The DEW Line
February 2, 2007 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Tales from the DEW Line. In the mid-50's, the Distant Early Warning, or DEW Line, a series of radar stations along the 69th paralell, began scanning the arctic skies for signs of soviet bombers. Though cut off from direct contact with civilization, and often hoping that nothing would happen, staffers of these remote outposts still found plenty worth writing about or photographing (1, 2, 3).
posted by Durhey (36 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
ICBMs and submarine launch platforms soon undermined the utility of the DEW Line and stations were

phased out or automated over the proceeding decades. Though the threat of nuclear bombardment caused the U.S. and

Canada to cooperate on the stations' construction and operation, cooperating on the cleanup of these sites proved a little more difficult.

Incidentally, this is the beginning of one of my favorite photo series documenting a plane crash on the tundra.
posted by Durhey at 1:19 PM on February 2, 2007

Great post! As cold as it is right now, I won't bitch about Chicago winters anymore.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 1:25 PM on February 2, 2007

It's like the lonely Ranger, trapped in a forest fire watch station for months on end. Only, you know, with the threat of mutually assured destruction in place of forest fires.

Fascinating post!
posted by aladfar at 1:30 PM on February 2, 2007

That would be Distant Early Warning. I was fascinated by this as a kid growing up in Canada.
posted by kanuck at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2007

Doesn't DEW stand for Distant Early Warning?
posted by turbodog at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2007

I was fascinated by this as a kid growing up a Rush fan.
posted by turbodog at 1:38 PM on February 2, 2007

I wonder if, from sensory deprivation, staffers had hallucinations featuring giant mechanized attack quadrupeds with laser canons mounted on their jaws advancing towards their base.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:38 PM on February 2, 2007

Ack! It IS Distant Early Warning. I honestly knew that, but my fingers type faster than my brain works. I don't suppose I can beg an admin to correct that gross oversight?

I'm glad you like the post. Oddly I was inspired to look into the DEW Line, which I had never heard of before this week, after watching The Deadly Mantis on an MST3K episode.
posted by Durhey at 1:43 PM on February 2, 2007

Lots more DEW Line-related links can be found here.
posted by cerebus19 at 1:52 PM on February 2, 2007

Distant Early Warning.
posted by Eideteker at 1:55 PM on February 2, 2007

I love stuff like this, thanks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 1:57 PM on February 2, 2007

Some of the captions in the 3 link are great:
There is a story behind this picture. These two liked to have a snort every evening, but we weren't allowed to have anything, including beer, at any time. These two had their wives send them some liquor in bottles. They did this three times and each time when they opened the packages the bottles were broken and the liquor soaked into every thing. They felt that the Customs people knew, somehow, that there was liquor in the packages and intentionaly busted the bottles. So, as a last resort, at Christmas time, their wives baked them fruit cakes, cut them in half, made the sandwich you see here, and sent them up to the line. As you can see they made it.

This is dinner after we first moved into the modules' living spaces. Note the table is also the ping pong table (note the vertical stub for the net by checkered shirt's knee). It's difficult to believe but this food was served to us by a waiter (male of course) who also poured our coffee. Also the cake doesn't look home made. It wasn't, we had the top chefs out of Montreals finest hotels up here as our cooks, (the pay was so much better). Some of their deserts were artistic masterpieces and you almost felt guilty eating one.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 2:00 PM on February 2, 2007

The site might be toasted now.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:04 PM on February 2, 2007

When I traveled up north about ten years ago, we came across an abandoned DEW line station. It was completely ruined, the tower had collapsed, the walls were gone and the roof was just laying on the ground. There was so much deliberately busted old radar equipment and radar horns scattered everywhere, that even there in the middle of nowhere I could see how the Cold War was just a massive dumping of men, material and money. It was such a waste. Not to mention the several thousand empty heating oil barrels just rusting into the muskeg.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:34 PM on February 2, 2007

Ah, DEW Line ... such sweet memories
posted by Flashman at 3:25 PM on February 2, 2007

I remember seeing a film in cub scouts about the DEW line. In those days, it was ultra-cool - a way of foiling the RUSSIANS' ATOMIC ATTACK! Sent a chill down our spine.
posted by QuietDesperation at 3:50 PM on February 2, 2007

A book called "Working North: DEW Line to Drill Ship" by Rick Ranson (NeWest Press) won the First Book Award in the 2003 Manitoba Book Awards. It's a hilarious book and I would highly recommend it for anybody interested in more stories of this type.
posted by Jaybo at 4:10 PM on February 2, 2007

Huh, I guess the site I saw was actually the Mid-Canada line. That's a little different. But I did find a photo from March 1957 of the ruined site I was talking about. See all of those 55 gallon drums? They were still there 40 years later.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:17 PM on February 2, 2007

The Mid-Canada Line? Isn't that the last Canuckian defense against the inevitable invasion of the wily polar bear and his puffin minions? And it's now been abandoned? Oh, someday, our friends to the north shall pay for this fiscal imprudence. First Yellowknife shall fall! Then Prince Rupert shall be devoured as these great predators, completely invisible to today's heat-seeking missiles, continue to move in a southwesterly direction. Only to zig over to Toronto! Until at last, Quebec alone is left to stave off the attack of these flesh-eating fiends. French-Canadians, soon your greatest hour will be at hand. To the barricades, mon amis!
posted by Midnight Creeper at 4:24 PM on February 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

You might be right about the polar bears, Midnight. They look famished.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:31 PM on February 2, 2007

Early DEW radomes — based on R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic designs — had evenly spaced horizontal rows of triangular panels which interfered with radar signals. Redesigned domes (like these at Buckley AFB east of Denver) use "jitterbugging" to randomize panel spacing and improve signal reception.
posted by cenoxo at 4:38 PM on February 2, 2007

A few years ago I worked the summer in Igloolik, Nunavut. Half an hour plane ride from Igloolik is Hall Beach, a former DEW line station. The weird thing is, some of the equipment looked operational (not decrepit). Locals told me there was a private company which had taken over operations, whatever that meant.

Here's a picture from Hall Beach.
posted by sunexplodes at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2007

Oops, I just found more pics from the Hall Beach installation, for all you DEW line fanatics...




posted by sunexplodes at 6:04 PM on February 2, 2007

Wow, the amount of supplementary info contributed to this thread is awesome. Thanks everyone.

These structures are so beautiful in their ruin. I mean, I know it's a shame that these relics of the cold war are just sitting out there rotting and wasting away and that no one ever thought to clean them up, but still they're beautiful.

For more photos of a modern visit to one of these abandoned sites, check the links at the bottom of this page. The rooms inside are still full of papers and equpiment just sitting there, freezing.
posted by Durhey at 6:15 PM on February 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Google Earth — The DEW Line.

Since the DEW line (designed to track incoming subsonic bombers) has been rendered obsolete by radars designed to detect supersonic/hypersonic ICBMs, what's to prevent old, slow, low aircraft from penetrating North America's northern airspace? The race doesn't always go to the swiftest.
posted by cenoxo at 7:55 PM on February 2, 2007

As an old Cold Warrior myself, I love reading these things. I personally served my time in warmer climes such as Thailand and Berlin. Most people don't realize that SIGINT during the cold war was an immense, global proposition, employing thousands of men and women on a staggering scale.

I wrote about arriving at my first duty station here, and the photo in that link will give you an idea of the what was probably the average size of one of those facilities. That large antenna is an AN/FLR-9, and there were, at the height of the cold war, about a dozen of them operational worldwide, from Elmendorf in Alaska, to Karamursel, Turkey and just about anyplace else you could imagine. Along with monitoring stations like Field Station Berlin, the US and its allies quite literally covered the globe quite thoroughly.

Interestingly enough, the ccc article on Teufelsberg has it almost all right. I worked in the blue building in the color photo, under the nearest radome.

Incidentally, the motto for the monitoring teams on the FLR-9's was "From DC to Daylight".
posted by pjern at 8:02 PM on February 2, 2007

Oops. Posted before I was ready. The point is, I feel a kinship to the Dewliners in the sense that we were all doing a similar job for similar reasons, they on watch for physical manifestations of attack, my guys trying to divine intel from signals, all in sometimes isolated, sometimes inhospitable places.

I tip my hat to anyone who chooses to go live in someplace as remote as they, though.
posted by pjern at 8:05 PM on February 2, 2007

First Yellowknife shall fall!

I think it already did, but nobody was paying attention.
posted by watsondog at 8:41 PM on February 2, 2007

There was so much deliberately busted old radar equipment and radar horns scattered everywhere, that even there in the middle of nowhere I could see how the Cold War was just a massive dumping of men, material and money.

It wasn't a complete waste. I'm sure the Halliburtons of the day made out like bandits.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:50 PM on February 2, 2007

Back when, we didn't privatize as much.... I suspect that a lot of the grunt was G.I. labor. Remember, you're talking 50 plus years ago.
posted by pjern at 1:22 AM on February 3, 2007

Labour is the cheap component. GE, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or one of the other bigname defense contractors would have hauled in a bundle on the equipment, maintenance contracts, etc.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:38 AM on February 3, 2007

I'm sure that the camps and buildings were built by grunt and local labor, but 1950's blinky light technology like this probably cost a fortune. It was very complex, thousands of tubes and wires and switches. Ten years or so of service and then kicked over and smashed up.

Anyone know what kind of early warning was on the Russian side?
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:55 AM on February 3, 2007

Old information at FAS — Soviet Missile Defense Radar Sites: scroll down for a clickable list of system details and images.
posted by cenoxo at 10:57 AM on February 3, 2007

Imagine how freakin' much money would be available for social programs, ie. education and health, if we didn't piss it away on killing each other. FFS, we could so easily have the greatest opportunities to find happiness and productivity in our society if we weren't so stupid about nationalism.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:04 PM on February 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

IMO what we need is an imminent external global threat. Spacemen or a wayward asteroid. Something that would force our entire species to rally together to accomplish something.

Mind, I'm not at all confident that we'd actually be capable of pulling together. OTOH, I'm also not confident that our species ought to continue on if we can't pull together. Catch-22! :)
posted by five fresh fish at 2:05 PM on February 3, 2007

I've been waiting for the spacemen all of my life. But I'd rather that they got me the hell outta here. I doubt much good would come of it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:25 PM on February 3, 2007

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