Fallout shelter under I-5 a reminder of darker times

Here's a little-known fact that brings back some scary memories: An Interstate 5 overpass in north Seattle is home to a one-of-a-kind fallout shelter designed for survivors if the Soviet Union had unleashed a thermonuclear attack in the 1960s.

State Department of Transportation historian Craig Holstine told the story of the Weedin Place fallout shelter this week at the State Capital Museum noon lecture series, which was attended by several dozen people old enough to remember the real fear and danger associated with the Cold War.

The 3,000-square-foot shelter tucked under several feet of fill dirt beneath the overpass grew out of a federal Civil Defense program that received significant funding during the Berlin crisis of 1961 and on through the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Holstine explained.

Incorporating fallout shelters into the design of freeway overpasses never took off. As far as Holstine knows, the $57,000 Seattle project was the only one in the nation.

Just as well. Armed with 50 years of perspective and discovery, those of us who lived through the Cold War, the fallout shelter craze and the monthly duck-and-cover drills at school can see the true folly of a Civil Defense program predicated on surviving an all-out nuclear war by huddling in underground shelters for a week or two after a nuclear holocaust.

“By the end of the Cuban missile crisis, the fallout-shelter industry was in serious decline,” Holstine said. A U.S. senator and hawkish Democrat from Washington state, Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, was instrumental in paring back funding for fallout shelters, shifting the money to a buildup of the country’s nuclear missile arsenal, Holstine said.

The pale-green and mauve-colored bunker under the Seattle freeway was to be a first-come, first-served shelter for 200 to 300 people. Even at the lower number, personal space would have been equal to that available on a yoga exercise pad, Holstine said.

People entering the shelter would strip off and discard their contaminated clothing, then take a shower. It’s not clear what they were to wear after the shower.

The shelter was equipped with Civil Defense-style food, water, medical supplies and radiation-monitoring equipment. There was also a built-in escape tunnel, puzzling but maybe appealing to someone after a few days in the shelter.

The shelter was supplied with collapsible metal bunks and insulated paper blankets. The Red Cross was to provide books, games and other recreational equipment, although I can’t imagine people would be in a playful mood.

The prototype community shelter was dedicated March 29, 1963, with little fanfare. For about 14 years, the shelter had a dual function, serving as a licensing office for DOT. Later it was used to store DOT records.

The Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 led to the creation of a network of fallout shelters all across the country. I asked Thurston County emergency management manager Kathy Estes if she had any idea how many fallout shelters were established in the Olympia area, and, much to my surprise, she came up with a list of public shelters from the 1988 county emergency-operations plan.

The list includes 80 designated shelters replete with the gold-and-black, tri-blade fallout-shelter signs. Most were in the basements of state office buildings, schools, apartment buildings and downtown office buildings.

Estes enlightened me a little more with an e-mail message attached to the list.

Congress scrapped the Civil Defense Act of 1950 in 1994, she said. With no more federal funding, the state opted not to fund the fallout shelter program.

Local emergency management officials pulled the emergency supplies out of the shelters and were instructed to remove the shelter signs.

“Many of the signs are still up, but there is no certified fallout shelter in the buildings that still display the signs,” she said.

There’s no companion list of private fallout shelters that homeowners and businesses in South Sound may have built or stocked during the terror of the Cold War.

In the early 1960s, our neighbors on Kinwood Road in Lacey asked our family to help pay for a fallout shelter at their home. The assumption was that we would get to use it.

“They started to dig a hole in their backyard, but we told them we weren’t going to help pay for it,” my father recalled the other day. “We figured they’d be the first in and lock the door, and we’d be left out in the cold.”

Early in the project, our neighbors had a change of heart. They turned the hole in their backyard into a swimming pool.

The fallout shelter craze seems so pointless and ill-conceived all these years later. But for anyone who lived through the Cold War, for anyone who remembers the life-or-death game of nuclear chicken that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy played, fallout shelters are a reminder of just how close we were to mutual destruction.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444