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[photos|travel] They build machines that they can't control, And bury the waste in a great big hole - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-11-12 10:49
Subject: [photos|travel] They build machines that they can't control, And bury the waste in a great big hole
Security: Public
Location:DFW, Gate C27
Music:airport chatter
Tags:child, cool, culture, northwest, photos, tech, travel
Yesterday tillyjane, the_child and I went missile silo hunting. I'd pulled some map references to the old silo complexes at the long-abandoned Larson Air Force Base in Adams County, WA, near the town of Moses Lake. These are Titan I silos from the early days of ballistic deterrence, long since decommisioned, and now on private land.

The first site we wanted to check out was just north of Bruce, WA, right at the line between Adams County and Grant County. We made a pretty direct drive there, four and half hours to go up the Gorge, through the Tri-Cities, across the Pasco Basin and onto the Palouse. (For those of you who don't spend time in the Pacific Northwest, that's quite a stunning trip, with views of heavily forested hills, catastrophically flood carved cliffs, several major volcanoes, arid high desert, and loess hills.) The leaves were in, where leaves could be in, and the weather was gorgeous. We stopped for a Chinese lunch in Othello, WA, then headed up toward the site, guided by Christian, our South African-accented Nokia GPS.

Nearing the site, we did get briefly distracted by a Pullman car. After that, Christian announced, "We are here. Your cell phone hopes you had a good trip," and delivered us to an empty stretch of gravel road.


The only thing visible besides crops was a berm perhaps a hundred yards north of us. You can see it past tillyjane's head in the above photo. We figured perhaps the site had been decommissioned and filled in or scraped over. (All I'd pulled from the Internet was locations, not descriptions, so we were running on minimal data here.) We'd determined in advance that we wouldn't cross a fence line or violate posted no trespassing sign, but this was just open land, so we felt it worth our trouble to see what could be seen. We sorted ourselves out and walked up the boundary between two fields, hoping to learn more at the site of the berm.

The walk itself was pretty strange. Loess under stable ground cover is soft but will hold weight. Plowed loess is like walking in white flour. It's even looser and slippery than beach sand. Every footfall kicked up dust clouds, every step was laborious because of the sliding.

The berm was overgrown with thistles and several kinds of weeds sporting prickly seedpods at this time of year. Casting about the base, we found bits of metal and concrete that lent support to our theory that the site had been plowed under. When I climbed the berm, things turned out to be a bit different.


From that distance, the complex looked like a run down equipment yard. I didn't realize what I was seeing yet, and interpreted the open blast doors from the silos as either machine sheds or agricultural trailers. My scale was completely wrong, of course, but that was difficult to assess while still a quarter mile or so away.

While tillyjane and the_child messed around on the berm, I made for a vaguely military looking piece of junk.


On inspection, it was pretty obviously a Big Heavy Object that had been placed there to block a hole in the ground. Evidence!

Then I looked up at the equipment yard again, and realized that I had not been seeing trailers.


I realized about then that I was seeing a telephone pole to the right of that open set of blast doors. I turned, waved tillyjane and the_child forward, and headed onward.

The first thing I came to was a large silo with the doors dismounted. (There are three large silos and one small one at this complex.) It took me a minute to realize that's what I was seeing.

It's been capped with a large sheet of metal, and some minimal railing installed to keep people from just wandering over the edge. Given that these are almost 200 feet deep, that's probably a good idea.

I think this is the flame duct. There are two of these by each silo.

I was struck by one of the strangest sounds I've ever heard in my life as I approached the silo. It was if something large were weeping deep beneath the earth. It took me a few moments to sort out I was hearing a large number of pigeons cooing in their roosts down inside the flame duct and the silo itself, their noises magnified by the incredible echo chamber in which they lived. By the time I realized I could record this with my camera, I'd made too much racket and the pigeons had either fallen silent or flown away.

There's something profoundly poetic about that image — the birds which fill the very cities these missiles were meant to destroy were now nesting in the abandoned cradle of nuclear fire. The wind was capricious as well, whipping and whining around the silos like the ghosts of lost missilemen still carrying their twin launch keys, reaching out across the span of two arms wondering if this time it was not a drill.

tillyjane and the_child caught up with me at this point. We had a discussion about safety and etiquette — no touching or climbing, don't take anything, don't go near any holes without close adult supervision. All the usual sorts of things one covers when trolling abandoned nuclear sites with a ten year old.

Drawn by the blast doors, I moved on.


While the first silo we came to had the doors dismounted, the other two were intact and gaping open. They were possessed of a brutal, industrial beauty. This is weapons-grade Big Science, with all the shiny optimism abraded by half a century of dusty high plains wind and the shifting realpolitik of the world beyond those lonely horizons.

As we approached the second silo, tillyjane pointed out pigeons flying down into the earth. Their flame duct had no safety rail, so we approached only closely enough to peer within.


We then poked around that silo a bit.

The decking visible isn't part of the original silo — it covers the hole and provides an upper support for the rebar railing blocking the drop at the edge.

The third silo was uphill a bit. the_child and I lagged behind tillyjane a bit so I get some photos to indicate the scale of these things.


At this silo, I got up close and personal with some detailed photography.

The lit square is a reflection of the cap on the surface of the water filling the bottom of the silo. I was sticking the camera through the rail, pointed down, after messing with the setting to photograph in very low light. To the naked eye, that was almost impenetrable shadow.

Looking carefully at the blast doors, it's obvious the original lifting hardware was salvaged when they were decommissioned. You can see where the anchors were torn out of the concrete of the door. I'm a little more puzzled why anyone bothered to run electric lines out to the decommissioned doors, but there are poles and junction boxes present, long since abandoned themselves. I also think the roughly six foot square metal-and-concrete weights which are scattered all over the site may well have been the counterweights for the blast door lifting hardware.

the_child and I got up on the door's embrasure for some of these photos. The presence of the 200 foot drop right next to us sparked tillyjane's not very latent fear of heights, and she asked us to please come down.

Unable to record the eerie sounds of pigeons in their hypogeal nests, I messed a little with the audio qualities of these spaces myself, with an able assist from the_child.

Finally, we wandered around the rest of the complex, wondering where the launch control and underground quarters had been. We did find a smaller tube or silo which didn't match the three big ones. I don't know enough about ICBM launch complexes to understand what that might been used for. It had been almost completely blocked off by those counterweights, so I slipped my camera in through a crack to photograph within. We also spotted the fuel pump, and a some other odd miscellany.

That last photo may be of a hunk of metal covering the accessway to the control room and crew quarters.

Eventually we hiked back out to the Genre car, then drove around the front of the complex to see what might be visible from the public road. Not much, basically, and you'd be hard pressed to know any of this was on the site if you didn't come looking for it right at that spot.

The gateway to the property is formed by two of those counterweights, though the casual passerby would not know this. Note the blast door visible along the fenceline, though from this distance it would be easily mistaken for part of a tiltwall construction effort.

Driving up the access road to the enclosing fence, the blast doors are more visible, but still not the least bit obvious in their function.

We never did cross a fence line coming the back way, but if we'd come at it from the front, we would not have gotten in. I assume this is why the GPS coordinates I pulled off the Internet were so apparently inaccurate — to get us to the accessible side of the property, off the main road.

We drove home via the Hanford Reach, and down US-97 through the Yakama Indian Reservation. It's a pretty, lonely drive that gave us different scenery and a number of empty miles to think on what we'd seen.

The site was terrifically sobering to both me and tillyjane. My mother grew up in the days of duck-and-cover drills, and basements stocked with government cheese and canned water with which to rebuild the American dream after the cleansing fire had washed over the land. This place featured in that nightmare which lies at the center of the house of memory of any thoughtful survivor of the Cold War.

For me, it was perhaps most akin, albeit distantly, to the time that my family visited Dachau, shortly after my 18th birthday. The bizarre, wrenching history of the Holocaust was given a soul-twisting reality for me in that camp, a memory that has remained sharp for a quarter century since. This missile site was one of the bullets in the gun on the mantle of a second, truly final holocaust; a gun which was thankfully never fired. The rustling weeds and muttering pigeons and open-mouthed blast doors memorialize the darkest side of a superpower's dreams. The place touched a small, cold scar on my heart.

What will this mean to the_child? I can't say. For now, she remembers thirteen hours in the car as much as anything. We talked about the missiles, what they were for, how the United States and the Russians had promised each other that if either fought, both would lose. I introduced my ten year old to the idea that people really could kill cities, with a big enough bomb. She wanted to know where the missiles had gone, why the concrete and steel on the site hadn't been recycled, why anyone would build a bomb so big.

I don't believe I frightened her. That was certainly not my intent. I know I made her think. I did tell her this:

"When you grow up, and talk about your childhood, I want you to remember you had the kind of dad who took you to see abandoned nuclear missile silos."

As usual, more at the Flickr set. Lots more, in this case.

As a postscript, lt260 sends an interesting set of links connected to abandoned silos.

Just in case you were wondering about what to do with those silos you were observing.
Here is what others have done.

Here are some handy locations.
And what would a nuclear missile silo be without a UFO connection?

Think of this: Norwescon 32 in Kent WA inside a 45K sq ft missile complex.  OK, maybe three or four adjacent ones.

Also, see Ray Vukcevich's excellent story, "Pretending", about marriage, ghosts and love in a missile silo, which appeared first in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, #8, then later in his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room Small Beer Press | Amazon ]
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dinogrl: roar of the rocket-zilla bookcover
User: dinogrl
Date: 2007-11-12 20:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:roar of the rocket-zilla bookcover
My ex-husband was a security officer for those things in Montana. He and other airmen had stories of those silos, and they were pretty creepy. Growing up in Great Falls was a surreal experience because of constant missile "hide and seek". We would see bomb trucks all the time. Some even broken down on one of the main thoroughfares. Yup. Stuck behind a broken down missile semi, them's were good times!
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User: dinogrl
Date: 2007-11-12 20:18 (UTC)
Subject: My playground growing up.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-12 20:21 (UTC)
Subject: Re: My playground growing up.
Nice. Fire one...
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Chris McKitterick: To infinity and BEYOND!
User: mckitterick
Date: 2007-11-12 20:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:To infinity and BEYOND!
This is so absolutely cool. Thanks for sharing your expedition.
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User: body_electronic
Date: 2007-11-12 20:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The two smaller silos are the communincation attenna silos.

Nice post!
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User: 19_crows
Date: 2007-11-12 20:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What a great report! Thanks.
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2007-11-12 22:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hi, Jay. Very effective post. I love the audio/video segments.

I grew up in the duck and cover era. Not only did my dad create a storage area for food, water and emergency supplies in our basement "fallout shelter," but we had a neighbor who excavated his front lawn, put in an extensive bomb shelter with impressively thick cement walls (two layers of them), which all the neighborhood kids watched being built every day. As soon as he finished covering the construction and landscaping it, he denied that it existed. Surreal.

Also, we were downwind of the Waterton Canyon rocket engine testing facility. When the atmospheric conditions were right, test firings would rattle our windows.

I thought about missile silos quite often.
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User: davidjwilliams
Date: 2007-11-13 02:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
cool. ness.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 06:24 (UTC)
Subject: Missile Silo
Good story. I'm glad you didn't venture into the silo's as they are usually filled with toxic waste, emitted from the unsalvageable equipment and missile residuals. People think it's cool to explore the old tubes, but it's not worth the health risk.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-13 12:38 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Missile Silo
Yah. Not to mention decades of unmaintained underground engineering. No, we stayed on the surface and didn't touch nothing.
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floatingtide: Alien
User: floatingtide
Date: 2007-11-13 06:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is not just awesome. it's Boing-b=Boing awesome!
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 06:38 (UTC)
Subject: The Missile Room
I grew up in Royal City, not far west-southwest of the site you visited, where there was another Titan base. Later, the cool kids all knew how to get in to climb around inside it. My first job, probably about 7 years after the site was dismantled (I don't think it was ever armed), was as a dishwasher in the Titan Cafe in town, with its cocktail lounge, called the Missile Room. I hope someone salvaged the neon sign in the shape of a missile.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-13 12:57 (UTC)
Subject: Re: The Missile Room
That would be too cool...
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Purple Vengeance Version
User: dr_memory
Date: 2007-11-13 07:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Back in the bronze age of the web, triggur actually managed to get inside one of these things. (Sadly, being from the bronze age, the photos are all teeny-tiny.)
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 12:21 (UTC)
Subject: Thanks
All the way from Norway I want to thank you for a very interesting article. I'd like to go there myself one day.
Thanks to your detailed description and Google Maps links (very good), I'm able to find it!
A very thorough article, on a mind-capturing topic. I am fascinated with old, once important structures that are now abandoned.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-13 12:56 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Thanks
You are most welcome. I'm glad it was of interest.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 13:11 (UTC)
Subject: Triggur said it best...

There's any number of things that can be dangerous, even at the surface of sites like these. While I completely dig you taking your kid out there for some reasons, in other ways, I really wish you hadn't made such a poor example.

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User: paxye
Date: 2007-11-13 13:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for sharing this little adventure!

I followed the link from boing boing but now I am going to look around your blog a bit to know more about you and your family :)
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: Titan I Missile Silo
The reason you don't see the crew quarters is that they're underground and were accessed through the crew entry portal. They were phased out before long before I went into missiles. A really good drawing of a typical site configuration is here:

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-14 02:54 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Titan I Missile Silo
Cool! Thank you very much. I figured they were buried, and didn't know enough about missile sites to figure it out. For what it's worth, I'm pretty good at research. I went into this cold, deliberately, to enjoy the sense of discovering the unexpected.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 15:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you set a wonderful example of parenting by taking your daughter there. I believe you took every precaution possible on your expedition and that she received a valuable history lesson from that experience.
When I was a child in the early eighties, my mom and I would play hooky from school (she was at University at the time). We lived in the Northern part of Oklahoma and drove into Kansas via back roads on more than one occasion.
One memory that is ingrained in my soul was driving on an FM (Farm:Mechanical) road and seeing blast doors raise up in the middle of a cornfield! Having seen "The Day After" (http://imdb.com/title/tt0085404/) fairly recently did not help my fears either. I was ten as well.
I'm grateful this isn't as prevalent a reality for your daughter as it was for me.
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Jay Lake: child-laughing
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-14 02:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am grateful for the differences in the world too. It's not necessarily less dangerous, but that particular cloud seems more distant. My kid is pretty savvy, and we talk about a lot of things in age appropriate ways. I've never managed her risk, or her exposure to the dangers of the world, by wrapping her in a cloud of pretense.
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User: steve_buchheit
Date: 2007-11-13 16:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My Dad worked on the early warning systems way back when. So when we ended up marooned in Southern NJ, there was a Mercury Intercept Missile site (over the horizon radar looking for long-range bombers) just up the road from us (okay, a few miles away). We would go there (after my Dad finished his work and was doing something else) for boy scout trips. On one of those trips there was an alert and they raised the missiles. That's something you just never forget.
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Russianrat: Johnny Bravo
User: russianrat
Date: 2007-11-13 17:32 (UTC)
Subject: Silos
Keyword:Johnny Bravo
Very interesting posting! My sister (KittyMonkey on LJ) sent me the link to the story. I actually spent 2 years in the Altay Kray in central Russia demolishing SS-18 missile silos, and about six months at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test site in Kazakhstan during closure activities. It is really interesting how these sites (American and Russian) are similar.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-13 21:23 (UTC)
Subject: aerial photos of silos


I'm an aerial survey photographer who just flew over a couple of sites like this east of Denver a few weeks ago. I put two photos up on my flickr site (links above).

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-14 02:38 (UTC)
Subject: Re: aerial photos of silos
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Geoff Sebesta
User: megatexas
Date: 2007-11-13 23:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Also from boing boing. Good blog, good job. Thank you!

I know of one near Wilson, KS, that is apparently not on this list, and now I'm inspired to go take a look. For some reason I always thought automatic robots would kill you if you tried but I guess not. They really, truly are abandoned.

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User: kip_w
Date: 2007-11-13 23:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In the mid-70s, I was with a school group that got to go down into a missile silo in eastern Colorado. It was disguised by a modest brick farmhouse. They gave us a presentation, showed us the password system (not in a secret-revealing way, of course), showed us how they can take down and assemble their M16s, and then we went down the elevator. Down below, the two guys on duty were playing chess. They showed us where the launch keys would be inserted, and so on. All very interesting.

There were a couple of equipment panels missing in one place, and I asked about them. They were being repaired. The place was actually off-line and couldn't launch flaming death from the skies until the unit was back.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-14 01:13 (UTC)
Subject: All gone?
Are there still ACTIVE sites like this? I imagine there still are some in use.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-14 02:40 (UTC)
Subject: Re: All gone?
Oh yeah. Lots of them. Newer series technology, different architecture. They're all over Montana.
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User: icedrake
Date: 2007-11-14 05:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh Jay, you have *no idea* what demons you've unleashed with this post...
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scarlettina: Hot!
User: scarlettina
Date: 2007-11-14 06:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post, Jay. Thanks for sharing your field trip. I love the audio-visual portion of the program. :-)
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User: brandeenyc
Date: 2007-11-14 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: I grew up here
I grew up in Moses Lake. When I was in high school we used to go out to the silos. We would move a block to get in (no security blocks then!) and we would go down into the silos. You needed flashlights to see and there was alot of water on the ground. It was a giant maze down there. I found a room that looked like a control room with a big abandoned computer. There was lots of graffiti on the walls and some kind people made arrows leading the way out. It was easy to get lost. Thanks for the post!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-11-14 23:30 (UTC)
Subject: Re: I grew up here
That sounds so freaky...glad I could spark a memory.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-11-15 07:33 (UTC)
Subject: Re: I grew up here
many of these sites were obsolete before the were operational. The missiles were propelled by liquid and had to be filled before launch. they were replaced by solid fuel and didnt need so much space.
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User: snapone
Date: 2007-11-15 15:55 (UTC)
Subject: Titan II Museum
Enjoyed the tour and the pictures. I wonder how many of these are still rotting away, semi open. Also, how many have been filled in or have been converted to something useful and are still functioning in some capacity as shown by some of the other comments.

Last month we visited the Titan II Museum south of Tucson. There you can see what the next generation missile and silo looked like along with some of the support equipment. I have posted some pictures, but have not gotten around to captions at:

Their site: http://www.titanmissilemuseum.org/index.php
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User: rapier
Date: 2008-03-22 00:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I very nearly took a commission in the Air Force back in '98. Had I stayed with them, I would have spent a great deal of time in those silos. The Cold War was long over, and the likelihood of actually firing the missiles was incredibly remote. In those days, newly minted lieutenants got into the missileer corps as a stepping stone to get into other, more exciting parts of the Space Command, and to use the long days in the crew capsule to study and take their graduate degrees in whatever field they desired.

Even now, ten years later, I believe the Air Force Space Command still maintains a small corps of missileers to crew and maintain our remaining Minuteman III ICBMs. I suppose we'll always have missileers, so long as we have missiles. It's hard to believe that we'd ever destroy such a weapon entirely.

You know, I'm sure there's a story idea in there somewhere, but damned if I haven't had quite enough coffee to do something smart with it.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2011-08-25 05:55 (UTC)
Subject: Murder at this silo
Hello, I live in Othello and work for a dentist. Back in the 70's, the wife of one of the workers from this silo, went missing. Four years later, workers draining water from a silo discovered a skeleton chained to a tractor tire. The dentist I work for identified her remains through dental X-rays. The husband was later convicted of the homicide. Dentist does not have the records of this case anymore, but I'm trying to research this very interesting crime with very little luck..:(
Oh and thank you for this post! It's very interesting and what a great experience for your daughter!
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2011-09-16 05:27 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Murder at this silo
Hello, I wrote to you about a woman murdered at this silo and I found this article. It is very interesting. Her name was Ruth Stafford. There is a picture of the silo from 1979. Just thought I would share this with ya!

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