Now, over half a century later, a piece from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and some declassified CIA documents have finally revealed what it was.
According to the CBC, the New Brunswick resident found the mysterious box “hanging from a rotting parachute in a tree near Moncton in 1962” while he was looking for timber in the woods. It wasn’t just a tiny thing, either; the box is reported to have weighed almost 400 pounds.
McPherson brought it back to his farm, but it wasn’t long before the Canadian government took it from him.
“A handwritten memoir of the events by Lois McPherson, McPherson Sr.’s wife, detailed how the military first tried to steal the white box before promising to get answers for the family if they simply relinquished control of it,” the CBC reported. “Those answers never came.”
The McPhersons never gave up, filing access to information requests — a Canadian procedure not dissimilar from a FOIA request in the United States — with their country’s Department of National Defence. That got them nowhere. Local newspapers insisted it was a weather balloon — something James Rogers, who helped McPherson take the box out of the woods, says he didn’t believe.
“I never thought it was a weather balloon,” the 74-year-old Rogers said. “Otherwise, everyone wouldn’t have been so secretive about it.”
McPherson died a year and a half ago, never knowing what the box really was. It likely would have remained a mystery, except that CBC ran a piece on it:
Tips generated by the piece led to two places: the Military Communications and Electronics Museum in Kingston, Ontario; and the CIA’s website, where declassified documents are maintained. Both had pictures of something called an AN/DMQ-1 gondola — part of a system designed to take high-altitude photographs of the Soviet Union and other enemies of the United States. Lo and behold, it looked exactly like the white box McPherson and Rogers carried out of the woods so long ago.
“It’s hard to put into words,” David McPherson Jr. told the CBC. “It’s so exciting and it turns out it was a CIA spy camera.”
While his father didn’t live to see the resolution of the mystery, McPherson Jr. says that his father suspected it had something to do with the Cold War.
“There was just too much to it,” he said “These camera lenses were huge, the secrecy around it. And I guess looking back now, the army probably had no choice — they couldn’t tell us what it was.”
The balloon was part of something known as Project Genetrix, an Eisenhower administration initiative to secretly surveil the Soviet Union and China.
Annette Gillis, curator with the Military Communications and Electronics Museum, says that the balloon was likely blown off course and crashed.
“If it is from that project I would not be shocked that the wind accidentally took it into Canada,” Gillis said. “And it would answer why the family was never given any information about it.”
Rogers, however, has his doubts on that theory.
“What I want to know is what was on that camera,” said Rogers. “I would suspect there was film in there, and it would be really interesting to learn what it was taking pictures of.”
H/T Atlas Obscura