The Atchison Storage Facility

by Thomas J. Slattery

Recordkeeping operations soon may be moved from this unique storage site. The author looks at the role the facility has played in Army logistics and in national defense for more than 50 years.
Recordkeeping operations soon may be moved from this unique storage site. The author looks at the role the facility has played in Army logistics and in national defense for more than 50 years.

Two Army Industrial Operations Command (IOC) employees work 50 to 150 feet underground, maintaining millions of technical documents in a secure, specially equipped, controlled-climate facility. Their unique workplace is the Atchison Storage Facility, home of the Army Materiel Command (AMC) Master Duplicate Emergency Files Depository (MDEFD) and the AMC Technical Data Repository (TDR) for more than 25 years.

IOC once stored some machine tools for defense production there, including specialized munitions. Now this unique underground storage facility may fall victim to downsizing, as the two IOC employees and their recordkeeping operations tentatively are scheduled to move to the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant on 1 August. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which currently manages the entire underground facility, is considering ending use of the site and reporting it as excess property.

The facility's history began with George W. Kerford and his descendants, whose limestone quarrying operations at the site created huge, cavern-like rooms beneath the ground. Starting in 1886, the Kerford family built one of the most successful African-American businesses in the nation. The transformation of a portion of this mine into the Atchison Storage Facility is a fascinating story.

World's Largest One-Level Storage Facility

The Atchison Storage Facility is located approximately 2 miles southeast of downtown Atchison, Kansas. It is situated in the heart of the Nation on the Missouri River, 72 miles northwest of the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP), which is near Independence, Missouri.

The site is known also as "Atchison Cave," which is a misnomer, because it is not really a cave, but a vast complex of underground mines. Limestone was mined from within a bluff, creating huge cave-like rooms. The total underground surface area of the complex is approximately 127 acres. It has been described as the world's largest single storage unit on one level, with floor space equivalent to a multimillion-dollar storage building. One hundred seventy-eight pillars of unmined limestone, each 20 to 30 feet in diameter, support the massive rock ceiling.

Food Storage Site

During World War II, an Atchison businessman suggested to the Under Secretary of Agriculture that the Kerford mines would make a natural place to store reserve farm products. In July 1944, the Kerford family ceased mining operations and leased their underground quarry to the Federal Government for $20,000 a year. (Much later, around 1955, the Kerfords sold the site to the Government for $1,325,000.)

At a cost of almost $2 million, the Federal Government transformed a portion of the underground mines into a cooler for the preservation of food. The temperature in the mines was lowered to 32 degrees so that the War Food Administration could store perishable food, such as sides of beef, eggs, vegetables, fruits, butter, lard, and salt pork there. Twelve railcar loads of dried eggs were delivered there in September 1944. By 1949, the underground storage area contained 8,872 tons of eggs, 20,493 tons of prunes, 1,061 tons of raisins, and 48 tons of skimmed milk. At that time, the Federal Government estimated it had saved $700 million by maintaining food and other materials in this underground storage facility.

A Change in Mission

Production machine tools had been scarce during the early days of World War II. Based on that lesson, the Army Ordnance Department leased the underground facility in December 1951 as a place to store specialized defense industrial production machine tools to be held in reserve for use during mobilization. The facility was to be a part of the Ordnance Corps Production Equipment Readiness Program, under which critical machine tools, including those necessary for production of special weapons, were to be maintained in operating order so they could be shipped to manufacturers as soon as their emergency requirements were received.

On 28 March 1952, the site became known as the U.S. Storage Facility-Atchison Cave and was assigned to Lake City Arsenal (now Lake City Army Ammunition Plant). The Army converted two of the largest mines into a storage facility—the east mine, which covers 16 acres, and the west mine, which covers 46 acres. The transformation involved installing electric lights, paving concrete floors, and constructing a receiving dock at the facility entrance, docks for barges along the Missouri River, and a railroad dock that could accommodate 20 railcars.

An ammonia-to-brine dehumidification system was installed to reduce moisture and maintain a humidity level of 42 percent in the underground rooms. This system is still in use. Heat from the dehumidification process helps to maintain the underground temperature at between 65 and 72 degrees. Large circulating fans provide a continuous flow of air through the entire storage area. Fresh air is received underground from ducts connected to airshafts to the outside. In the winter, the ducts are closed and the interior air is recycled throughout the mine. The limestone pillars absorb heat in the summer and provide some warmth in the winter.

The rock ceiling was coated with gunite to seal off all fissures and rooms were paved with approximately 6 inches of concrete to allow equipment to be moved easily. Cinderblock walls were installed to separate the area into large rooms. Three sump pumps were set up to collect and remove any water that seeped into the underground facility. A generator was installed to provide power in case of emergency.

Page Airways, Inc., of Rochester, New York, was awarded a contract to manage the underground operation. Over 5,000 items of production equipment critical to the Ordnance Corps Production Equipment Readiness Program were moved into the Atchison facility during the 1960's. As of 31 July 1962, the total number of machine tools in storage at the underground facility was 5,220, which included 23 for the Army Signal Corps, 1 for the Air Force, 26 for the General Services Administration, and 17 slated for disposal.

Page Airways maintained a cycling chamber to study the condition of items held in storage. The contractor also operated a machine-tool rebuild shop near the entrance to the east mine. The shop rebuilt various types of machine tools to required tolerances and compiled data on costs, labor, replacement parts, and tolerance requirements. For example, the shop rebuilt 27 machine tools during the first 6 months of 1960. The shop completely disassembled, inspected, and replaced worn machine parts. Machinists operated each rebuilt machine for 8 hours, checked its tolerances, and made adjustments to ensure its readiness. The cost for labor and materials to rebuild these machine tools was $65,949. The replacement cost of the 27 machine tools would have been $703,577.

The contractor performed periodic inspections on the equipment in storage, and all outgoing machines were inspected again and a test run conducted before they were shipped. Excess and obsolete items sometimes were purged from the equipment in storage through donation to state agencies, acceptance of bids from the private sector, and demilitarization of items not claimed by other organizations.

Loading dock and entrance to the Atchison Storage Facility. Loading dock and entrance to the Atchison Storage Facility.

Nylon material from excess parachutes proved to be valuable as economical, fire-resistant dust shields for stored equipment. The Army Ordnance Storage Facility, as it was called then, was the Army's redistribution center for these dust covers. On 1 January 1960, the facility stored 8,544 parachutes of various sizes. During the first 6 months of 1960, 789 parachutes were issued as dust covers for idle production equipment.

Safety First

The contractor continuously performed preventive maintenance on the facility's ceiling and walls. To assure stability of the underground facility, Page Airways installed over 3,000 5- and 7-foot bolts in the ceiling during the first 6 months of 1961 to help prevent cave-ins. Another 8,700 ceiling bolts were installed in 1962.

For the safety of the employees, the ceiling and structure of the facility were monitored continuously for any falling rocks and shifts in rock formations. Micro-seismic equipment was set up to detect movement of the limestone strata that formed the roof of the mines. Over the years, early detection and analysis of movements in the rock strata led to further preventive measures to ensure adequate ceiling support. Although some cave-ins have occurred in the undeveloped portions of the mines, the developed sections have not had any major problems.

Nylon material from excess parachutes was used as fire-resistant dust shields for stored equipment.  

Nylon material from excess parachutes was used as fire-resistant dust shields for stored equipment.

At various times, the Atchison community has used the underground storage facility for meetings to escape the heat of a hot summer's day. On 23 July 1963, for example, the town used the facility to present a program supporting the memorial for Amelia Earhart, a native of Atchison. "Atchison Cave" was the only facility in town large enough and cool enough to accommodate such a large crowd.

Atchison Storage Facility Today

On 19 September 1963, the Army agreed to transfer responsibility for operating the Army Ordnance Storage Facility to the Defense Supply Agency (DSA), which assigned the facility to the jurisdiction of the Defense Industrial Plant Equipment Center. DSA became the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in 1977. The facility's name subsequently was changed to the Atchison Storage Facility.

Today, Riojas Enterprises is the Atchison Storage Facility's operating contractor for DLA. Less than a dozen contractor employees are involved with storing and repairing industrial plant equipment still kept at this huge site. IOC and other organizations that store industrial plant equipment at the underground facility are in the process of disposing of the obsolete production equipment, so the quantity of equipment in storage contin- ues to shrink. Currently, there are only about 300 excess machine tools remaining in the main storage area. Medical supplies other than medicine, military clothing, boots, blankets, and cots are stored in the larger portion of the facility.

In this model of the underground storage area, blocks represent the locations of storage vaults.  

In this model of the underground storage area, blocks represent the locations of storage vaults.

Emergency Files Mission

The AMC MDEFD in vault 1 has 2,650 square feet of floor space. This depository's mission is to store records required for emergency purposes or to replace those destroyed as a result of natural or man-made disasters. Stored there are paper copies of documents, magnetic tapes, microfiche, and microfilm from AMC headquarters and IOC arsenals, depots, ammunition plants, and activities. Vault 1 also contains technical publications, files, regulations, circulars, pamphlets, manuals, military standards, and supply catalogs of value to AMC's major subordinate commands. The stored information has proven useful in the past to Government lawyers engaged in litigation over such matters as foreign military sales and clean-up of contamination at AMC sites. Today, to improve its efficiency, the depository's goal is to become paperless. Therefore, users are instructed that information to be stored there should be sent on floppy disks, CD-ROM's, or magnetic tape.

The AMC TDR, located in vault 2, consists of 7,600 square feet of floor space. The repository has in storage approximately 21 million aperture cards containing vital engineering records, drawings, and technical data package information on AMC and AMC subordinate organization products ranging from tanks to small arms to ammunition. The information covers research and development, engineering, test and evaluation, and product operations related to AMC responsibility for the production, use, and maintenance of munitions and equipment. These data are kept on 3.7-inch aperture cards, each of which contains three 35-millimeter images on microfilm. The cards are maintained in cabinets by the two-person IOC staff and are filed by the drawing identification number.

Headquarters AMC and most subordinate organizations have phased out their use of aperture cards, so the depository no longer receives the volume that it once did. AMC plans to place two-thirds of the drawings and other technical data now on the aperture cards on optical disk CD-ROM's. At least 7 million aperture cards containing technical data on obsolete equipment will be deleted from the new system. The MDEFD will become the sole source for that information, and for that reason the depository continues to maintain an old electric accounting machine adapted by IBM to process the information on the cards. John Barrington, the supervisor of the MDEFD, stresses that their efforts emphasize collecting current copies of technical or operational information needed to reconstitute an operation from scratch rather than on collecting historical data. Mary Underwood, records control clerk, has assisted Barrington in these efforts since 1973. Both are members of the IOC Mobilization Operations Team at Rock Island.

Because of disarmament treaties, downsizing, and sophisticated technological advances, the Atchison Storage Facility's mission has changed significantly over the years, and now operations there may be shut down completely. However, history will forever note the facility's unique role in Army logistics and its contribution to national defense for over half a century. ALOG

Thomas J. Slattery is a historian for the Army Industrial Operations Command, Rock Island, Illinois. He has a B.A. degree from St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa.