One driving down Magnolia Street in Bear Trap may easily miss a wooded area with a small concrete block building with a big history, but the community’s homeowners’ association is working to change that.
“This was one of Delaware’s mobile radar sites during World War II,” said John Roberts, who serves on the board of the Fort Miles Historical Association. “It was 10 acres that had radar, barracks, a mess hall…”
On April 17, Bear Trap residents and members of FMHA worked to rehabilitate the boardwalk that led to the remaining pumphouse.
The U.S. Army Radar Site 11 became operational in the summer 1942 and was decommissioned in 1946. During that time, it was one of ten mobile sites of the original 26 locations from Maine to Virginia to be converted to a permanent site. It was later recommissioned in 1957 during the Cold War. Today, what remains is a single pumphouse, and a handful of educational signs.
“This site was identified by Freeman when he built this community,” said Bear Trap resident John Reddington. “It was the site of which there was a radar station during World War II. And there was a big camp back there at one time. Now there’s just one small building left. Freeman decided he wanted to preserve the memory of the World War II men who protected the Delaware coast.”
When the community was built a boardwalk was created from the street to the pumphouse so that people could walk to the site and learn about the once very extensive camp. It is even recognized the State of Delaware’s Historic Preservation Office as a historical site.
“It’s been 15, 16 years since that walkway had been built and it has since rotted out,” said Reddington. “We had tried as a board at one time to see who really had the authority to fix this. We had checked with the state and with the preservation society… all different groups. Finally, we looked at our deed in which Freeman said the HOA from that point forward would be in charge of taking care of the site.”
They went on to contact the “Bunker Busters” at Fort Miles, who graciously offered to assist the project.
“It originally came to life in World War II when radar was fairly rudimentary. One scope told you how far the target was, another told you what direction it was. They had some pretty experienced guys to figure out how to determine all of that,” said Roberts. “It was used to look for anything coming into the area either by land or sea.”
Roberts said that during the Cold War the site became a missile master tracking station. As far as the association knows, there are no public records of craft or other objects the site was able to identify.
“As far as we know that’s all still classified. The way this works is, nothing is declassified until someone actually signs off saying it’s declassified. So, until someone has an interest in looking at this stuff, it’ll remain classified. We know they were looking at Soviet aircraft, probably Soviet spacecraft…
“If one station saw something, a blip, everybody saw it. Just kind of interesting, because back then sending images by phone line was pretty challenging. But they did it. As far as tracking stations, they were all over the country. And they were all tied into each other. Hope over phone lines they were sending radar images over phone lines throughout the entire country one station.”
Although they were able to determine ownership of the site, Bear Traps’ HOA did not have the funds to refurbish the boardwalk. Reddington and his wife donated the funds, approximately $1,500, along with residents Gary Roth and Preston Coppells.
“I felt it was worthwhile to preserve the memory of the site,” said Reddington, simply.
Bear Trap HOA Board Member Tom Kinsella said the board was grateful to the residents for their generous financial support of the project.
“It certainly made the decision to rehab easier,” said Kinsella. “Funds are always tight…It’s important to us to get it done before the season. We’re basically a seasonal community; there’s not that many people here in the off-season. We want it open when people are here and you don’t want construction going on while people are going in and out.”
“The community has been really good. We don’t have a lot of people living here but we’ve had guys who just jumped in to help with the clearing, and other people who aren’t necessarily up to handling the drill will be bringing food.”
He added that Chad Tingle of East Coast Home Improvement, as well as numerous Bear Trap residents helped complete the project.
Roberts said he is excited to have not only the history of World War II shared, but that of the area during the Cold War.
“We talk a lot about World War II, we talk very little about what was going on in this country during the Cold War, and there was a lot of activity. I’d like for that to be more openly discussed.
“We’re trying to tell more and more about the post war story at Fort Miles. And that ties very nicely into this project. We’re both doing the same things at different locations.”
With the boardwalk rehabilitation complete, Kinsella said the HOA plans to delineate funds to maintain the boardwalk.
While Reddington said the site may not be the grandest in the State, the preservation if its once critical role during World War II is worth remembering.
“It not some huge important site but it is our little piece of history, and the memory of a generation,” he said. “We know there are a number of people in this country love going around to different historic sites and taking pictures. We want it to be representative of this community. Well taken care of, clean, and worthy of being visited by other people.”