The hole truth: Five facts about North Bay’s Cold War-era bunker

For over 40 years, one of North America’s most important military facilities was 200 metres below the Canadian Shield

“The Hole” is the local nickname for the NORAD North Bay Underground Complex, a bunker built in the 1960s to withstand a Soviet nuclear attack. During the Cold War, Canada and the United States built a series of supercomputers — called SAGE — meant to allow the two countries to coordinate their military response in case of attack.

Of course, the computers were themselves a tempting target. To keep them safe, they were kept deep underground. Hence...The Hole.

Why North Bay?

North Bay had several things going for it. It already had an airbase. It was a hub for rail, telecommunication and highway networks. The granite of the Canadian shield made for perfect nuke-resistant armour and nearby Trout Lake could provide enough water to cool the complex.

Other than the computers, what was down there?

In addition to housing the SAGE computers, The Hole was meant to support 400 people for a month in the event of nuclear war. It had a cafeteria, medical facilities, a gym, a chaplain’s office, a barber shop and countless meeting rooms. It could withstand a four megaton blast (267 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). It wasn’t dependent on the civilian power grid for its energy. In case of a power outage, two banks of 194 batteries would run the base until a generator could take over. Roughly 700 civilian and military personnel worked in The Hole in shifts.

Wait, so how big was this thing?

The Underground Complex had two parts.

The Main Installation, where most of the work happened, was a three-story, figure eight-shaped building, built inside a cave that was 131 metres long, 70.1 metres wide and 16.5 metres high (or, as they would have measured it when it was built: 430 feet by 230 feet by 54 feet). The Power Cavern, which provided life support and utility services, was 122.23 metres (401 feet) by 15.24 metres (50 feet) by 8.23 metres (27 feet).

The complex was 207 metres (680 feet) underground and was accessible by two tunnels. The north tunnel was just over two kilometres long and came from the air force base. The south tunnel was 980 metres long and came from the city of North Bay.

Why did it close?

The facility actually still exists, but by the early 2000s, The Hole’s computers were out of date and the threat of nuclear war no longer seemed imminent. There was no longer a reason to maintain the expensive facility.

In 2006, NORAD’s Canadian facilities were moved above ground, to North Bay’s new Sgt. David L. Pitcher building.

So what’s there now?

Right now, The Hole is largely used for storage. In 2012, it was used for the filming of The Colony, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film starring Bill Paxton and Laurence Fishburne. Proposed uses have included turning it into a home for Canada’s audio visual archive and making it a museum.