It was a history lesson and a field trip that brought dozens of people to the Friends of North Park meeting on a cold and damp April 5.
"There are about 60 here and that is definitely our largest group since I've been involved. We usually have about 25," said Gary Rigdon, chairman of the group and Friends member since 2000.
The group gathered at the Allegheny County Police and Fire Academy in North Park for a presentation about the Nike Missile Site, located behind the academy. Robert Skertich and Tom Koedel, amateur historians, led the discussion and the site visit Tuesday night.
The two explained the Greater Pittsburgh area had been home to several missile sites during the Cold War. The site in North Park was part of The Nike Project and was known as the P1-92 Byrant site, a 41-acre tract, according to the two men. There was another nearby site on Peebles Road, next to what is now Hosack Elementary School in North Allegheny School District. The school district is in the process of accepting deed to that land -- about 11 acres -- from the Department of Defense, a district spokeswoman said, and plans discussed in 2008 called for it to be turned into ball fields and a playground
By day, Mr. Skertich, who has a doctorate, is a professor at Point Park University teaching public administration. But he is also chief of the volunteer fire department in Hampton and a longtime resident of the North Hills. Formerly of Hampton, Mr. Skertich now lives in Shaler and has been interested in the local missile sites for years.
Mr. Skertich also teaches at the police and fire academy, along with fellow missile "expert" retired Ross police officer and resident, Tom Koedel. "I actually live right by the Ross Park Mall, which was a military site back then," said Mr. Koedel.
According to Mr. Rigdon, Friends member Mary Bates is interested in local history with a particular emphasis on North Park history, and she suggested a presentation by Mr. Skertich.
"I actually found him on the Internet," said Mrs. Bates during the meeting, referring to a posting that Mr. Skertich said "must be 15 years old."
Mr. Skertich and Mr. Koedel gave a brief history of the missiles sites in the Greater Pittsburgh area and information about the use of the missiles themselves. There were 14 sites during the 1950s, including one that was located where Avonworth High School now stands; the Dorseyville site on Route 910 in Indianola, Indiana Township; one in West View and one in Rural Ridge, by what is now Rock Airport in West Deer.
"These were the Cold War air defenses in the North Hills," said Mr. Koedel. The North Park location was a launch facility, he said, and also provided barracks, missile storage and home to military staff and dogs. "These dogs were trained for combat and search. They certainly weren't pets," he said.
Approximately 48 missiles were stored at the Byrant location. "There were about 12 with fins that would have been able to be launched at any time, but no missiles or guns were ever shot from here," said Mr. Skertich.
After the discussion, the group walked to the top of the hill behind the academy and descended into the missile site storage area, a large underground area. "This area is used for training now," said Mr. Skertich. "The academy uses it to train for disaster and search-and-rescue training."
Most of the missile sites were closed in the late 1960s, with the final two sites closed in 1974, said Mr. Skertich.
The Friends of North Park is a group of volunteers who provide stewardship and advocacy for the park. "We do various activities including educational programs, but also efforts to maintain and restore areas of the park, too," said Mr. Rigdon, of McCandless.
The Friends meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at the cabin at Babcock Boulevard and Ingomar Road in North Park. Meetings are open to the public.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org .