We were somewhere in Kansas when we found the second microwave tower. We’d found the ruins of one somewhere else in Kansas earlier during that day. This other one still had its pyramidal horn-reflector antennae intact. One abandoned microwave tower is a coincidence; two is probably an omen. Especially when that second one has AT&T Long Lines signage out front.
Long Lines, AT&T’s division for long-distance communication networks, built out a massive microwave radio network starting in 1951. At the time, it was the first large-scale microwave-transmission network for telephony and broadcast, and it would be expanded a ton over the next few decades. But by the time the Internet rose to prominence, the technology was pretty outdated and couldn't carry the kind of bandwidth that fiber-optic cable could carry. AT&T sold off most of the towers in the late 1990s. According to FCC records it looks like this tower still belongs to AT&T, but it didn’t look like anyone had been around the tower site in a while—and no one answered the door at the weird building with the AT&T mailbox out front. A Google Earth image shows a white van parked by the building, so presumably someone does work there sometimes.
Looking at the base of the tower through a fence, I burst out laughing at a beam on which someone had written “FAIRVIEW.” A few months before this trip, ProPublica and The New York Times had published their lengthy overview of the NSA’s Fairview program, in which AT&T had generously assisted the NSA with interception and surveillance. Could this random tower surrounded by farmland at the edge of Kansas possibly be the namesake of the surveillance program?
Fear not, dear reader. In this moment, I did stop myself from going full-throttle surveillance bro. The beam probably just indicated a ground truth: We were in Fairview, Kansas. There are lots of places called Fairview, any of which could have heretofore unknown spooky qualities. And NSA code-words are kind of like horoscopes: endlessly amusing, but generally any meaning gleaned from them is more a reflection of their interpreter. During the remainder of the drive we didn’t dig deeper into the site, although we were pretty curious about what looked like an entrance to an underground bunker near the tower.
I remain pretty skeptical that this Fairview is related to the Fairview, but when I started to look for more information about the site months later, I learned that it has a pretty weird, interesting history tied to telecommunications and Cold War infrastructure.
This is a history that, luckily for me, has a rich and very active online community documenting it. Long-lines.net is probably one of the best resources for finding out about old AT&T infrastructure. Among the site’s many artifacts are some reports indicating that the Fairview AT&T site was once (maybe still is, who knows) home to a cable connecting Offutt Air Force Base in nearby Omaha, Nebraska, to the AT&T network. It was also home to a node of AUTOVON, the military telephony system and possibly a relay point in the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment network (SAGE), the computerized defense network that pioneered much of the research and development that later went into ARPANET. This would make sense considering that Offutt Air Force Base was once home to Strategic Air Command, the Cold War-era DoD outfit responsible for operating things like intercontinental ballistic missiles (the division was reorganized in 1992 as U.S. Strategic Command and remains at Offutt).
Cold War lore suggests that Kansas became a central location for missile silos because many of them were built during proud Kansas native Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency (although the state’s underground limestone-mining history suggests it’s also a pretty practical place for burying things really, really deep in the ground). Kansas and Nebraska also have a lot of missile silos because the American midwest in general has a lot of missile silos—there are so many abandoned ones across the region that one couple has managed to build a successful niche real-estate business around it. In any case, this might have explained the presence of the bunker.
Again, this isn't enough to draw any conclusions about the current uses of this site. While there is a point on a nationwide map of Fairview sites that includes a spot pretty close to the Kansas-Nebraska-Missouri border (which is roughly where Fairview, Kansas is), it’d have to be a pretty fuzzy map for that particular point to be referring to that AT&T tower site. In any case, I'm far less interested in Spy vs. Spy speculation about how that tower site might be used today and far more interested in its role in a far longer, weirder history of technology.
There are no commemorative plaques for places like this, for objects like this tower. As photographer Spencer Harding has documented in his lovely series The Long Lines, most of the AT&T microwave-network infrastructure has been abandoned, its story mostly preserved in fragments by enthusiasts on listservs and personal sites. One of the paradoxes of Cold War technology infrastructure is that while it was built to safeguard against global annihilation, the infrastructure itself wasn't really built to last, or at least not built to be remembered or recognized. The plaques and landmarks of Internet history tend to be either in university research labs or military bases, not in Kansas fields. Those histories are, apparently, best found by following omens. America’s network is full of weird ghosts, which you might be lucky enough to stumble across off the side of a highway.