Film: The Tiny West Virginia Town Haunted by an NSA Secret

Sugar Grove lost the naval base that was its livelihood — but remains a looming NSA listening post

Sugar Grove, West Virginia was, by the accounts of its residents, a fine place to live until the Pentagon shuttered the sprawling naval base that sustained the town for decades — leaving it with a state secret as its sole remaining attraction. A new documentary film by director Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a longtime chronicler of West Virginian life, visits Sugar Grove after the base was decommissioned and being auctioned off, and traces the abiding shadow of a nearby National Security Agency facility still looming over the town.

The film is embedded above.

Antennas at the NSA listening post, codenamed TIMBERLINE, were built to capture Soviet satellite messages as they bounced off the moon, imbuing a pristine stretch of Appalachia with a sort of cosmic gravity. Residents lived with the knowledge that something was hidden away on a hilltop above the town, even if it was something they could never know. TIMBERLINE’s mission has, to say the least, changed in the intervening years, as submarine-laid internet cables have become a greater priority for American spies than foreign satellite communication.

TIMBERLINE remains operational, but the facility, known to locals as the off-limits “Upper Base,” was never what kept Sugar Grove alive. The town’s heart was the sprawling “Lower” naval base that served as a robust employer and de facto community center until the Sept. 11 attacks, when residents say even the Navy gym and recreational areas they’d always enjoyed were sealed up, like forbidding TIMBERLINE. Sheldon’s film reveals a parcel of the country that’s dealing not just with a faltering economy and collapsed job base — hardly unique to Sugar Grove — but also with a legacy that’s literally unspeakable. One of the only moments the film captures of anyone talking about the NSA’s presence in Sugar Grove comes from a General Services Administration auctioneer Kristine Carson in a vacant naval gymnasium. Asked about the Upper Base, Carson notes, with a small smile, “It’s underground, I understand. … Of course I can’t speak to that.”

Top video: The film is directed and produced by Elaine McMillion Sheldon/Field of Vision.

Join The Conversation