When the Cold War Came to Dawsonville

In the 1950’s, Dawsonville was a day’s drive north on Highway 9 from Atlanta.  The Georgia 400 “corridor”,  as we know it today, was only a dream for a few visionaries back then.   Elvis was the rage, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and years before President Kennedy “faced down” the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States government was quietly building a nuclear facility in Dawsonville, Georgia.

The bucolic community of Dawsonville, some 40 miles north of Atlanta, became home to the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory ( GNAL ) from the 1950’s until 1971.  In 1956, the United States government purchased 10,000 acres of open fields and woods from the Tucker family of Dawsonville. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, along with the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission, began construction of the GNAL- also known as Air Force Plant # 67.  The site is near the intersection of Highway 9 and Dawson Forest Road in Southwest Dawson County.

It is said that the site was selected for several reasons, but mainly because of its location.  It was considered an “easy commute” from the Lockheed facility in Marietta, then known as Air Force Plant # 6.  The site also was remote and unpopulated, thereby providing a “well-shielded area” where very little existed.

The rumors circulating about the former site of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory have become folklore and remain an interesting topic of conversation for Dawson County residents.  Tall tales of deer with three eyes or two sets of antlers are common.  Also, some claim seeing an “albino” black bear and other albino animals.  Notwithstanding these rumors, today Dawson County is anything but remote and unpopulated.  The “400 corridor” has been the impetus for increased commercial and residential developments.  Dawson County is home to many mountain, lake, and golf communities.  Tens of thousands of families now call the area home.

The initial intent of the facility was to research and develop a nuclear powered aircraft.  Remember, this was during the ” Cold War” when some in government believed we needed an aircraft that could remain in the air for weeks without having to land to refuel.  This was a top-priority project for the US. military, as they were confident that the Soviet Union had made significant advances in this area.

The 10,000 plus acre site had three main areas spread across several miles on the property.  The facilities were all connected with an internal “narrow-gauge” railway system.  The separate sites included a nuclear reactor, a cooling site and a hot-cell building.  There was also an underground “shielded site”, where employees waited when the reactor was operational.  Other buildings included an underground parking facility, miscellaneous storage / warehouse buildings, and research laboratories.

Most North Georgia residents had no idea that Lockheed was operating an “air-shielded” nuclear reactor on the Dawson Forest site.  An “air-shielded” reactor is a nuclear reactor that is physically hoisted into the open air when operational and returned to its “storage-pool” ( in this case a concrete pool built into a natural ” hollow” on the property ) when not in use.  It should be noted that each time the reactor was operational, the area surrounding the reactor was irradiated along with the intended “target.”

The development of a nuclear powered aircraft was never realized.  It is conjectured that a firewall and containment system needed to protect the flight crew, failed to be successfully developed.  Some claimed that the containment and firewall systems were too heavy for the aircraft.  Lockheed also used the reactor to test  the effects of radiation on military equipment.

The effects of irradiation on the surrounding area prompted new tests. Studies by the University of Georgia, Emory University and The Atomic Energy Commission were conducted.  These studies examined the effects to wildlife and the surrounding vegetation when exposed to massive doses of radiation.  The results of these experiments were devastating to all living things in the test area.  Thus, the rumors of mutant animals flourished.

Nuclear scientists began to understand that different materials took on new qualities once irradiated.  This new series of testing led to the formation of Lockheed Nuclear Products.  Various products were transported on rail cars to the reactor site, irradiated, then sent to the cooling site.   One such product was wood.  Ordinary pine was injected with a resin, then irradiated.  The resulting product was marketed under the name “Lockwood.”  It is said that this wood was used as flooring in the Atomic Energy Commission facility in Maryland.

The potential threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union prompted more experimentation at the Dawson Forest site.  The U. S. government was in learning how our country would or could rebound after a nuclear attack.  It was equally important to understand the effects on our renewable natural resources, such as lumber, and if the natural environment would recover from such an attack.

In June of 1959, and again in August of 1960, the forest area surrounding the reactor was subjected to lethal doses of radiation for weeks at a time.  The reactor was only shut down on weekends and during employee shift changes.  The effects of this irradiation became quite obvious to the surrounding environment.  During the two years after the tests and at a distance of one mile from the reactor, tree growth was impeded and loss of foliage, leaf and bud production occurred.  Wildlife was all but eliminated from the area.

Lockheed closed the facility at the end of 1971.  Only a few above ground remnants of the GNAL remain today.  Some of the building foundations and the hot-cell building, with its forty-eight inch thick steel and concrete walls, are still standing.  The hot cell building was sealed due to contamination concerns and is surrounded by two fences.  This building is considered one of two “hot spots” that remain on the site.  The reactor site is also sealed and fenced in due to contamination and public safety concerns.

The two bridges that connected the railway to various sites were demolished when GNAL was being dismantled.  However, the abutments remain along the river, as do the track beds.  The underground facility at the reactor area where employees remained when the reactor was operational, also remains. This area contained three levels and included a tunnel that connected the reactor facility to an underground parking garage.  The underground facilities were kept dry during all the years of operation by a series of pumps.  It is now flooded due to the high water table in the area.

In 1972, The City of Atlanta, anticipating the need for a second airport, purchased the Lockheed facility and an adjacent 10,000 from Pickens County.  The airport was never built and the property fell into disrepair. Access roads eroded, people used the site as a dumping ground for garbage, and general deterioration of the property occurred.

In 1975, the City of Atlanta asked the Georgia Forestry Commission to manage the site.  Not long afterwards, the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area and the Paulding Forest Wildlife Area were created.

These areas are still monitored every three months for radiation contamination by the Georgia Environmental Division.  Although some hot spots of Colbalt 60 and Europium 152 remain, officials conclude that there is little to no risk to the public.

Today, the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area shows little signs of its former use, except as previously mentioned.   This property is abundant wildlife and is used for recreation.  It is also used by hunters, hikers, horse back riders, and curiosity seekers.  From time to time, the stories of mutant animal sitings are repeated.  However, nobody has been able to confirm  any sitings of five-legged deer or cyclops animals wandering through the woods of Dawson Forest.

Henry A. Zuckerman is an Architect and custom home builder in the North Georgia area.  Please visit the StoneyBrooke Homes web site http://www.henryzuckerman.com


Inside Dawson Forest: A History of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft laboratory, published January 2, 2007

Georgia Environmental Surveillance Report 2000-2002

Dawson Forest City of Atlanta Tract – Then and Now by Nathan McClure, C.F.


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