The tip of the Keweenaw is as remote and wild as you can get in the Keweenaw, situated over ten miles from any sign of civilization. The rugged landscape is challenging enough in the summer months, let alone the dark and frozen months of a Keweenaw winter. For most of the year the unforgiving landscape is silent and still, with no sign of man to be found for dozens of miles. This is the true meaning of wilderness, a land only the most daring of men dare traverse.
It was also the perfect spot for shooting off some rockets.
In January of 1971 the still serenity of the region was shattered by the booming roar of a Nike-Apache rocket launching from its remote firing range at the tip of the Keweenaw. With a length of over 27 feet and a launch weight of 1600 pounds this two stage vehicle was one of NASA’s larger sounding rockets, capable of measuring atmospheric conditions up to 125 miles into the sky. It would become the first vehicle launched from Michigan to reach outer space. It was also one of the last rockets fired from the agency’s Keweenaw Rocket Range, one of six sites scattered across the country used to gather information about the planet’s upper atmosphere.
The Keweenaw Rocket Range sat at the apex of a small bay sitting to the north of High Rock Bay. The location was the most remote that could be found along the great lakes at the time, an important condition considering that used rockets would be falling to earth in the neighboring vicinity. The facility was an attempt to get atmospheric readings over the interior of the continent, since most launch sites of the day were scattered along the coasts. The rocket range was under the control of the University of Michigan, built atop land donated by C&H. Besides being remote, the location was also conveniently located along an established utility corridor, built to provide power and telephone service to the neighboring Manitou Island lighthouse. So even as remote as it was, the rocket range could still connect to local power and telephone service.
The rocket range operated for just under a decade, between 1962 and 1971. Dozens of rockets were fired from the site during its lifetime, including two of the large Nike-Apache rockets noted earlier. After those launches, however, the site would never be used again. The structures were removed from and the land abandoned shortly after. In the forty years since, the site still remains just as remote and inhospitable as it did when the rockets were firing. Visiting the old rocket range requires a long and slow drive along a rather worn and washed out dirt road from the end of US41 for nearly a dozen miles to the peninsula’s tip.
At the very end of that long drive you find yourself just a few dozen feet shy of the lakeshore itself, your route to the lake blocked by a large concrete pad and what looks to be a tombstone. The concrete slab is the actual launch pad itself built specifically for those Nike-Apache rockets. The majority of the launch gantry was removed at the end of the facilities life, leaving behind only the slab and a single curved piece of railroad rail in its place.
This rail supported the end of a long radial arm on which the launch gantry was attached. With one end of the gantry attached to a fixed point in the center of the pad, it could be rotated along this rail from left to right. This allowed operators to change the direction the rocket would be launched, to insure it landed in an uninhabited area.
A close look at the rail reveals several graduated marks along its length, marked by what I can only assume to be degrees.
Next to the old launch pad sits what looks at first to be a tombstone, but really is just a monument to the rocket site itself. It was installed in 2000 to commemorate the site.
The only other remain of the old rocket site is a second concrete pad sitting a short distance from the launch pad. This pad was the foundation to the Nike-Apache’s storage and fueling building. To insure that the area around the launch site was clear, the rocket range was only in operation during the winter months when shipping was closed for the season. Thus this building was needed to provide a heated space out of the elements in which to safely load the rocket’s payload and fuel it for launch. The building was of course removed along with the gantry when the facility closed.
Unfortunately besides the monument and the two concrete pads nothing much else remains to even suggest anything of importance was ever here. Most of the structures were temporary to began with, and after the facility’s closure they were simply towed away. Today the old rocket range is a part of a protected natural area, and can be explored by anyone willing to take the long journey up to the tip. Yet even without anything substantial to discover the small cove is particularly tranquil, providing a beautiful view of Manitou Island and the abandoned Gull Rock light house on the horizon.
Of course the view would be much more exciting with some rockets blasting off….
More information about the Rocket Range can be found here