I was walking into the Atomic Age, but all I smelled was fossil fuel and something very, very organic.
The stale air of what used to be an ultra-secure subterranean government facility, was permeated with the faint, but inescapable, odors of diesel fuel and something like a stopped-up toilet.
This was a few years ago, outside Ottawa, walking around the underground “Diefenbunker,” the 1961 fallout shelter for Canada’s government.
A shelter for government officials, but not their families. Not even the Prime Minister’s wife. They did however, find room for the gold.
The first picture is a huge vault, down on the lowest level, to keep Canada’s gold reserve warm & safe, in the event of a nuclear war. The country held over 1,000 tons of gold ingots at the time.
The vault is now quite empty. I checked. Great acoustics though! Almost no one had ventured out on the cold, wintry day we visited, so my inner Pavarotti could be unleashed, with no fear of bothering other tourists, or bringing the roof down.
(Canada, like every other nation on earth, has since abandoned the gold standard, and completely liquidated the reserve. The U.S. currently is maintaining the largest hoard, of over 8,000 tons.)
“Diefenbunker” is a nickname, of course, after the Prime Minister at the time the facility came online. The real name is “Central Emergency Government Headquarters CEGHQ Carp”.
(Carp refers to the town in Ontario where it’s located, and not to “complaining querulously about Armageddon.”)
The underground facility, roughly 100,000 square feet, was kept supplied and staffed for decades, until the mid-90’s. It is now deactivated and just a weird sort of tourist attraction.
One level is mostly diesel generators, for the lights, TV and radio gear, etc. which explains the stale fuel smells. The toilets were all rubber-mounted, so they wouldn’t shatter from concussive waves, and I have no idea how they work, so far below ground level, except to say, apparently, not that well.
Ugly office furniture, filing cabinets, typewriters, rotary telephones, and old computers with tape drives. Fluorescent strip lighting, ugly linoleum floors, a sea of brown, beige, gray, and plastic wood-grain.
We wandered around at will, going downwards floor by floor. Basically, it is not a particularly creepy place, just homely and banal.
Some of the computers and gear that the over-50 crowd could identify, like telex machines, still seem to be plugged in.
At one point, we were surprised to hear voices and static, went round a corner, and found a ham radio club happily operating down there in a dimly-lit back room. They’d gotten permission to hook into the antenna system. The bunker was equipped with a complete radio and TV studio. (“Hello, viewers! The weather forecast today is…nuclear winter. Have nice day and will the last person up on the surface, please turn the lights out.”)
It’s not a cheery place. The medical facilities looked pretty primitive.
A notice informs you that the food storage area, would also serve as a morgue in a pinch.
My parents have always talked a lot about their childhoods, and The Way Things Used to Be. Their childhood anecdotes have all blended together in my mind: brands of automobiles that no longer exist, idiosyncratic pets, bygone relatives, the incomprehensible loss of 45’s & 8-tracks, and the decline and probable extinction of the woolly mammoths, etc.
Sometime during these Old Times, but after the invention of canned goods, because they figure into this, there was something called the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my father’s story about his family’s fallout shelter.
Have you ever noticed – people in the old days were always building things. We’re always having to trim the grass around pyramids, castles & coliseums, playhouses, obelisks, temples & garden sheds, Parthenons, and so forth. Apparently, in the days before internet and cable and DVD’s, they were just looking for things to do, once the woolly mammoths weren’t around anymore to entertain them. People went from playing with Lincoln Logs and building blocks, directly to actual building. Carpentry and masonry, in those days, was considered to be a form of entertainment, like Canasta and Yahtzee.
So when the Russians shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba, the immediate response in 1961 Middle America was obvious…let’s get some bricks, and build something.
At my dad’s childhood home, in an excavation under the front porch, there was soon a brick room, equipped with folding beds, canned goods, and carbide lanterns. These lanterns, if you could cajole a parent into testing them, would usually spit sparks and small jets of incredibly dangerous acetylene flame – pretty cool, right?! The canisters of calcium carbide, which somehow fueled the lanterns, through a process involving chemistry or physics (algebra?) were kept under much closer supervision than our nuclear secrets.
A battery-powered radio, sorry, I meant to say, a Transistor Radio. Food, water, waterproof crackers, toilet paper, buckets, blankets, Readers Digest. Check. The fancier dugouts included hand-cranked ventilation systems.
Little known science fact: Velveeta, if kept sealed, has four times the shelf life of strontium!
Of course, then and now, there are people who just are not do-it-yourself’ers, and there are people who invent things, and there are people who want to make a buck. Apparently there is still a market for the underground life – –do a web-search, and take a look at how many prefab shelters are being peddled, right now. Some are also good to store root crops, others are convertible to wine cellars.
I found dozens of news articles around the country, where renovations of schools, courthouses, stores have turned up forgotten public shelters in basement rooms, still stocked with drums of water and vitamin-enriched crackers.
For many years, New York State gave tax credits to parking garages, if they’d simply designate some subterranean space in this way. But as the Cold War waned in popularity, the whole Gimme Shelter thing also became moribund.
Some years ago, NYC auctioned off the outdated Civil Defense supplies, including crates of vitamin-enriched crackers. An upstate farmer bought them to use as cattle feed, but then found out, no one could tell him where his animal crackers were located. There had never been any organized effort to identify and list these shelters, and the local civil defense committees were long gone.
The Diefenbunker is an interesting place to visit. You can pose in the press room, and look for your home on the fallout maps. But after two hours, I was glad to get into the fresh air.
I do not like being underground.
I do not like Velveeta.
And I do not like the idea of creating hidey-holes or bunkers for politicians.
They need to be kept out in the daylight as much as possible. Taking their chances with the rest of us.
9 thoughts on “A few snapshots of the end of the world (Canadian version) ~~~~~~~~~ The Diefenbunker”
The way Donald Chump is going, it may not be too early for reactivation …
Supposedly sales of survival shelters have soared this year, and based on a quick internet survey, the urge seems more mainstream, somehow, not so much the U.N.-New-World-Order takeover crowd. Some of the interest may be the alternate use as a wine cellar, though.
I can’t say my response was nostalgia, but the recognition factor was pretty darned high. I used to work in offices like that. It was a littlle distressing to realize I still was listening to 78s when I’d come home from work. (Yes, 45s and LPs had arrived, but some of the best music still was on those old records.)
I was in high school during the Cuban missile crisis, but I don’t remember hearing about anyone building a fallout shelter. Being the quintessential midwesterners, we probably just figured when the apocalypse came, we’d evaporate anyway, so we’d better just go feed the chickens and not worry about it.
I do have one question. If nuclear war came, how in the world did they think they’d have the time and means to move that gold from point A to point B? If they had the lead time to move it, wouldn’t that time be better used preventing nuclear war? I know. I’m quibbling.
You’ve reminded me that back in my china-collecting days, I had a set from The Greenbrier Resort. It was completely redecorated back in the day by Dorothy Draper, with a theme of Romance and Rhododendrons. It also was The Bunker for the American Congress back in the cold war days. You can see some images of the place here. It’s a fascinating story — I haven’t explored the history of the Greenbrier Bunker, but I suspect it was a little more upscale than the Diefenbunker. Our Congress has its priorities.
That’s a good question about the gold, Linda, I hadn’t thought of that. I guess the Mounties would just sweep the road clear of people trying to evacuate, and make sure the trucks of gold got through.
I’d heard about the Greenbrier, that looks like a pretty swank resort, I’m guessing the politicians wouldn’t be able to resist sneaking out of the bunker to play golf.
The Fed Reserve Bank in NYC has a huge pile of gold, but it’s owned by foreign banks & gov’ts. The U.S. gold was taken out a few years ago, and put in Fort Knox– it sounded like fun, a big convoy driving hell for leather down the New Jersey Turnpike, stopping for nothing.
Ponder this: the Houston Texans football team is going to hold their summer camp at the Greenbrier. I wonder if they’ll be served a special tea at 4 p.m. each day.
Ha! Wow wouldn’t that be a sight! 🙂
I just came across this and thought of your post. Earl Warren sounds like a reasonable man.
Thanks so much, Linda, I didn’t know the different branches had separate plans. Although I notice everyone’s end-of-the world plans seemed to include golf.
One of my relatives mentioned a Twilight Zone episode called “The Shelter” which they’ve remembered vividly, for over fifty years, with the classic lifeboat dilemma – what to do when there’s not enough room for everyone. The Norwegian’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault seems a lot better choice than a bunch of political cabbageheads!
Earl Warren did seem to have a lot of common sense, and seems like his reluctance to consider taking refuge, without his wife, would be a common problem, and I wonder if the gov’t has a contingency plan for that, to make sure people participate (at gunpoint?). Maybe that’s where the golf course comes into it, as gentle persuasion.
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