass and copper tubes in burner three building. One night we saw the most awesome shooting star like object enter the earths atmosphere. I saw it come over iron mountain it was white with a huge trail of silver sparks and streamed from eastern horizon to western horizon at took about 10 seconds to do that was very cool unsymetricaldimethylhydrazine is my favorite word.. take care


PowayPat April 13, 2011 @ 2:55 p.m.

Unfortunately almost all of "Site J" or the Stinger production facility is demolished because of the nearby housing. There is a short updated writeup on my website about it.



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