Plenty of landowners have fought the government over plans to seize their property. But the Sheahan family of Nevada have not spent decades defending some mundane corner of farmland from being covered by a proposed interstate. The Sheahans’ ancestral mining land is getting seized over its very unique next-door neighbor: America’s top secret flight test facility, known to most as Area 51.
It’s remarkable the Sheahans wanted to save this place at all. It is a place where the family claims they were strafed by machine gun fire. Where cancer and burns came as a likely result of nuclear detonations mere miles away. Where they have faced invasive, terrifying security measures from men in uniform.
Now, after years of trying to maintain a grasp on their beloved property, the Sheahans are getting the boot once and for all by the United States Air Force. The military is acting to condemn the family’s property, and they are seeking in court what they hope will be adequate compensation for their land and for their struggles.
But how do you appraise a property that exists under such strange circumstances? How do you get the fair value of a place whose biggest resource is its bizarre view? And how does one family prevail over a titan as big as the United States military?
Welcome To Groom Mine
Dreamland, The Box, Watertown Strip, Groom Lake, Paradise Ranch or most famously, Area 51. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a place bordered by a nuclear testing and bombing range, very much in the middle of nowhere, and deeply shrouded in mystery. Not even military pilots flying exercises in the area are allowed to cross over, or even to venture near it.
It is quite literally the place where the government goes to hide.
The Sheahan family has long existed just six miles from this shadowy base, at a mine nestled on a mountainside overlooking a desolate, long-dry lake bed. Their ancestors originally settled on the site more than a century ago.
Make no mistake that they were there first. Long before Lockheed and the CIA showed up in the 1950s to build a secret flight test base at what is now Area 51, there was Groom Mine. Founded by Patrick Sheahan in 1889, the site included 400 acres and a handful of mining claims.
The Sheahan family worked the mine for decades, extracting silver, lead, zinc and copper. Eventually a second generation, Dan and Martha Sheahan, also called the mine home from the early part of of the 20th Century on, with their secluded operation churning away successfully.
Then the U.S. government came.
Foxtrot Alpha interviewed three members of the Sheahan family: Joe, 55, Ben, 56, and Barbara, 60, who are some of the co-owners of the family’s property overlooking Area 51 and are leading the fight to save it—or at least get compensated to a level they feel is appropriate for it by the Air Force.
The Air Force’s final offer was made in August for $5.2 million, with a deadline attached, which the family outright declined. But now that the deadline for the Sheahans to accept the Air Force’s offer has passed, the property will go through the condemnation process.
(The Air Force did not respond to Foxtrot Alpha’s repeated requests for comment, citing the pending litigation. They instead directed questions to the Justice Department, which also did not respond to comment requests.)
As for the Sheahans, they say all they have wanted is one of two things. The first is to be left alone on their property, without the ever tightening security noose around their necks.
The other option, and now possibly the only option, would be to negotiate sale of the property for what the family sees as a fair price. Since the Air Force has moved forward with condemnation, the family’s attorney has asked formally for a jury trial to resolve the issue for good.
It’s a David vs. Goliath fight, but the Sheahan family is used to those by now.
A Wilderness Interrupted
The area around Groom Mine isn’t the dry wasteland that comes to mind when most people picture the Nevada desert. It has abundant water and is populated with large game, which made mining operations and homesteading on the site possible to begin with.
The family’s remote frontier lifestyle was largely left alone until 1941, when government agents were sent to the region to survey for areas to execute aerial gunnery and bombing practice to support America’s quickly ballooning air arm and military aerospace efforts.
At the time, Dan Sheahan took these men in. They stayed at the Groom Mine and ate with the family as they conducted their survey work. According to the Sheahans today, these men were wildly unprepared for the extreme nature of the terrain and the elements and could have died without the family’s help.
“They sent those four guys out in the desert with nothing,” Ben Sheahan said of those early surveyors. “They would have starved to death and froze to death if it had not been for the people at Groom Mine that put them up in their bunk house and fed them and helped them. They actually went out and helped them to survey for the targets and just took care of them.”
No good deed goes unpunished. That same year, the Sheahans say military aircraft began performing training flights over the Groom Mine property, and the outcome of some of those flights were terrifying.
Over the following years, the Sheahans claim their property was regularly sprayed with machine gun fire, with some of the bullets narrowly missing children playing around the mine’s living quarters. By the 1950s, the family had spent years trying to get the military to stop to no avail. The bullets kept coming.
These stray bullets would become the least of the family’s worries.
The Nuclear Tests Begin
By the early 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission had moved in nearby to develop what would become the Nevada Test Site. It was there, just 20 or so miles to the southwest of Groom Mine, on Frenchman Flat, that a 4.2-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated in January 1951. Groom Mine was directly in the path of the weapon’s radioactive fallout.
Today, the Sheahans say nobody warned them.
According to Barbara Sheahan, the family and their workers were literally shaken out of their beds as the detonation occurred. Peering outside in horror, they saw what was a nuclear dawn rising over the mountain range across the lake bed. Hot metal pellets and other debris rained down on the mine as the fallout made its way across south central Nevada and into Utah.
The Sheahans’ once-quiet and pristine wilderness was now at the forefront of the atomic age and the Cold War’s nuclear arms race.
As nuclear tests continued, the Sheahans say that people and animals in the area suffered radiation burns. The government eventually had them wear radiation detectors.
Here is what National Geographic reported on the detonation in its June 1953 issue:
The Sheahan family and their mine employees were sleeping peacefully on the morning of January 27, 1951, when the first explosion on Frenchman Flat almost knocked them out of bed.
The family aids the Atomic Energy Commission by allowing a radiation monitoring station on its property, one of many fixed stations within 200 miles of the test site. The mine workers wear special “badges” of radio-sensitive film during and after each explosion as a further check of exposure to radioactivity. They have had to be evacuated once under its hazard.
Along with that report, a terrifying and now-famous picture was published that shows the Sheahans and their cat watching one of these nearby nuclear tests. You can see this historic image by clicking this link.
As time went on, news of the above-ground tests’ potentially horrific health consequences started to leak out. According to the family today, they were told over and over again by officials that the nuclear tests were safe for them, even though they were probably the closest civilians to the blasts and seemingly always in path of the fresh fallout.
Some time after the tests began, federal agents made a visit to the mine.
“One of the doctors that was out there with [the agents] pulled my father aside and told him, he said, ‘Look you need to get your family out of here,’” Joe Sheahan said. “My mother was so terrified that they left. My grandfather, Barbara and Ben’s dad, they stayed because they were trying to work the mine and trying to protect their property.”
With constant work interruptions due to the radiation and blast damage, the family says the once-profitable Groom Mine struggled to make ends meet. It had become too unsafe as a work environment, let alone as a place to live in.
The Sheahans say that protests to local officials, politicians and magistrates were met with empty replies and the constant passing of the buck. No one wanted to challenge the Air Force at a time when patriotism meant never speaking out against your government, especially when it came to things involved with the fight against communism.
Over the following decade, 100 above-ground atmospheric nuclear tests would occur before they were banned in the early 1960s. (Another 827 below-ground tests also occurred, continuing up until the early 1990s.)
Meet The New Neighbors
Meanwhile, right across the lake bed, something else was taking shape besides nuclear blasts: the facility that would become Area 51.
From afar, the secrecy around Area 51 has long been a source of wonder and paranoia in popular culture. Elaborate stories of extraterrestrial spacecraft and government experiments have filled books, movies, and TV shows.
And in many ways, the area around the base has embraced this identity. In celebration of the role the base plays in UFO folklore and science fiction, the main highway that runs near it was officially renamed Nevada State Route 375: The Extraterrestrial Highway, and a famous diner in the town of Rachel, north of Area 51’s closed airspace, is called the Little A’Le’Inn Restaurant and Bar.
But Area 51 is not about aliens. It’s about developing and testing exotic military aerospace technologies. The base has a solid 60-year pedigree of doing just that, including the U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71 Blackbird, Tacit Blue, the F-117 Nighthawk, Boeing’s Bird of Prey, Stealth Black Hawk helicopters, and surely dozens, if not hundreds of other test programs over the years that the public has no clue about.
The Sheahans’ experience with the test site has no extraterrestrial enchantment about it. But it began with a different kind of mystery: As the family’s story goes, on June 23, 1954, around lunchtime, the heart of the mine—its hand-built ore processing mill—was destroyed by what they say was aerial bombardment. Luckily, nobody was near the mill at the time, but the effects of the blast were devastating.
With their extended family gone due to health concerns, Dan and Martha Sheahan battled alone against an inferno that strangely engulfed the mill for nearly three days straight. In the end, it could not be saved.
The family has documentation that shows an investigation was conducted into the loss of the mill by the Nevada mining giant Basic Magnesium Inc.’s fire chief. It states that due to the high temperature of the inferno, the source of the fire came from “outside origin,” with an incendiary substance likely present that accelerated the blaze.
The fire was said to have reached temperatures in excess of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, the chief said the inferno was likely preceded by a large explosion, causing heavy equipment to be overturned and the metal sheeting sheered off its bolts and scattered all over the area.
This event was then, and still is today, recognized by the Sheahans as a turning point in the fight to keep their mine. To them this explosion was no mistake, but rather a bombing, and a focused act that was meant to send a very clear and ominous message to the family: Get out.
Within a year of the catastrophic explosion at Groom Mine, Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson and his CIA associates picked Groom Lake to test their new top secret spy plane, the U-2. This would be the beginning of what we know as Area 51 today.
In former Lockheed Skunk Works boss Ben Rich’s book Skunk Works, he describes exactly how Kelly Johnson, his supervisor and mentor at the time, top test pilot Tony LeVier, and a shadowy CIA representative picked Groom Lake as the U-2’s secret test center.
Rich writes about Johnson sending LeVier on the initial scouting mission:
“Now, listen. I want to take the company Bonanza and find us a place our on the desert somewhere where we can test this thing in secret…”
Levier knew the vast sprawl of desert terrain shared by California and Nevada as well as any mule-packing Forty-Niner; as a test pilot he had mapped in his mind nearly every dry lake bed between Burbank and Las Vegas as a possible emergency landing strip. So he took off on his scouting expedition…
Two days later, he found the perfect spot. “I gave it a ten plus,” he told me years later. “Just dandy. A dry lake bed about three and a half miles around. I had some 16 pound cast-iron shotput balls with me and dropped one to see if the surface was deep sand. Damned if it wasn’t hard as a tabletop. I landed and took pictures.”
A few days later Tony flew Kelly Johnson and a tall civilian introduced to him only as “Mr. B” to the site to take a look… “This will do nicely,” Mr. B remarked. The area was not only remote but off-limits to all unathorized air traffic because of its proximity to nuclear testing. As Kelly noted in his private log that day: “Flew out and located runway at south end of lake… Mr. Bissel pleased. He enjoyed my proposed name for the site as ‘Paradise Ranch’…
Fronting for the CIA under the phoney C & J Engineering logo (from Clarence Johnson), Kelly hired a construction company to put in wells, two hangers, an airstrip, and a mess hall in the middle of a desert in blistering 130-degree summer heat.
At one point, the guy Kelly used as his contractor put out a subcontracting bid. One subcontractor warned him: “Look out for this C & J outfit. We looked them up in Dun & Bradstreet, and they don’t even have a credit rating.”
This base was built for only $800,000. “I’ll bet this is one of the best deals the government will ever get,” Kelly remarked to several of us. And he was right.”
Losing The Struggle
The Sheahans attempted to take their case to court throughout the 1950s, but spent years waging a battle they couldn’t win.
By 1959, Dan and Martha Sheahan were broke and could not continue with the lawsuit. Facing the reality that the Air Force was unwilling to pay them to repair the damage done to their mining operation, they wrote to then-U.S. Attorney General William Rogers explaining their story and why they were requesting a dismissal from the lawsuit:
“When at the beginning of the atomic test program it was thought to be only a temporary affair, we considered it our patriotic duty to cooperate with the AEC, which we did, and without filing any claim whatsoever. However, when it finally came to the point by May 1952, that we could no longer afford the continual work interruptions and blast damage without being repaid for our losses, we asked them to make arrangements to repay us. Why they did not do this and instead forced us to bring suit in order to try to protect ourselves, is something only they could explain.”
From then on the Groom Mine would be a place to visit, not one to live and work at.
The Best Worst View In The World
Probably the biggest question anyone has for the Sheahans is what kinds of things they see from the property with the world’s most bizarre view, but good luck trying to get them to answer it.
To them it’s as if the most famous air base in the world, sitting within full panoramic view from their backyard, does not even exist. They are vehemently uninterested in discussing it. Not just regarding strange aircraft or anything along those lines, but even what the base simply looks like from their property is a topic that is totally off limits.
Amazingly, even after facing so much turmoil from being the base’s neighbors, the Sheahans are seemingly as quiet about what goes on at Area 51 as those who actually work there.
They do claim that you can get a better look at the base on Google Earth than you can from their property. This is undoubtedly true, although there is a big difference between looking at top-down satellite images depicting a moment in time—a moment that the government knows is going to be photographed—and spending days living just a half a dozen miles from and in full line-of-sight of the base and its active operations.
In comparison to Groom Mine’s proximity to the base, the once-popular Area 51 viewing spot known as Freedom Ridge—seized as part of a government land grab in the mid 1990s—was 12 miles from the base. Today, the closest direct viewpoint of the base is Tikaboo Peak, some 26 miles away, and photographers still get amazingly detailed pictures of the base from this far-off point of view.
So is Groom Mine close to the air base? Very. Even the no-fly zone box around the base where test flights occur extends for 23 by 25 miles, putting Groom Mine deep within it.
Groom Mine Becomes An Island
Although mining and full-time living stopped at Groom Mine decades ago, the Sheahans still own the roughly 400 acres of land around its mining claims, on which there sits numerous buildings, including cabins and bunk houses. The family still visited the property regularly for short stays throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Then in 1978, the government suddenly placed a guard gate on Groom Mine road—a road the Sheahans themselves built with help from the county around 1950 when an approach to the mine from the west became impossible due to government road closures.
Around the same time as the guard shack appearance, the government seized all the land around the Sheahans’ property, as well as huge swaths of land around Area 51.
This not only blocked free access to their property, but made it an island onto itself. A speck of civilian light in the deepest and darkest of government black holes. Adding insult to injury, the Sheahans say this seizure was not made official until 1984 when Congress finally granted a formal land withdrawal.
James F. Boatwright, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Safety wrote the Sheahans the following on July 6th 1984:
“You will continue to have access to your mining operations in the Groom Mountain Range, your legal rights to own, operate and sell your mine are not affected by the proposed land withdrawal.”
The land grab and total encirclement around the Sheahan property was, according to them, sold as something that would not affect them at all and the Sheahans claim that elected politicians reached out to the Air Force, with the response being that everything would be fine.
Today they see this as a false guarantee; just one more step in the eventual seizing of their land, an orchestrated move they feel has been long in the making.
The installation of the guard shack forever changed the way the Sheahans accessed their property. For the first time since they had settled the land at Groom Mine, they would have to go through a government checkpoint to get there. And over time it became more than just that.
Today, when asked to describe the process they have to go through to gain access to their property, the Sheahans say that protocol includes notifying a contact person as to when they would be heading up to the property and who exactly would be going.
The family says that non-family members have to give their personal information—Social Security number, date of birth and affiliation among other questions—and have even been made to sign releases before being allowed on the property.
According to documents supplied by the family, Air Force Col. Robert Smith wrote the following in 1986:
It is increasingly evident that clear cut guidelines must be established relative to access to the Groom Mine area. Cooperative use of the following procedures, effective May 1, 1986, will ensure a safe, expedient entry for those holding a legal interest in the area and provide standard guidance to security personnel.
Those procedures included having anyone who doesn’t have a “legal interest” in the area to sign disclosure forms, and for them to notify the Air Force a minimum of 24 hours before visiting their own property.
These documents from the 1980s show the Air Force’s demands when it came to the Sheahans accessing Groom Mine, and the Sheahans’ displeasure with them:
The family themselves say they have never signed a non-disclosure document with the federal government, an amazing accomplishment considering their property sits deep inside Area 51’s airspace and just six miles from the end of the base’s runway.
The reason for that, they say, was that they feared doing so would hamper their ability to fight for their property if the federal government came to seize it. With this in mind, not signing any type of non-disclosure government document has long been a Sheahan family rule.
Even after Martha Sheahan died of bladder cancer in 1981, which the family states that her doctors said was due to radiation exposure, they did not attempt to collect on funds set aside for Downwinders affected by the nuclear testing in the 1950s and early 1960s, for which Martha had a front-row seat. According to Barbara Sheahan, this would have meant signing away their rights forever.
Sometimes the Sheahans have to work around the Air Force’s schedule when planning a visit to their property. For exactly what remains a secret. As to who their contact is that handles this bizarre set of schedules, they would not say, aside from that it is initiated by phone or email.
“They have a security service that we interact with that are really hired by the Air Force, although sometimes probably Air Force personnel are involved as well.” Barbara Sheahan said. “They are always aware when we are coming, and when we are leaving and who we are bringing.”
Keeping tabs on the Sheahans does not end after they pass the security checkpoint; far from it. Barbara Sheahan describes the surveillance the family is under at any given time while enjoying their property:
“They have tried to come on the property to babysit us but we have not allowed them to do that,” she said. “But basically they have cameras, sensors, and all kinds of electronic stuff, and airplanes and helicopters. We are viewed continually.”
Yet this passive form of surveillance is an improvement over what they say they went through 30 or 40 years ago, when heavily armed soldiers would point guns at them and even lock them inside buildings on their property.
“Prior to some of this, in the late ’70s and in particular the early ’80s, on multiple occasions they physically sent security forces up to the property, when the family was on the property, with guns, and actually told people you will not go outside,” Joe Sheahan said. “And when people said—we had one of the wives that was pregnant and had to use the restroom, which at that time was outside, they told her that they were authorized to shoot.”
Eventually these on-premises visits ended after the family demanded they be stopped, yet this did not mean friction between the Sheahans and some of the base’s security elements ended with them.
Just this past July 4th weekend, the Sheahans say that they had family members held at gunpoint while trying to access their property. A 63-year-old woman, a 15-year-old and 7-year-old, all of whom were expected up at the family property for the holiday, were held at gunpoint by a guard who was seemingly unaware of their identity and/or intentions.
The incident was eventually resolved and the visitors were let in, but those involved say they are still traumatized by it. The Sheahans say that the Air Force has responded to their complaint about the incident by saying they had no evidence that it happened.
When asked if the guard involved was a military policeman or a contractor, the Sheahans response was they didn’t know and they probably could not have known anyway. But the fact that there are cameras everywhere around the perimeter of Area 51, especially near guard shacks, makes the family certain that video of the incident exists regardless of what they are being told.
A Drop In The Bucket
With all this in mind, it is absolutely astonishing that the Sheahans’ Groom Mine, which still got regular civilian visits through this summer, even exists today at all. Somehow, such an amazing parcel of land has been left to private ownership even as massive swaths of land for miles around it have been seized by the government and are actively patrolled by a small army of “Camo Dudes” and military personnel—all of whom aim to keep people out.
Even though endless amounts of sensors, helicopter patrols, and manpower are used to keep everyone from being within miles of Area 51, the Sheahans have been there all along.
This gives the Sheahans, who identify themselves as a patriotic family, a sharp perspective on the Air Force’s current argument that it needs their land for, among other things, national security purposes.
“We have lived with these people for so long,” Joe Sheahan said, “but the funny thing is, how in heck did the U.S. government prosecute any war with the Sheahans at the Groom Mine? I mean we’ve lived through… how many projects since that base’s inception in ’55 to right now, what projects have gone through there? I don’t know them all. Nobody told us what they all were, but we can all read what people say was out there. How did they ever develop all this stuff with the Sheahans out there? I don’t get it.”
Boeing’s Bird Of Prey technology demonstrator was tested at Area 51 in the 1990s. Photo credit Boeing
Regardless of the family’s own amazingly tight-lipped demeanor, the question is this: Why hasn’t the Air Force just paid them a price they could agree with to get them off the land long ago? How much in labor has it cost to monitor them, and how much have operational interruptions as a result of their presence cost the government over the decades?
It seems so odd that the Air Force was unable to quietly and amicably get rid of one family whose presence and activities may inadvertently dictate Area 51’s test schedules. That branch of the military is far from broke, with a general budget set at almost $110 billion for 2015 and a substantial share of the Pentagon’s classified $60 billion “black” budget.
Meanwhile, the service will blow billions of dollars on dead-end research and development programs, and sees buying a fleet of $100+ million dollar fighter jets that cannot even go to battle as a great value.
Resolving the land dispute with the Sheahans just seems like a very cheap and necessary cost of doing business, especially considering that the family claims to have put up with quite a bit of horror at the hands of the federal government over the better part of a century.
The Final Offer
And so the Air Force has made what they say is their final offer of $5.4 million dollars for Groom Mine. Its reasons for doing so are explained thusly by Air Force Col. Thomas Dempsey, the commander of the Nevada Test and Training Range Wing:
The Nevada Test and Training range is a unique national asset because the size and remoteness of the area enables military test and training activities that cannot be completed in other national training areas,” Dempsey said. “Over the years, national security demands and technology development have increased demand for the Nevada Test and Training Range assets and the Air Force has developed infrastructure that directly supports range activities that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
It’s an offer that the Sheahans have flat-out refused.
In fact, they say they refused the deal well before the public announcement was made. This came after an even lower offer of $2.4 million was tendered a year and a half ago. When pressed as to what the family wants for their property, the Sheahans would not say, although they do apparently have a general idea of what they think is fair.
As Joe Sheahan puts it, the number they are looking for “is more than they want to give and less than I would love to get.”
According to the family, a mining company surveyed their claims and property in the 1980s and wanted to lease it, but the family’s liaison with the Air Force told them they would immediately condemn the property if an outside operator were brought in. This was contradictory to what the Air Force had guaranteed them after the 1984 land withdrawal.
The family also claims that back in the 1980s the property was valued at $13.5 million. Now the Sheahans hope to get some sort of appraisal of their property that will adequately reflect its real value.
The problem is, how exactly can anyone accurately value the Sheahans’ property, especially in reflection of the bizarre circumstances in which it exists? If an appraiser were to take into account what is there today, what it’s next to, and the mine’s almost non-existent accessibility, is it worth anything at all?
The view of the secret base certainly is. But when you also figure in the mine’s lack of usability thanks to federal actions over the past 75 years, the whole equation changes. Then you have lost potential revenue, including the minerals that could have been mined and so on. There are also the claimed infringements on the family’s rights by the very government that is supposed to protect those same rights.
Can reparations for these acts ever be part of a buyout? That doesn’t seem likely.
The Air Force is a huge bureaucracy, tightly bound by red tape like all big government institutions. But when it comes to Area 51, the only precedent is that normal procedures, and even the law in general, largely do not apply there. This was proven during the base’s first high-profile worker lawsuit, and resulted in the first time anyone in government formally admitted that the base existed at all.
In the 1990s, a lawsuit was filed by ex-Area 51 employees who had became gravely ill due to what they say was large-scale open-pit burning of exotic toxic waste materials near the base. The bizarre lawsuit was unprecedented, as the action supposedly occurred at a place that didn’t exist and involved materials and items that also had no accessible paper trail. Just proving to the judge that Area 51 was in fact real was a major undertaking.
In the end, President Clinton signed an executive order keeping records related to the base top secret. Even though the government may have finally admitted that the base existed, what happened there was beyond the reach of the law.
Clearly, if you think about how Area 51’s own employees were treated and how laws regarding toxic waste disposal simply did not apply to the base, being the base’s neighbor doesn’t sound that enticing. But this case does show that Area 51 is treated differently than all other known Air Force installations.
It seems odd that the powers that be could not pull out their checkbook and make this story disappear, like so many of the historic aircraft that were tested there are able to do on enemy radar.
Now that the deadline for the Sheahans to accept the Air Force’s offer has passed, the property is going through the condemnation process. The family thinks their best bet now is to try to have their condemnation case decided by a jury, as their attorney has requested, rather than a judge, or the same government they’ve been fighting so long.
They believe that a jury of their fellow citizens would be more receptive to their unique and somewhat terrifying story and more understanding of their deep connection to land they’ve held so long. A place where family members are buried. A place that still means something to them, even with the suffering they have felt because of it.
“Why do I hang onto it? Because I can sit on the same rocks that my great grandfather did,” Joe Sheahan said. “I can sit in the same chairs, I can sit and look at, for the most part, the same stars.”
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