When you travel along Highway 1 in Big Sur, it’s hard to miss the tall rock with the lighthouse jutting out into the ocean. For decades, people have been able to tour this historic Point Sur Light Station. But next door, there’s an old military facility that has been off-limits to the public, until now. The historic naval facility played a key role in the Cold War. Tours of it just began.
The entrance to the Point Sur Naval Facility is marked with a wooden sign on Highway 1. From there, a gate opens up to a road that stretches toward the Pacific Ocean. On both sides of the road are old buildings: a mess hall, a weapons bunker, a steam plant. The facility was built in 1957.
In 2000, the federal government transferred all but one building to California State Parks with the condition it would eventually be open to the public. It didn’t open right away because the facility needed a lot of repairs.
Since January, volunteers have been getting the site back into shape for public tours.
“We’re gonna get it painted back up and get rid of the graffiti and replace some windows and make it so the public can see what was happening here,” said volunteer Joe DeSante.
The first-ever walking tours began this October.
Volunteer historian Carol O’Neil is one of the tour guides. The official bright yellow jacket she wears has the naval facility’s fake logo sewn onto it. The logo is a seahorse in the center of a triangle.
“This was hidden in plain sight,” said O’Neil during a windy October day at the naval facility.
To keep the facility secret, its cover was an oceanographic research station. But that’s not what actually happened here. Instead, the Navy was listening for Soviet submarines during the Cold War.
“Soviets did not know that we could do this. And for years, they made really loud submarines,” O’Neil said.
This site was one in a chain of about 30 underwater listening posts around the world that were tasked with this top-secret mission. They were all part of SOSUS, which stands for sound surveillance system. The Point Sur Naval Facility happens to be the only remaining, stand alone SOSUS facility on the West Coast. Standalone means it wasn’t part of another military base.
The listening took place in the T Building, or the Terminal Equipment Building. It sits at the end of the main road through the site. A guard shack still stands nearby.
“So this is the T Building and this is where I'll say the magic happens and you'll notice there are no windows.”
She peers through a rusty metal gate that surrounds the beige building with peeling paint. A “no trespassing” sign hangs on the fence. This is the one building that the federal government still owns and uses.
O’Neil says underwater cables extended from the T Building out into the ocean. Attached to these cables were hydrophones, or underwater microphones, that captured sound
“The sound was written essentially on a graph. And analysts would look at it and say, oh, that's a whale, that's a freighter. That's a trawler. Oh, that's a Soviet submarine,” O’Neil said.
She doesn’t know how many submarines they heard. Even today, when she talks with people who worked at the naval facility, they don’t divulge all the details.
“And when people talk to us who were stationed here... ‘Oh, I wish I could tell you about that,’ and then they don't. But it's very much the Tom Clancy Cold War spy versus spy stuff,” O’Neil said.
The facility operated from 1958 to 1984. It closed for a few reasons. One, a lot of the operations were relocated to Centerville Beach. But also because O’Neil says a spy leaked the secret.
“The spy, John Walker, who was a retired Navy warrant officer, essentially spilled the beans, and told the Soviets that we could hear their submarines,” she said.
The Point Sur Naval Facility is part of the Point Sur State Historic Park, which also includes the nextdoor light station. There happens to be a link between the two sites; the Navy would run experiments and test their equipment up near the lighthouse. The light station is already on the National Register of Historic Places and the naval facility has been nominated.
So far people can only go into one building on the site, the administration building. Safety improvements and painting will continue into the future to open more. The point isn’t to make the base look new but to show what it looked like back in the day. Part of the challenge is deciding what day, since it operated for decades.
O’Neil says there are several reasons to come and visit the Point Sur Naval Facility. One being to learn about the past and the people who worked here.
“It's important for the cold warriors to know that they are valued and their stories are out there because we had heroes in the Cold War,” said O’Neil.
The walking tours take place on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am. They take about an hour and a half and cost $10 for adults and $5 for children. Children who are 5 years old and under are free.