SAUGATUCK, Mich. (WOOD) — A landmark of Saugatuck is about to earn a classification from the National Register of Historic Places.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (more commonly known as NORAD) radar at Mt. Baldhead was in operation from 1958 to 1968, according to Chuck Gustafson, a local historian.
“It was referred to as the eyes and ears of NORAD,” Gustafson said. “Because SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) was run by the Air Force and that was the radar system, the air defense radar system that NORAD depended on to spot Soviet bombers.”
At the height of the Cold War, more than 130 similar radars were installed throughout the states. The one in Saugatuck was meant to detect aircraft flying low from the north. The radar’s use was short-lived. The launch of Sputnik essentially made radars like Mt. Baldhead’s obsolete because they couldn’t detect missiles approaching from space.
Mt. Baldhead’s decommissioned radar station was bought by Saugatuck in 1969.
“The Air Force had decommissioned the site and had approached the city about potentially buying it,” Saugatuck City Councilman Russ Gardner said.
He said the city bought the radar for $250. The Air Force removed some equipment from the site, but essentially left it as-is.
For the next 50 years, the tower was left uninhabited. Graffiti, weeds and trash slowly spoiled the once-pristine site. Gardner said that during the winter of 2021, he decided it was time for the city to rehab the radar. Since then, Gardner and a group of other like-minded history enthusiasts have cleaned up the radar’s base and mounted informational signs at the top and base of the climb to educate the public.
“There’s been a lot of personal relationships to this site,” Gardner said. “So not only is it historically important and militarily important, it’s also personally important to a lot of people.”
The city commission has been approached by AT&T, which expressed interest in installing cellular towers around the site to address demand for service.
“If you’ve ever visited Saugatuck in the summer you know cell service is a big problem,” said Scott Dean, mayor pro tem. “So to have cell service up in this dome, we can have better cell service at the beach and out in the lake. That’s really a big safety issue.”
The state’s Historic Preservation Office review board approved last month the site’s nomination for the national classification. Gustafson said Saugatuck can expect the National Register of Historic Places land marker later this year.