For more than 50 years, the skyline above Nome, atop Anvil Mountain, has been dominated by four towering structures. These are the last remaining tropospheric antennas from the White Alice Communications (WACs) system, installed by the U.S. military in the mid-1950s.
There were dozens of White Alice sites, each capable of receiving radio waves from up to 200 miles away, and transmitting them another 200 miles on down the line. The system also supported important military radar sites such as the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line that covered the Arctic Circle and would relay notice to the Lower 48 of any impending bombs sent over from Russia.
“Nomehenge,” as some of the locals call it, operated for twenty years during the height of the Cold War. During that time, it was as important for civilian use as it was for military communications. Locals depended on the system to carry their phone calls and to bring news into the city.
In Nome’s earliest days, it took up to a year to get information from Nome to Washington D.C. and back by ship. Dog mushing, telegram service, and limited telephone service came later. But even in the 1950s, it was costly and difficult to make a long-distance call from Nome to the lower 48.
The Anvil Mountain White Alice site changed all that for local residents, providing an important connection to the outside world. The advent of satellite communications in the late 1970s led to the deactivation of White Alice sites. The Anvil Mountain location is the only physical remnant left of the program, and it’s an important historical marker for those who grew up with the 60-foot antennas as the backdrop to their skyline. (It’s also a navigational aid for planes, ships, and hikers).
It’s not without controversy, though. Most White Alice sites were constructed using asbestos, lead paint and fluids that introduced harmful PCBs into the landscape. The U.S. Air Force has removed the asbestos panels from the Anvil Mountain site, and the tower area is enclosed by a chain link fence.
While you can see White Alice from just about anywhere in Nome, you can get a closer look by heading up Anvil Mountain. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with an amazing view of Nome and the Bering Sea and a colorful carpet of dwarf alpine flowers (including the rare and delicate Anvil Mountain primrose, as well as the Kamchatka rhododendron).
This is also a reliable place to view groups of muskox from the road in most seasons. Watch for ravens that nest in the towers, and other birds that favor lichen-covered rocks and dwarf willows: American golden-plover, horned lark, northern wheatear, American pipit, red-throated pipit, and rock ptarmigan. Other wildlife include red fox, reindeer (which fawn in late April and May), and perhaps even the rare wolf or grizzly come to feast if a fawn has died.
Finally, there’s a geocache located outside the fenced area around the antennas, and nearby Anvil Rock is also worth a visit while you’re on top of 1,062-foot Anvil Mountain.
The land and access to it is private property, so honor the posted signage as you explore the area.