Just over 10 years ago, in the same parking lot where a car caught fire last month, a crew making room for North Campus Residence Hall destroyed a one-story building named ‘Nike Hall.' Before the school bought the area, the buildings and land belonged to the United States government.
In the midst of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear warfare, the U.S. built a Nike missile base in Bristol. Military personnel were stationed in the launcher area located on campus and the Administration and Integrated Fire Control (IFC) base a few miles north.
Glenn Meigel, Battery Commander of the Bristol Nike site, was stationed in the town from 1972 to 1973. He and about 120 others were stationed at the bases and underwent constant training. During this time in the nation, there was worry that something bad between world leaders could happen at any moment and those stationed at the missile base would be called upon to act.
Blueprints produced in the 1950s for the base show three compartments where these Nike missiles could be stored. But if Meigel was ever asked what kind of missiles they were, he could only say they were “nuclear capable." Revealing any further information could have landed him in jail.
Meigel remembered that if he left the base to go on a date with the woman who is now his wife, he needed to inform the base. And when he arrived at his destination, he had to tell the manager that if the Nike base called and needed him back, they should come find him.
He also said that the base had regulations that had to be met at all times. A 7-foot, barbed wire fence outlined the area, but it was required to keep any vegetation around it under a foot in length. The men there would hack at it with their swing blades routinely in order to pass inspection. This regulation was so serious that Meigel said the person evaluating it would measure the weeds to be sure they were under 12 inches.
Aside from the fence that was cemented into the ground, the base also had guard dogs. Meigel said there were six dogs kept in the kennels on site. These dogs, he said, were not patrol dogs. They were trained to chase down and kill any unauthorized person at the command of their handlers.
“Sentry dogs are not your normal dog. The normal type of dog you see in the newspaper is a patrol dog,” Meigel said. “A sentry dog was trained to, on command, attack and kill. Because of the missiles we had on site, we were authorized to use deadly force.”
Meigel said the dogs never killed a person, but when two sheep were brought to the base as a way to tame the foliage, one fell victim to the four-legged guards.
Before the U.S. owned the land, it belonged to a dairy farm known as Ferrycliffe Farm. Meigel said the farm was bought as an eminent domain, meaning the government declared that they needed the land because of how flat it was and compensated the farm owner for it.
As far as the relationship between military personnel and the townspeople in Bristol, Meigel said the two parties got along great. They had a man named “Frenchie the Barber” come into the base one morning a week to cut hair. According to Meigel, Frenchie always had a long line of people waiting for him.
The common spot for those on the base to hang out was The Casual Inn — a venue that still has its doors open today and is owned by the same family. The restaurant and bar is directly across from the Fourth of July mural on Franklin Street. Meigel also said that the unit was honored in the annual parade and marched first.
Meigel said that the relationship between the base and the school was unexpected. As anti-war demonstrations began with the younger generation, there was the thought that Roger Williams College students would take advantage of being so close to a military site. But Meigel said there were no issues with students rallying outside the fences.
Very little remains of the base that was located where campus is today. But even less exists where the IFC base was. In fact, there is next to nothing that points to its existence.
“The agreement was that they would lease the land to the army for $1 a year, but if the army ever left, the whole area had to be returned to nature exactly as it was,” Meigel said.
While just about any sign of there being a military base is gone, Meigel believes that the Performing Arts Annex and the small building behind it could potentially be originals from the military site, with slight alterations.
Since the army left the Bristol base, RWU has added much more to it. The area back in the ‘70s was a lot simpler, which is something Meigel enjoyed.
“Back then I think it was more open — not as hectic a place. It was less of everything,” Meigel said. “That’s just a sign of the times and it’s not going to get any better. You talk to a guy 50 years from now, he’s going to say ‘Back in 2020, that was a wonderful place.' It’s just a function of something progressing.”