The US is a country teeming with secrets buried underground, hidden behind razor wire, and locked in vaults. SPYSCAPE sussed out some of the most highly restricted areas in America to reveal what’s happening behind closed doors.
Camp Peary, a 9,000-acre US military base near Williamsburg, Virginia, is widely believed to be the home of the CIA covert training facility known as ‘the Farm’ which trains CIA officers and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service. What happens at the Farm? Amaryllis Fox, author of Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA describes it as a simulated Truman Show set in a fictionalized country called the Republic of Vertania. Her grueling training included what Fox called ‘the Bond business’ - how to flip a car; use a Glock semi-automatic pistol; parachute; operate a speedboat; use a grocery bag and duct tape to bandage a wound, and; withstand torture.
North Brother Island, New York
North Brother Island lies between New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison and the Bronx, a 22-acre plot in the East River that is illegal to visit without permission - if you can get it, which is unlikely. The island once housed a tuberculosis hospital, Typhoid Mary died here, and North Brother Island was the site of unimaginable horror in 1904. The General Slocum ship went up in flames as it sailed nearby, killing more than 1,000 - mainly women and children. Asbestos-ridden buildings pose a health hazard. The island is mainly a bird sanctuary now so visitor permits aren’t issued from late March to September. RadioLab visited for a typhoid story in 2011, describing it as: “What will happen to the whole of our civilization when humanity is dead.”
Mount Weather, Virginia
Some call it America’s brain stem, others describe it as an ‘unacknowledged continuity of government facility’ - in other words, the US president’s bunker in case of a disaster. An hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. the Mount Weather High Point Special Facility is a top-security underground facility with its own replica mini-government, police, fire department, and even laws. Top Congressional leaders were reportedly taken here after 9/11. It is rumored to hold files on Americans and a studio for post-nuclear presidential broadcasts. Enter at your peril. It is managed by disaster relief agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers Office of Emergency Preparedness. Surrounded by tall, razor-wire fencing its signs warn: "US Property. No Trespassing." They mean it.
Bohemian Grove, California
Traditionally, the US’s most powerful men - including ex-president Bush Sr. and G.W. - have descended on the restricted campground of Bohemian Grove in California in the summers. The property belongs to San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, a private members’ club for gentlemen. During the first weekend camp, robed figures sacrifice an effigy to banish worries from the gathered men. So what else do America’s masters of the universe get up to among the 2,700 acres of Douglas firs? Fly fishing, fine dining, chats about the role of nuclear energy in America, and apparently a bit of sly logging of old-growth forest. The Grove is famous for a Manhattan Project planning meeting held here in September 1942, which led to the atomic bomb.
Northwest of Las Vegas, Area 51 is so secretive the CIA didn’t admit it existed until 2013. It is part of a 368,000-acre military complex that includes the Nevada Test Site, established for nuclear weapons tests. Even the airspace above is restricted, triggering conspiracy theories about what the US is really hiding behind the warning signs, armed guards, and electronic surveillance. Aliens? Spaceships? Evidence that we do not walk alone in the universe? Stay tuned. Many of Area 51’s secrets have not been revealed.
The world’s largest collection of genealogical records is stored in a secure vault within the mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built its records’ vault in 1965 to preserve Church records, including family histories collected on microfilms. More than 3.5bn images from more than 100 countries are saved on microfilm, microfiche, and digital media but visitors are not allowed in for security reasons. Unless you are on the staff, you’ll have to settle for the Granite Mountain virtual tour.
The Coca-Cola vault
Corporate espionage is just as dangerous as, well... the real thing in some circles. That’s why Coca-Cola’s secret formula is held under tight security at the Coca-Cola Museum. The formula wasn’t even written down until 1919 when Ernest Woodruff and a group of investors used the trade secret as collateral for a loan to buy the company. Museum visitors can view the outside of Coca-Cola’s high tech vault, but that is as close as you’ll get. No one is allowed inside to read the secret formula or view anything else stored in the vault - that is, unless you buy the company, which in 2021 was valued at a refreshing $230bn.
P. O. Box 1142
Fort Hunt along the Potomac River, south of Washington, D.C. operated a top-secret camp in WWII known only by its codename, P.O. Box 1142. In the MIS-X unit, US pilots focused on learning escape and evasion tactics while the MIS-Y team interviewed German POWs in a separate area. The Fort was originally a farm, so the various buildings were codenamed appropriately. Silvio Bedini, the US Army’s first cryptographer, set up his office in ‘The Creamery’, and spymaster Captain Robley E. Winfrey occupied an unheated office in ‘The Warehouse’. Most of the buildings were dismantled after the war. While the gunneries and one house remain, the interiors are off-limits to the public.
Forbidden Island, Hawaii
Hawaii’s secretive island Niihau, nicknamed ‘Forbidden Island’, has been privately owned since 1864 when Elizabeth Sinclair bought it from King Kamehameha V for $10,000. Its 130 inhabitants follow an ancient way of life, living without electricity, the internet, cars, roads, or shops. "My great-grandmother purchased the island from the monarchy and it's been virtually unchanged since that date," Bruce Robinson, who owns the island with his brother, Keith, told ABC. Visitors can view the northern part of the island by guided tours but there’s no special treatment for celebs. When Mick Jagger asked for permission to land a couple of helicopters on Niihau, Jagger got the same answer as everyone else who asks: no.
The Point, Hertford, North Carolina
The Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity, established weeks after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, is administered by the US Navy and the CIA. It is used for paramilitary and counterterrorism courses for thousands of US officers and foreigners, including the Palestinian security forces. The spy school is shrouded in secrecy and security fences, but the black helicopters buzzing in and out - and the very loud explosions within the base - indicate more going on at The Point than just admin. The US Navy Seal Team Six reportedly trained for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden at The Point, using a scale mockup of his secret compound.