NORAD in North Bay

The hidden history of a secret nuclear bunker that protected North America during the Cold War.

“If we lose North Bay, we lose the mainland,” Canadian and American senior officers used to say during the Cold War. Because at that time, this small city in northern Ontario was home to the most critical link in North America's defense system against a Soviet nuclear attack—an impressive new military complex buried 600 feet underground.

Today, visitors to Ontario’s Gateway of the North may have heard something about this secret bunker, but only a lucky few have ever seen this magnificent part of Canada’s history up close.

Blast door from tunnel into main building. // Photo credit Aerospace Defence Museum
 

Commissioned in 1963, and completed after four years of construction, the North Bay underground base remains the most extravagant military project ever undertaken in Canada.

Why Was the NORAD Base Built in North Bay? 

At the time, northern Canada was the front line of the Cold War. It was through northern Canada that Soviet nuclear bombers would attack major North American cities. To detect and intercept these potential interlopers, Canada and the U.S. formed the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Officially known as the NORAD North Bay Underground Complex, this massive, historic base has a fascinating history.  

NORAD regions and sectors map
 

The North Bay base played a crucial role in this defense system. It was from there that NORAD kept an eye on the sky of the great Canadian north. (Still active today, NORAD continues to defend North American airspace from all sorts of intrusions.)

NORAD logo


 

According to the Civil Defence Museum, there were four reasons why North Bay was selected as the location for this massive military complex.

  1. An air force base already existed, eliminating the need to build one.
  2. The City of North Bay was a rail, highway, and telecommunications crossroads of the country.
  3. The city sat atop a 2.6 billion-year-old rock formation that was transformed 1.5 billion years ago by the Grenville Metamorphic Event into granite, which is one of the hardest rocks on the planet—excellent armor against a nuclear strike.
  4. Trout Lake, on the eastern edge of the city, provided a large source of fresh water necessary for cooling the complex.

Like in James Bond: A Base at the Cutting Edge of Military Technology

The long tunnel was graded so water flowed away from the complex. // Photo credit Aerospace Defence Museum
 

This crucial role made the base, and the city of North Bay, a prime target for the Soviets. That explains why the base was installed underground. The complex was essentially a huge cave blasted into the Canadian Shield—and was capable of withstanding a nuclear impact.

The cave was over 100 meters long. Inside there was a main “building” three stories high, housing a command post dominated by a huge electronic board documenting in real-time everything happening in the sky of the great Canadian north.

During its first 20 years of operation, surveillance operations were carried out thanks to two massive, high-tech computers, each weighing 245 tons. Nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde, these two behemoths were at the cutting edge of technology at the time. Imagine: they had a memory of 256 kilobytes!

NORAD: A City Underneath a City

The base not only housed generals and technicians hunched over radar screens—it served as a full underground city with all kinds of amenities. 

There was a barbershop, a medical center, a cafeteria, and a gym. In the event of a nuclear attack, the base was designed to house 400 people in isolation for a month. The complex also had its own backup power grid—a giant bank of batteries that could provide power in the event of an outage. 

The complex was accessed through one of two tunnels with buses ferrying people back and forth. The tunnel allowed access to three entrances—each protected by gigantic armored doors weighing 19 tons!

Fortunately for the whole continent, the complex never faced a Soviet attack during the 43 years it was in operation. By the early 2000s, the issues facing North America looked very different, the complex’s computers were obsolete, and in 2006 operations were moved topside to the David Sgt David L. Pitcher Buiding at CFB North Bay. The underground complex is officially in “reserve status” and used for storage (as well as a film set—in 2012 it served as a post-apocalyptic setting for The Colony starring Lawrence Fishburn and Bill Paxton). Today, the entrance to this tunnel is all that can be seen of the complex. 

Experience North Bay’s Aviation History Today

CF-100 in Lee Park
 

In North Bay, however, you can learn more about the complex and its essential role in North America’s aerospace history by visiting the Canadian Forces Aerospace Defense Museum, where a model of the base is on display. Kids can download this awesome aviation-themed activity book too! There is also an excellent virtual tour of the complex on the museum's website. Aviation enthusiasts can visit the CF-100 fighter on display in Lee Park. The CF-100 is the only fully Canadian-developed fighter aircraft that has undergone mass production. For more information, curious viewers can check out this great CBC doc about the base: The Hole in Reservoir Hill.

For more information on accommodations or things to do in North Bay visit Tourism North Bay
 

About Maya Bilbao

Maya Bilbao is passionate about the history of Canada. Her work as a researcher and writer has been featured on CBC, PBS, Rogers-TV, and The Canadian Encyclopedia, among other media. She loves hiking, photography, classic jazz, anything invention-related, and finding the best possible decadent dark chocolate around. 

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