Ask Pittsboro Mayor Chuck Devinney what he did when he worked for AT&T, and he offers evasions straight out of an X-Files script. “I wiped it all out of my head,” he says. “When I went out the door, I never looked back.”
Coming from a public utility employee turned small-town public official, that might sound pretty melodramatic. Unless, that is, the door walked out of was the secured gateway to Chatham County’s underground enigma, the Big Hole. That’s where Devinney and dozens of other AT&T employees holed up for much of the Cold War, soldiers in a hidden battle to safeguard a U.S. command and control system in the event of nuclear war.
The system, called the Automatic Voice Network (AUTOVON), was put in service in 1964 by the Defense Communications Agency; the Chatham facility came on-line in 1966. About 60 AUTOVON relay and switching centers were built across the country. Of those, 20 sites, including Big Hole, were underground, hardened facilities, engineered to withstand anything but a direct hit by an enemy missile. AT&T won the classified contract to operate domestic AUTOVON centers, while the U.S. military manned those established in other countries.
AT&T will not say if another part of the Defense Department or any other government agency is secretly using Big Hole today, but the company still owns the property, the grounds are maintained and the security barriers remain. Whatever its current role in the nation’s communications infrastructure, the sight continues to baffle, intrigue and sometimes intimidate people who live nearby.
The most that those living near the facility, located about a mile south of Fearrington Village, can tell you is that it is out of site and inaccessible–blocked from prying eyes by thick woods, barbed-wire fences, a concrete barricade and a guard station. The closest private residence is a quarter mile down Big Hole Road. A man living there shakes his head, grins and backs away when asked about the facility. “I don’t know nothing about it,” he says, declining to give his name. In the 24 years he’s lived next to Big Hole, he says, he’s turned a blind eye on his secretive neighbor: “It’s none of my business and I don’t ask about it.”
Devinney is willing to confirm that he, like most locals, calls the place Big Hole. Others call it the Spy Hotel. By whatever name, the site became one of the county’s most enduring sources of fantastic rumors.
That much became clear when, within weeks of the 1997 launch of the Chatham County online chat list, posts about the Big Hole were curious and speculative, though peppered with kernels of fact:
“It is known locally as ‘Big Hole Road’ because it has a secret underground facility at the end of it which is thirteen stories deep. It is a defense communications facility operated under contract by AT&T, I believe. It has been there for over 20 years. But don’t tell anyone about it; it is a secret,” wrote one poster.
“Are there any aliens in that Big Hole off Mt. Gilead Rd.?” queried another.
We Don’t Speak of ItLocal legend is sometimes bolstered by local observations. Randy Pelosi, a former Chatham resident who now lives in Wake Forest, says that he couldn’t help but focus on “the crazy cloud thing” that appeared over Big Hole one summer afternoon in 1991. From about a mile away, Pelosi and a friend sat on a porch and peered toward the site. “The sky all around that place was clear, but right over where that hole is, there was a giant dark cloud,” Pelosi recalls. “We watched it for hours. Regularly, every couple of minutes, lightning flashes would go do down into that place.
“That was definitely evidence of something odd,” Pelosi concludes, but he’s not sure what. He mentions a friend’s theory that Big Hole’s main function is to relay messages to and from extraterrestrials, but he is not persuaded.
Mike Robb, a 27-year-old Chapel Hill resident who grew up two miles from Big Hole, says that the facility was an ever-present fascination during his teenage years. “I never had any idea of the conspiracy theories when I was a kid, but you knew it was something unusual,” he says. “The weirdest thing to me about that road was that it never had a road sign, and it always had new pavement. Mt. Gilead Church Road would go years without being paved, but on that road there was always brand new pavement.” One night when he was 18, Robb says, his curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to drive up to the facility entrance. He stopped short and turned around when a spotlight honed in on his car.
Albert LaFrance, a Cold War communications historian in Alexandria, Va., who explores the local impact of national security installations like Big Hole, says that these facilities often give rise to unwarranted but understandable suspicions. “When something like that is secret, there’s a natural tendency to expect a dramatic, James Bond type of activity, while in fact there are lots of things which have to be kept secret that aren’t particularly exciting,” he says. “Most of the stories I’ve heard, though inaccurate, are pretty reasonable given that the neighbors generally have no contact with the facilities’ staff and aren’t given any official information.”
AT&T appears uninterested in clearing up the conjecture. “This is what we call a ‘central facility’ and we do not discuss it,” says Wayne Jackson, director of communications for the company’s government markets division in Vienna, Va. Asked if anyone at the Chatham facility was available for tours or interviews, Jackson refused to provide a local contact. “You’re talking to the right person,” he said. “You have no comment out of me, and I speak for AT&T in this situation.”
“We don’t speak of it,” adds Devinney, who retired from AT&T in 1996 and at one time managed the facility. “They swear you to this, they put you under penalty. And I’m not gonna be penalized.”
A Stop on the AUTOVONParts of the Big Hole story have been surfacing for years. Local newspapers periodically pick at the legend like a scab. Facility workers and AT&T spokespeople, while generally tight-lipped, occasionally offer pieces of the puzzle. A recent Independent review of Defense Department documents fills in more of the hole in Chatham County history.
AT&T bought the 191-acre property in 1962, the year the Cuban missile crisis reminded Americans they were potential nuclear targets. Beyond the frenzied civil defense preparations and disaster planning that were common in those days–the air raid drills, the backyard bomb shelters–national security officials established a top-secret, nationwide network of facilities to maintain what, in post-apocalyptic planning parlance, was called “continuance of government.” Major American cities and much of the populace wouldn’t survive a full-scale Soviet strike, but some vital functions of the U.S. government conceivably could. Officials, particularly the military brass, would still need to talk to each other, and toward that end the Defense Department built its own “survivable communications” system.
A backwoods spot in Chatham County was a logical location for an AUTOVON center, according to military specifications. A 1983 Army Signal Corps manual listed the criteria: good access roads, enough space for an independent power supply and reliable air conditioning, and a location “outside densely populated area[s], but located near military installations in order to minimize the length of the access times.” Eighty miles from Ft. Bragg Army Base and Pope Air Force Base, and relatively barren at the time, the Chatham locale was ideal.
The company paid $27,000 for the property and began a four-year, $7 million excavation and construction project. Durham’s Muirhead Construction Company carved out enough earth to install a multi-floor, 100,000 square-foot bunker. Inside the facility, AT&T and the Defense Communications Agency installed state-of-the-art telephone routing gear.
Peeking through the 10-foot chain link and barbed-wire fences that circle the facility, the occasional trespasser sees a 60-car parking lot, manicured grassy knolls, a tiny guard shack, a battery of flood-light and surveillance camera posts and, in the middle of it all, the tips of Big Hole’s iceberg: a grouping of bleached concrete and silver structures jutting out at odd angles. The largest is roughly two stories high, a boxy building covered with transmitters, antennas, satellite dishes and other communications gear.
Whatever lies beneath, AT&T is pretty proud of it. “Close cooperation between AT&T and government agencies during the planning of these blast-resistant transmission facilities has produced a highly reliable communications system,” says an internal company description of the AUTOVON centers written in 1984. “AT&T’s hardened communications network should provide the United States with communications through any natural disaster and even during a nuclear attack.”
Details about the facility from John Allison and Al Dodson, who served as managers at Big Hole in the 1970s and ’80s, showed up in press accounts in 1972, 1980 and 1984. According to the former AT&T men, Big Hole is a bona fide fallout shelter, fully equipped for outlasting a nuclear attack. To begin with, the entire underground portion of the facility, which descends “several floors,” is suspended from a superstructure ceiling to cushion bomb blasts. The bottom floor sits on a shock-absorbing cradle of gravel and coils. The walls, a foot-and-a-half thick, are sheathed in copper to deflect electromagnetic pulse.
Power generators are backed up with fuel stores, and there are bunks, medical supplies and food sufficient for a staff of about 30 to stay underground for at least three weeks. A decontamination chamber and internal filtering system would keep the air breathable.
Its nuclear war communications capabilities were never tested, but AUTOVON eventually evolved into a global system that carried all kinds of military messages, from the high-priority to the mundane. It became, among other things, a free long-distance telephone service for military personnel. Using a specially configured phone and access codes, members of the armed forces could place free calls to other AUTOVON-equipped personnel.
The system saw heavy use. An AUTOVON directory published by the Defense Communications Agency in 1987 reported that there were 180,000 access phones on the network, and that, on average, the system was handling 1.1 million calls a day.
About that time, technological innovations transformed Big Hole. With the onset of satellite and computer communications, the Defense Department began phasing out the analog AUTOVON system and replacing it with more sophisticated digital systems that were consolidated into what became the Defense Switched Network. The Defense Information Systems Agency, which oversees the network, told The Independent that AT&T “deactivated” the Chatham site in 1996 “in a downsizing redesign to prepare for the Defense Information Systems Agency’s transition to the Defense Information Systems Network-CONUS (DISN-C) in 1997.”
While Pittsboro Mayor Devinney retired from the company in 1996, he sticks to the Big Hole code of silence. Still, he sounds off about his frustrations with the mystique surrounding the site. “I still don’t understand why anybody even cares about it,” he says. “There’s just nothing there. There’s always rumors about this stuff, but it’s nothing. That’s just nosy people being curious about nothing.”