The Montauk Project
Every so often there is a conspiracy theory or alternative history invented by a lone person that, although it has zero plausibility or evidence, manages to stick. We've talked about many of these on Skeptoid, and today's example — the Montauk Project — is a prime one. The story goes that the military secretly conducted a program involving time travel, inter-dimensional portals, 10-meter-tall alien monsters, and anything else you can imagine, for decades, in a gigantic underground facility on Long Island, New York. The story exists only because of the writings of one man, Preston Nichols, the lone author who invented it. Today's discussion of The Montauk Project is less an exploration of whether the urban legend is true or not (it's obviously not), and more a look at how and why such stories manage to take root.
The Montauk Project is even blessed with a whole universe of what can only be called fan fiction. Nichols and his co-author both went on to write multiple sequels to the original book, all containing expansions to the Montauk Project universe that obviously would have been in the first book if it had been a literal true account. You know how Marvel has the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? All the fan fiction here has arguably created a Montauk Project Universe (MPU). Any number of Internet bloggers, authors, and YouTube filmmakers have cropped up and expanded the MPU with new tales of their own. The Netflix series Stranger Things was originally titled Montauk, and consisted of new fictional stories all based in the MPU. The Travel Channel series Strange World featured Christopher Garetano, who made the 2015 documentary movie Montauk Chronicles, traveling around interviewing people involved in MPU conspiracy theories (I was in one episode and tried to talk Christopher down, but without much success). Make no mistake: The MPU is a pop-culture thing.
Let's start by having a look at where this story was supposed to have taken place. For a long time, Camp Hero was a joint military facility occupying the eastern tip of Long Island. The Army, Navy, and the Coast Guard all had facilities there to defend against German submarines in World War II, and it even had presences during World War I and the American Revolution. With the advent of the Cold War, Montauk Air Force Station was established there as an emplacement for large Air Defense Command radar systems to watch for Soviet long-distance bombers. By 1981, the station had been made obsolete by orbital satellite reconnaissance technology and was decommissioned. Its most prominent feature, the huge radar antenna and its building, were simply abandoned instead of being taken down, due to their size. The entire installation was vacant and neglected until 2002 when it was opened to the public as Camp Hero State Park, which you can visit today. Hiking trails provide access to almost the entire area, and for a long time they've been talking about reopening the antenna building as a museum. Today it remains somewhat unusual among former military facilities cloaked in conspiracy theories, in that you're free to visit and examine everything in detail for yourself.
Nevertheless, in 1992 — the middle of the 20-year period in which the facility sat completely dormant — a book was published by a man named Preston Nichols (who died in 2018), with contributions by Peter Moon. Its title was The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time, and it is the very genesis of The Montauk Project conspiracy theory and the MPU. It was this book that tied together the entire story and made it into a pop-culture thing. Nichols tells how, while working as an engineer at an unnamed company on Long Island, he happened to meet people who triggered him to recover repressed memories of having had a whole alternate career working inside the underground base buried deep underneath Camp Hero, personally conducting the experiments. These people that he met were Al Bielek and Duncan Cameron, two guys who — ever since the Philadelphia Experiment became another such pop-culture urban legend — claimed to have been aboard the ship used in the Philadelphia Experiment when it disappeared and traveled through time and space.
Now, I don't want to take too big of a detour here, but Nichols' Montauk Project used the existing mythology of the Philadelphia Experiment for its backstory, so it's important to have a general understanding of it. Check out the complete Skeptoid episode on the Philadelphia Experiment, episode #16, for the basics. This fictional tale of a Navy experiment in 1943, in which the USS Eldridge was made to disappear, was invented by its own author, Carl Allen, in the 1960s; but it didn't receive wide publicity among the general public until 1984 when a pair of UFO and paranormal authors published the first mass-market book about it and the alleged secret government program that created it. So the date range of interest here is sometime between 1984 when the Philadelphia Experiment became a well-known urban legend, and 1992 when Nichols wrote his own book on the Montauk Project. During that period, Al Bielek and Duncan Cameron both "came forward" to disclose that they had been sailors aboard the USS Eldridge and had been transported all throughout time and the universe as a result. The Eldridge was a real US warship, but of course it had nothing to do with the Philadelphia Experiment, owing to its fictional nature. Skeptical researchers had no trouble in thoroughly disproving that neither man had had anything to do with the actual USS Eldridge, but no matter, promoting that fictional claim is how they both chose to make a name for themselves, and that's fine. Somehow Preston Nichols met them, learned their story, and concocted his own to weave on top of theirs.
When I use the word concocted I don't want you to think I'm discounting the possibility that his repressed memories were real and his account of the Montauk Project might deserve to be treated as a real event. No; instead, I'll let his co-author Peter Moon lay it out clearly for you in their book's "Guide to the Reader":
It's not the usual disclaimer attached to actual autobiographies, is it?
It isn't really possible to take seriously the sensationalized statement that the book "contains no falsehoods to the best knowledge of the authors." For one thing, they used the name Project Rainbow for the whole Montauk project, a tradition started by the original promoters of the Philadelphia Experiment mythology. They all claimed that Project Rainbow was a program for making things invisible to radar, but had the unintended side effect of "removing them from the space-time continuum". This is half true. Project Rainbow was real, and had, in fact, already been declassified by the Air Force and its results published in 1957. It was a series of attempts to reduce the U-2 spy plane's radar signature, using relatively primitive techniques like stretching beaded cables across its airframe to try and create interference in the radar waves. They also tried a radar-absorbent coating which proved too heavy and heat insulating to be usable. The publication makes no mention of removing the plane from the space-time continuum.
Somehow, in Preston Nichols' MPU, this technology expanded into daily use of wormholes through which they sent derelicts, winos, young Aryan boys, and at least two to three hundred other people to various times and places. They even went to a mysterious pyramid on the planet Mars, as much as 125,000 years in the past when there were friendly Martians to chat with. They did all of this — allegedly — without any intentional falsehoods — from their vast underground facility buried twelve levels deep on Long Island.
We can say with certainty that there are no vast underground bases on Long Island, either underneath the former Montauk Air Force Station or anywhere else on the island, and never have been. This is dictated by simple geology. Long Island is a glacial moraine. The south fork of the island — the eastern tip of which was Montauk AFS — is the Ronkonkoma terminal moraine, formed during the Wisconsinan glaciation from approximately 85,000 to 11,000 years ago. It consists of loose gravel called glacial till. Till is hopelessly unstable, which is why there are no skyscrapers on Long Island like there are on Manhattan, which has shallow bedrock. The only way it would have been possible to build large underground structures on Long Island would have been to excavate down from the surface, dig away all the till like you're making a pit mine, until you've exposed the place you want your underground base. Build it completely, and then bury it. This would have taken years; would hardly have been a secret; and would have left massive scarring on the surface. We know this wasn't done because most of the site today is old growth forest. And if you had tried to excavate on Long Island below a couple dozen meters, you'd have created a giant swimming pool; as there's no bedrock until you get well, well below sea level. Till is porous as a sponge and the water table is at sea level under the entirety of Long Island.
But really, we need little more than the fact that Preston Nichols — supposedly a key scientist there, who personally cut power to the transmitters with an acetylene torch and sent the 10-meter monster back to its own dimension while it was tearing the place apart — Preston Nichols, who while working at this most classified of all top secret projects in the history of top secret projects, was allowed to freely write his books giving all the names and details, was allowed to saturate YouTube with his disclosures of all the intimate details of the projects, and before he died was allowed by the government to freely take UFO authors into his shed and show them all the equipment he liberated from the secret base. If that's not a realistic depiction of government scientists on actual classified projects, I don't know what is.
Or, perhaps that anyone and everyone can freely explore Camp Hero State Park. With the exception of a couple condemned building sites, this alleged site of inter-dimensional rifts and time portals is open for anyone and everyone to roam and explore to their heart's content. Do you know of any other classified facilities like that?
We need not wrongly believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a true story in order to appreciate its value as literature and as a commentary on human nature, nor need it be true to have had the impact it has on our culture. We would be similarly misguided to think the Montauk Project was a true story. In fact, to dismiss and devalue it as simply a list of historical events would be to completely miss its worth. The Montauk Project Universe has so far proven to be a fertile backdrop for a lot of entertainment in the worlds of print, television, and online. Moreover, it's one that's open source and accessible to all creators. Marvel won't let you create your own Iron Man series, but everyone is more than welcome to create stories in the MPU. Appreciate it, cultivate it; but don't play down the Montauk Project by mistaking it for the truth.
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