In the 1960s Payson had a role in the Cold War. It was an active time in the Cold War between the United States and Russia, as both nations were building their nuclear arsenals. Simultaneously, the nations also rushed to create systems that could help monitor what the other was doing; hence the space race that took place during the same era. The United States decided that they wanted to try to monitor nuclear reactions occurring outside of the country and began looking for sites to place monitoring stations. As it turns out, the geology of this area proved to be a perfect spot, putting it as a front-runner for such a station from the start.
The Oct. 13, 1961 Payson Roundup had one of what would be many articles about the seismograph station. This article documented a meeting that was held in the area with Mr. Alan Rugg, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and as the field representative for United Electro-Dynamics of Pasadena, Calif. This was still fairly early in the process and some rumors had caused concern.
"The pointed question was asked: ‘Will there be atomic bombs dropped or exploded?' This being a question that had been rumored, and caused a great deal of fear. To this Mr. Rugg again said, ‘Recording equipment, not testing.'"
The 1961 article went on to state very clearly the purpose of the station.
"This project is a three phase project: (1) to determine any atomic blasts by enemy nations: (2) to determine atomic blasts by any nation: (3) and in the event of more peaceful co-existence, it is regarded by those involved as a very scientific project which should prove invaluable to the world."
Yet even at that point in 1961, the Payson site had not been decided for sure. Area officials lobbied as they could to get the project, which was sure to bring financial gain to the area. This included having congressional officials work on the area's behalf. Finally, early in 1962 the site was chosen, yet there were still obstacles to clear. The site covered more than 20,000 acres; acreage which was to be withdrawn from the Tonto National Forest. According to Payson Roundup articles at the time, a key hurdle was cleared Feb. 21, 1962 when the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs passed a resolution saying that they had no objections to the withdrawal of the acreage from the forest.
The construction of the facility brought numerous jobs into the area. The Sept. 21, 1962 Payson Roundup estimated that 100 people would be employed in construction on the project. Construction on the project continued through the fall and winter. Finally the big day for the station arrived on April 6, 1963 when it was dedicated. The April 5, 1963 Payson Roundup was filled with advertisements welcoming the Tonto Seismological Laboratory to the area. It also included a thank you from Mahout Construction Co. and J.T. Smith Co., J.V., the prime contractors of the construction. Amongst the local subcontractors listed in the advertisement were Walsh Brothers Construction Co., Curt Odum, Tonto Lumber and Hardware, and Aero Concrete.
Here are some more detailed facts about the station, as released at the time of its opening:
- It was the 5th seismic station built under the Department of Defense VELA-UNIFORM program. (The others were located at Lawton, Okla.; Baker, Ore.; Vernal, Utah; and McMinnville, Tenn.)
- It was located four miles from Payson, which was described in the release as "the lumbering and ranching community."
- It occupied 23,000 acres and had a recording building with 5,600 square feet of floor space, a utility building with 1,200 square feet of floor space, and two massive concrete-and-steel underground vaults at a size of 1,100 square feet each.
- 14 miles of unimproved roads were on the site
- Four hundred miles of signal cable were used to connect the recording building with underground measuring devices.
- The four VELA UNIFORM stations other than the Payson station were supposedly designed to form a seismological system across the United States, "a system for recording seismic data from both natural and man-made earth disturbances." They were constructed according to standards set forth by the "Geneva prototype" specifications, which were set forth by the Conference of Experts in Geneva, Switzerland in 1958.
- The Payson station was distinctly unique as it was said to be built as an experimental station, where new seismological devices could be tested.
- The release stated that the "Tonto Forest Seismological Observatory was built on the seismically ‘quietest' site of the 12 sites surveyed in the United States."
The day of dedication for the station featured some speeches made by bigwigs from the Department of Defense. Dr. Charles C. Bates, chief, VELA Uniform Branch made it clear that this was not an undertaking that came about without some help.
"The turnout here today reminds me of the thrill I once had as a boy on an Illinois farm at an old-fashioned barn raising. Just as it took the whole farming community to raise that barn, it has taken many organizations and individuals to create the Tonto Forest Seismological Observatory. Of particular importance has been the ready and unstinting assistance of the officials and citizens of Gila County. For this assistance, permit me to extend a hearty ‘thanks' on behalf of the Pentagon."
Over the next 12 years the Cold War progressed and numerous technological advancements occurred, including man reaching the moon numerous times. The March 6, 1975 brought news of the closing down of the observatory. It was the last of the five stations to be shut down, in part because it was termed "the best in operation." The shutdown was gradual, taking the remainder of 1975 to complete. A number of parties expressed interest in some or all of the facility, including Payson Schools, which tried to obtain at least one of the four metal buildings at the observatory site. Ultimately though, the observatory became a maintenance yard for Gila County, being obtained in April 1976.
Today, part of Chaparral Pines is located where the observatory once existed.