I was walking into the Atomic Age, but all I smelled was fossil fuel and something very, very organic.
A “sniffer,” placed outside the bunker, to measure levels of radiation
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.)
A control room with tiers of desks, one for each important government function. The unpleasant odor in some areas, made me think they hadn’t planned adequately for other, bodily, functions.
“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.”)
Prime Minister’s office
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.
This place was in use until 1994, so some of the gear is at least recognizable.
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.
People built a lot of things in the old days. We’re always having to trim the grass around pyramids, coliseums, playhouses, obelisks, 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.
US New & World Report, LOC
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!
pocket radiation detector
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.
Photo from the Smithsonian’s site – – a prefab shelter from the late 1950’s. According to the narrative, during a rainy spell, this one popped out of the owners’ lawn like a surfacing submarine.
Global Zero, the anti-nukes organization, has moved their Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes before midnight.
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.