Kyle Bolyard’s drive to work as a history teacher in suburban Niles, Illinois, takes him past a strange sign. It’s planted on the side of a sturdy, brick building owned by the regional wastewater treatment authority.
“I pass this building every single day and at some some point along the way I just kind of noticed it,” says Bolyard, 26. “It's a pretty small sign. It's kind of rusted a little bit. It says ‘fallout shelter on floors one and in basement.’”
Fallout shelter, as in nuclear fallout following an atomic bomb blast. The symbol on the sign is familiar to Americans who lived through the Cold War: three yellow triangles circumscribed in a circle, pointing down. That sign got Kyle thinking.
I was wondering if there were any nuclear fallout a nuclear blast shelters left in the city of Chicago or the area.
By some estimates there were hundreds of thousands of dedicated fallout shelters built in the 20 years following World War II. We looked for one still standing, and we did find some old shelters. But they’re hardly the apocalypse-proof, fully-stocked bunkers that were once ready to weather a bomb blast and weeks-worth of radioactive fallout. Still, these remnants of Cold War-era infrastructure do exist across the city. In fact, buildings that served as fallout shelters are often in places you might not expect.
‘It was an eerie time.’
It feels distant to many people today, but for years the world was gripped with fears of a possible nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Each country stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in the decades following World War II, pursuing a strategy of “deterrence” by bulking up to discourage an attack. Meanwhile the now-defunct Office of Civil & Defense Mobilization (commonly called Civil Defense) focused on preparing Americans for the unthinkable. A lot of people from this era remember Bert the Turtle, who taught a generation of kids to "duck and cover" in the event of a bomb.
They were worried about two things: the actual blast of an atomic bomb, of course, but also its fallout — contaminated dust and debris kicked up into the air and rendered radioactive by a nuclear explosion.
Big, industrial cities like Chicago were considered major targets for a possible nuclear attack. Diane Addams, who grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood during the 1950s, remembers it as an anxious time.
“It was kind of scary,” she says. “People were buying and making fallout shelters, and trying to find out where we could go if there was an attack and all that kind of stuff. And they had those little signs that were saying that you go here, like in the subway, or certain other areas.”
Addams says those who had the money and a little property could build their own bunkers. As apartment dwellers, her family had to have faith in public shelters.
“It was just an eerie time,” says Addams.
Cold War preparation really got hot in 1961, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to cut off Western access to Berlin, then a divided city. President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, pumping up the Civil Defense budget and urging Americans to prepare.
“In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now,” Kennedy said. “In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack. I know that you will want to do no less.”
Although some historians say the speech was mainly meant to intimidate Khrushchev, one effect was to stoke public anxieties about nuclear war.
“There's this huge national debate of whether or not to build a shelter. Some magazine called that the question, ‘To dig or not to dig,’” says Kenneth Rose, a professor at California State University Chico and author of the book One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. “Almost every newspaper and every magazine in the country had articles on nuclear war and fallout shelters.”
Local response: Cold War conversions
Like many cities across the country, Chicago designated existing structures as public fallout shelters, typically choosing large masonry buildings with windowless basements and thick stone or concrete walls. Federal officials affixed these buildings with reflective metal signs measuring 10 by 14 inches. In Chicago those included public school buildings, City Hall and, indeed, the Terrence J. O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant at 3500 W. Howard St. — the building that inspired Kyle Bolyard’s question.
Practically every town in America had some sort of public refuge like this, and Chicago had thousands. In 1967 the Chicago Tribune reported that Cook county had 2,522 public fallout shelters, of which 1,691 were stocked with food and supplies. About three quarters of the county’s 5 million people could have fit in the shelters, most of which were downtown, in the Loop.
Federal Civil Defense officials were responsible for stocking fallout shelters with everything they’d need to survive at least two weeks underground. Nationally the Pentagon spent more than $80 million on supplies, which included bulgur wheat crackers for nutrition, giant drums of water and “sanitation kits” for personal hygiene.
None of the agencies that we talked to — local, county, state, federal — could say exactly when they stopped checking up on fallout shelters in Chicago, or even what happened to any of the records about how many shelters existed in the area. It just kind of dropped off.
And by 1963 some survival kits were already deteriorating in storage. The Tribune reported supplies for 2.2 million people were sitting “virtually untouched” in federal warehouses at 39th Street & Pershing Road and at O'Hare International Airport. “According to records of the federal government, Illinois ranks 50th in the fallout shelter stocking program. Chicago rates at the bottom of the list of metropolitan cities,” reported David Halvorsen. Just a few dozen of the 3,000 federally approved shelters had been stocked, months or years after they’d been designated as public refuges.
Local response: new construction
In some cases, though, the city did more to adapt to Cold War concerns than just slap a fallout shelter sign onto existing buildings and wait for federal supplies — a fact that becomes apparent during a tour conducted by Larry Langford, spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department. Langford drives me, questioner Kyle, and his wife, Amanda Snyder, around the South Side to see a few fire stations that had their own dedicated fallout shelters.
“Most of the North Side fire houses have been replaced. So we have to, of course, go to old firehouses to find this,” says Langford, who remembers Bert the Turtle’s “duck and cover” drills.
Today the space under Engine 60 in Hyde Park looks like a lot of basements: Firemen use it to store their workout equipment, as well as bicycles they help repair for kids in the neighborhood. During the Cold War, though, the basement had heavy steel doors that could seal in hundreds of people at a time. The shelter also had a generator and a sophisticated air handling system to keep out radioactive debris.
“The walls are very thick concrete designed to withstand all kinds of shock,” he says.
As for a direct hit by an atomic bomb?
“Nothing's going to withstand that,” he says.
For questioner Kyle Bolyard, the area looks like what he expected: bare concrete walls, big open spaces and dark, twisting corridors.
“You can imagine just rows and rows of cots or bed mats,” he says. “It would be really dark and really cramped.”
Snyder adds: “I would imagine it would start to smell really bad after a couple hours.”
All of the shelter’s supplies were thrown out a long time ago, says Langford, but the structure remains solid.
“We could still use it if we had to,” he says.
Local response: private construction
Some patriotic citizens built their own shelters, following the advice of nationally circulated pamphlets and public service announcements preaching vigilance.
“In the event of enemy attack, every item on this list is essential,” reads one of the many advertisements placed in Civil Defense literature and popular magazines. Their list includes a personal dosimeter for each member of the family to measure radiation exposure, as well as fire extinguishers, radios, air filters and a toilet for the fallout shelter.
In 1961 Bernice Gilhooly built Chicago’s first publicly authorized, private fallout shelter. The Chicago Tribune reported Gilhooly planned to spend $3,500 on her subterranean shelter — almost $28,000 in today’s dollars. But, the secretary and mother of three told the newspaper it was worth it:
“Asked if she expected to be the subject of joshing by her neighbors, she said: 'I don't care. A lot of them could look foolish because they didn't think along the same lines we do.” Asked if he planned to build a family shelter, [Mayor Richard J.] Daley replied, “After the matter is thoroly [sic] gone over, we will take the necessary steps to protect our family.”
The structure got in the way of property modifications next door, and the shelter was imploded. Today Jim Schaller owns the Bridgeport home, as well as the remains of the bomb shelter.
“It had trundle beds on the wall. It had five gallon glass containers of water. There was a crank to crank air in, air shafts that were sticking out the property next door,” he says. “They locked a heavy door, metal door locked on both sides.”
Schaller says he threw out the old supplies. Now he does his laundry by the patched-over drywall that was once home to the shelter’s steel vault door. He and his wife never thought to save the shelter, even though they’re old enough to remember those anxious days when Cold War missiles were ready to fly.
“It was a novelty is all it was — a place to put junk,” he says. “Another closet.”
What’s the use?
In spite of the nation’s Cold War preoccupation with preparing for a nuclear attack, many people at the time doubted the shelters’ effectiveness. They also wondered whether there was any use in preparing for fallout when a blast itself would likely wipe out most Chicagoans before they had a chance to hunker down.
“No other nation, even Russia, is so perturbed about shelters. Could it be that it is propaganda to distract our attention from more immediate problems?” asked “E.H.” in a 1961 letter to the Tribune. “Let us by all means make our homes as safe as possible, but let us not allow "fallout" to become an obsession with us.”
That helps explain why only a minority of Americans built their own shelter. Add that to the fact that an effective shelter could cost about $2,500 (about half of the median family income in 1961), and you have an explanation for why the nation’s brief obsession with bomb-proof shelters translated into relatively few structures.
“For a very brief time there was this frenzy of private shelter building. But even the frenzy was only a small number of people. It never really caught on,” says Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “I think people just sort of resigned themselves to the fact that if this did happen this was all going to be over pretty quickly. It didn't matter if you were above ground or below — you were toast.”
That blend of skepticism and fatalism even spread among public officials.
“Someone asked Chicago's chief Civil Defense administrator what they should do,” says Kenneth Rose. “And he said, and I quote, ‘Take cover and pray.’”
Bernard Kelly, who was the Civil Defense Director of suburban Oak Forest during the early and mid-sixties, says he never thought fallout shelters were an effective response. But the exercises of stocking them and practicing drills proved useful when they needed to deploy responses to natural disasters. And, he says, it was reassuring.
"There was a general Cold War threat that hung over the nation,” he says. "And the alternative was to do nothing. It's not human nature to do nothing."
After President Kennedy called for millions of dollars to stock fallout shelters around the country in 1961, Chicago aldermen and Cook County commissioners decided to allow Chicagoans to build their own shelters, in case the public network wasn’t enough. A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor was at that meeting:
When aldermen were not harassing the discussion they clipped fingernails are gone towards the ceiling for for the most for the most part paying little attention to the government shelter documents handed them at the beginning of the meeting. Few of them asked to vote for the significant ordinance had ever seen the pertinence data previously. Further indication of the perfunctory action apparently expected of the meeting.
So even at the time, the urgency of the threat varied wildly, depending on who you asked.
“Chicago certainly certainly wasn't unique here,” says Rose. “American cities simply were not prepared for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And we can all thank our lucky stars that this war didn't happen.”
What about today? The U.S.S.R. is no more, and there are far fewer nuclear warheads around now than during the Cold War. But nuclear war is still a possibility. Should we be stocking up and seeking shelter?
“In my opinion,” says Rose, “living in fear of nuclear war is no way to live a life. And you know there's plenty of survivalists out there who have spent a lot of money preparing for this ghastly possibility. But as far as I'm concerned that’s wasted money, and a wasted way to live your life.”
It’s easy to see fallout shelters as an historical oddity, and even to laugh at people like Bernice Gilhooly, who spent thousands of dollars preparing for a bomb that never dropped. Today we have our own national anxieties — about airport security, surveillance, terrorism — with public programs and private responses just as controversial as was a lot of Cold War culture. Someone born today might look back on one of our “if you see something, say something” signs with the same curiosity that drew questioner Kyle Bolyard to that rusty placard announcing a fallout shelter on his drive to work.
Meet our questioner: Kyle Bolyard
Kyle and his wife Amanda Snyder both teach at NewHope Academy in Niles. They say they first wondered about fallout shelters in the Chicago area when Kyle teamed up with a literature teacher at NewHope for a humanities class that included a unit on the Cold War. He was hoping to show the class a fallout shelter for a field trip.
“I had them design their own fallout shelter,” he says. “Somebody had this huge stack of all the board games they would want to play for weeks — those kinds of things. A lot of people forgot basic stuff like food and water. But they had games covered.”
Growing up in Edwardsville, Illinois, outside St. Louis, Kyle knew about Nike Missile sites nearby, and our story about similar sites in Chicago got him wondering about other Cold War infrastructure that might still have echoes today.
Now that he’s seen some old fallout shelters in person, he’s satisfied; yes, he expected many bare concrete walls to be left behind, but he was still a little surprised.
“I wondered if they would still be any supplies left around. It's interesting to hear that those are all removed at a certain point and these are kind of now being used for different things. I guess I didn't expect to see them as weight rooms now,” he says. “Space is so valuable, especially in Chicago, that you would take any available space like that and do something with it.”
As for his own thoughts on what to have in a personal fallout shelter, Kyle boils it down to this: “I think it all depends on who you have down there with you.”