Wilkes station, 66° 15′ 25.6″ S, 110° 31′ 32.2″ E, was established on 29 January 1957 by the United States of America as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) program in Antarctica. Under an agreement with the United States, Australia was permitted to use the station stores and supplies that remained, on condition that nothing was removed and the Australia reported annually to the USA on consumption of the stores and supplies. A hand-over ceremony was held on 7 February 1959. Australia used the station until it occupied the new Casey station in 1969.
Navy personnel from the United States constructed the main part of Wilkes in a period of 16 days, unloading 11 000 tons of material and supplies.
It took a crew of over 100 to erect the station, which housed 24 naval personnel and scientists for the next 18 months.
As this was the time of the Cold War, there was considerable concern by the US and Australia about Russian activity in Antarctica. Wilkes was seen to be strategically located because of its proximity to the south magnetic pole.
Australia took over Wilkes in February 1959. Although Australia officially took over the operational command, the remaining US personnel did not take kindly to being under Australian control. Consequently there was a ‘back down’ until 1961 when the station came under exclusive ANARE control.
Wilkes had originally been built in 1957 for a two year period. By 1964 the buildings had become a fire hazard due to fuel seepage, and the constant drift snow was burying structures for the greater part of the year – deteriorating the wooden buildings, which needed constant repair.
The new station of Casey Repstat (‘Replacement Station’) was developed on the other side of the bay, and became known as the ‘Casey tunnel’. It was commissioned in 1969 and Wilkes was closed down.
Wilkes station is now almost permanently frozen in ice and is only occasionally revealed during a big thaw every four or five years. Many objects remain embedded in the ice, and visitors are often able to see the remains of the station through the ice, seemingly exactly as it was left.
What remains at Wilkes are a number of barracks buildings known as Clements huts, and the remnants of the semi-cylindrical canvas store buildings known as Jamesway huts.
There is also a series of storage dumps and a considerable amount of rubbish resulting from 12 years of occupation. The three sites in close proximity to each other: Wilkes, the Casey tunnel site and the new Casey Station, demonstrate the changing attitude towards the removal of waste and used materials, and the evolution of Antarctic building technologies.
For more stories of Wilkes and life as an expeditioner, go to Wilkes Station History.