Ryan Burns / Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 @ 2:54 p.m. / Faith-y
What’s the Story With That Place? The Underground Scientology Vault Near Petrolia
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If you were driving along the Lost Coast a few miles northwest of Petrolia, you might notice an old farm road leading east up a ravine. And if you were somehow able to get past the locked cattle gate and follow that farm road through the cow pastures, then up a private road that traces the hill’s spine, you’d soon come to massive symbol carved into the earth.
You probably wouldn’t even notice its ridges and depressions from ground level; they’ve eroded quite a bit since a local contractor carved them nearly 30 years ago. But from directly above — the perspective of a drone or Google satellite — you can still see the design: two interlocking circles, each more than 500 feet in diameter, with diamonds in the middle.
Here’s how it looked in 2010:
This is the logo for the Church of Spiritual Technology, an arm of Scientology created in the early 1980s after the Internal Revenue Service revoked the group’s tax-exempt status. (It took an “all-out war” with the IRS for Scientology to regain tax-exempt status, which it finally did in 1993.) The CST, an especially secretive branch of the notoriously insular organization, was founded to preserve the life’s work of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Just east of the 1,000-foot logo there’s a helipad, and beyond that, an 8,000-square-foot residence called the LRH House, built in 1991 as a place for Hubbard to grow up after being reborn in a new body. (Scientologists believe that Hubbard didn’t die of a stroke in 1986 at the age of 74 but rather voluntarily discarded his body so he could continue his spiritual research “outside of its confines.”)
Near the LRH House is a big meeting hall and, across the road, a smaller, older house. This is where the property caretaker lives. Farther up the hill, all the way at the end of the winding road and wedged into the mountain like the exposed prow of a ship, you’ll find the entrance to a massive underground vault built of steel and concrete.
This vault, which is 20 feet in diameter and extends 375 feet into the hill, allegedly contains copies of everything Hubbard ever wrote, which is a lot. (He holds the Guinness World Record for “Most Published Works by One Author.”) So the vault holds his many sci-fi and pulp fiction novels, his seminal self-help book/Scientology bible Dianetics plus handwritten notes, policy letters and more. It also contains film footage of Hubbard’s public appearances and audio recordings of his lectures carved into LP-style records forged of copper and steel. And these artifacts are all stored in argon gas to prevent decay.
There are now four CST vaults, each in remote locations (three in California and one in New Mexico), and each one is accompanied by its own LRH House and CST logo. (Many have noted the resemblance to the logo for Kool cigarettes, which Hubbard chain-smoked.)
These archival projects were long kept secret, even from enrolled members of Scientology. But over the years, former members have come forward to talk about “the most secret organization in all of Scientology,” and two years ago the CST vaults were described in detail in an issue of International Scientology News.
Of course, it’s hard to keep such things secret in the age of Google Earth and cheap drones. Here, set to the dramatic strains of the William Tell Overture, is drone footage of the Humboldt County vault’s entrance, captured and posted anonymously last year:
The construction of this vault, from 1987 through 1991, caused a minor stir, especially in the Mattole and Eel River valleys. Questions and rumors led to a series of stories in the Ferndale Enterprise and features in both the upstart North Coast Journal and HSU’s student newspaper, The Lumberjack. That latter story, it’s worth noting, was written by then-HSU-student Jack Durham, who’s now the editor of the Mad River Union. His piece included this graphic illustrating the interior of the vault.
The Ferndale Enterprise reported that Scientologists began buying land in the Mattole Valley as early as 1980, eventually accumulating more than 3,000 acres including the hilltop property alternately known as Sunset View Ranch or the Walker Ranch.
The property’s then-caretaker, a French Canadian named Michel Ouelette, told Enterprise Editor Elizabeth McHarry, “The purpose of the property is for the preservation of religious wisdom.”
That’s about as much detail as most folks could get. “As the vault nears completion,” Joe Cempa wrote in the North Coast Journal in June 1991, “Petrolia residents are no more sure of what exactly is going on up on Walker Mountain than they were seven years ago when the Los Angeles-based Church of Spiritual Technology began buying land.”
Not everyone in Humboldt County was in the dark, though.
“I’ve been out there numerous times,” Humboldt County building official Todd Sobolik told the Outpost last week. As the chief building inspector in the early 1990s, Sobolik oversaw the construction of the LRH House (then called “The Bunker”) and the vault, which the county categorized as a storage facility.
“We’ve always had a good working relationship with them,” Sobolik said, referring to the CST representatives who do business with the county. “Anything we want they’ve always done.” He even recalls attending an open house on the property after completion of a structure near the vault entrance.
The Outpost reached out to Scientology’s media relations team to ask about the history and purpose of the vault and — hey, why not? — request a tour. The response came two days later:
Thank you for your interest. We are not doing public tours at this facility at this time.
The other questions were left unanswered. Fortunately, that issue of International Scientology News from a couple years back goes into meticulous detail about the extreme measures taken to preserve the works of L. Ron Hubbard (LRH) “into eternity.”
“CST brought in paper design engineers, chemists and scientists to formulate the ideal archival paper to carry LRH’s works through future millennia,” the story boasts. Hubbard’s wisdom was recorded with special ink, derived from a 1,000-year-old Chinese formula, on paper made of cotton and linen, far surpassing “the most stringent standards for permanent archival records.”
And in case that fails after a few centuries, Hubbard’s words were also “carved directly onto custom-made [stainless steel] plates using a chemical etching process dating back to the Middle Ages,” then wrapped in acid-free archival sleeves and stored in the vault, where “every printed page from Book One [Dianetics] all the way through the Advanced Materials will prove impervious unto eternity.”
For audio recordings of Hubbard’s lectures and other public speeches, CST archivists “developed a procedure for producing metal records with the highest fidelity and durability — perfect for their purposes down to the molecular level — that will last at least 1,000 years.”
Why records and not, say, Compact Discs, the cutting-edge technology of the time? “All that is needed to play a record is a needle in a groove,” the CST scientists reasoned, “so even with something as simple as a thorn, LRH’s voice could be reproduced regardless of technological regression or societal collapse.”
Film footage of Hubbard was likewise painstakingly transferred and stored, like the records and written documents, in titanium boxes that the article described as “the perfect time capsule, designed to accommodate any and all climatic changes and withstand radioactive fallout.”
Those boxes were then placed inside thermal containers with a core made of ceramic tile “designed to protect spacecraft on atmospheric re-entry” and a silicone outer skin with fine-mesh stainless steel reinforcement.
These Russian-nesting-doll measures continued as the thermal containers were then stored inside the vault on double-decker racks designed to hold 2,000 pounds apiece and “wrapped in a heat-reflective protective covering woven from synthetic fabric with a strength-to-weight ratio five times stronger than steel.”
Finally, oxygen was evacuated from the vault and replaced with the stable, inert gas argon. The magazine called all of this “the ultimate preservation system,” a massive undertaking aimed at “safeguard[ing] our religion” and “securing our technology for all millennia to come.”
Though the locations of the CST vaults had already been made public online by the time this story came out, the author maintained that they’re in “multiple undisclosed locations around the world.”
The piece includes photos that may or may not have been taken inside the vault here in Humboldt. Here’s another of those images, with a description from the accompanying story:
On this page is just one such archival vault, occupying a geographically calculated position safe from the threat of rising seas or total ice age. It required boring 400 feet into a remote hillside, some 60 feet down.
So that’s what’s inside the vault. The unidentified drone pilot who posted the video above published a total of four YouTube videos with footage of the CST-owned property.
The one below is cued up to show the helipad and CST logo, which, according to a former Scientologist, is intended either to guide Hubbard’s disembodied spirit back to where it belongs or to guide other humans to his archives after civilization collapses.
And here you can see the LRH House, the building that looks like a conference center and the caretaker’s house:
And, lastly, more footage of the lower portion of the property, set to Flight of the Valkyries.
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Note: This is the (long overdue) fourth installment of the Outpost‘s occasional series “What’s the Story With That Place?” In July 2014 we looked at the crumbling church on the corner of Wabash and Union streets in Eureka. In December of that year we looked at a former lumber company development turned ghost town near Big Lagoon. And in October 2015 we looked at Eureka’s historic Lloyd Building, which went from a socializing hotspot in the early 20th Century to the headquarters of infamous local landlords Floyd and Betty Squires today. If you’re curious about some place in Humboldt County, send your suggestions for future entries in this series to firstname.lastname@example.org.