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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently have columns running in 3 newspapers;

  • Tri-Valley Herald : Looking Back
  • Valley Times : Do You Remember?
  • The Independent : Do You Remember?

The Articles appear in the Herald and Independent on Thursdays,
and the Times on Sundays.

They will also be found on this page each week as well.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

Archive Page

Underground shelters abound in valley Part 1

By Barry Schrader.................................February 9, 2006

Dick Angel brought to mind another era and another mindset when he recently mentioned the fallout shelter buried in the front yard of his Neal Street home in Pleasanton. It had been installed by the house’s original owner John Long during those scary Cold War days around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Dick just sold the house so the new owners will have to decide what to do with it. He shared an anecdote that one time his 16-year-old daughter disappeared and they called Pleasanton police to look for her overnight. The next day they discovered she had gone down to the fallout shelter and fallen asleep there.

This topic is so big that it will take two weeks to tell the best stories about this valley’s obsession with shelters back in the 1960s, so this is Part One. The difference between types of shelters needs to be defined. A bomb shelter is a reinforced concrete bunker underground where people go if given enough warning of an impending nuclear attack. A fallout shelter (which most are in this valley) is an underground chamber where people flee to avoid the radiation spread by a nuclear explosion some distance away (like San Francisco for example). Reading some old Civil Defense pamphlets, there seems to be some difference of opinion about how long you were expected to stay in these shelters, hence how much food and water should you store and when you could recirculate the air from above ground if the radioactivity is still out there. These are dilemmas each family faced as they struggled with whether to build a shelter, how long they might have to stay in it, and whether to go into a joint venture with neighbors or coworkers.

The granddaddy of all local shelters was a massive project constructed in a hillside out North Livermore Avenue by 30 families, most of them affiliated with Lawrence Livermore Laboratory at the time. They included high level Lab officials, so other residents must have taken the nuclear threat seriously when they learned knowledgeable Lab scientists felt the need for such protection. It was a six acre parcel, with 33 rooms inside. Each family supplied the beds, food and other basics needed to survive for a certain period of time. Generators and air circulation systems were included and I imagine radiation monitoring equipment was also a part of the complex.

Without their permission, I won’t mention the names of all the families, but three did talk with me about the experience. Henri Fankhauser remembers spending two weekends underground in a drill so they would know what it was like to live there. Dorothy Hudgins, whose late husband Art and his boss Duane Sewell were two principals in the project, recalls the big steel door, then the steps leading to the tunnel off which the rooms were located. She said there was a common cooking area and the labyrinth was divided into three sections, so in case one was breached the other two could remain inhabitable. They also had toilet facilities for each of the sections.

Joan Boer, who was a young mother with three children at the time, vividly remembers going inside the shelter for a drill under the blaze of lights from TV cameras and other press covering their weekend excursion underground. Exiting at the end of the exercise she was photographed in a newspaper carrying her then-eight-month-old son Nicholas in her arms. So much for secrecy and anonymity in building a hideout!

Over 20 years ago the families finally found a buyer for the six acre parcel and abandoned their costly and long unused shelter project. It is not known if the new owner just sealed up the entrance or uses it for a gigantic wine cellar.

Looking around for other private family shelters I ran into former Livermore Mayor John Shirley who teamed up with three other families, the Jim Bells, the Bert Dukes, and theVan Ormers. The fallout shelter was buried behind John’s veterinary building on Railroad Avenue. The entry hatch and steel ladder to the underground chamber were acquired from an old merchant marine vessel and it cost $2,400 to build, much of the work done by the families themselves. It included a 300 gallon water tank and food supplies for up to two weeks. John said once they realized it was not going to be needed he housed some of his summer veterinary interns down there. But then one wet winter the chamber was flooded when the sump pump didn’t evacuate the water fast enough, so they abandoned the place altogether and haven’t opened the hatch since.

One shelter still in good condition is on Chateau in Livermore, built by the original owners back in the early Sixties. A young couple that just purchased the home allowed me to tour the spacious 22 by 24 foot room, with two entrances, one a trap door and steel ladder through a bedroom closet and the other one a set of cement steps hidden inside the pool house. The enclosure has a two-foot thick reinforced concrete ceiling, running water, an air circulation system with a hand crank in case the power fails, electricity and is still water-proof and comfortable inside. Being amateur winemakers they anticipate turning this into the perfect wine cellar and plan to make some champagne from their Chardonnay grapes.

But most underground shelters have turned into watery, uninhabitable albatrosses. Carolyn Ramsey told me about the one her late husband Bill built back in 1962 in their Livermore backyard, complete with running water, electricity and ventilation system. She said they stocked it with canned good, dried foods “and a little booze.” She recalled that Bill used to go down there to cool off when it was 100 degrees outside and either read or listen to the radio. But after his death it was no longer used and now she won’t even go down there.

Next week’s column will cover public and government shelters plus city Civil Defense plans.

***

Last week’s history mystery location turned out to be a surprise to everyone, but Sandians were up to the challenge. I listed GPS coordinates for a geodetic survey marker that was supposedly at Sandia, according to the old records that were last updated in 1957. It seems that at the time Sandia occupied two buildings north of East Avenue while awaiting the construction of new facilities across the street, so the marker was registered on Sandia property. In fact, the benchmark disk had first been placed there in 1944 when the Livermore Naval Air Station occupied the site, then rediscovered and recorded on the cement slab around a manhole cover in 1957. But Sandians Joanne Lombardi and Steve Bunn took up the hunt this past week and found the exact marker—just inside the parking lot fence by the LLNL South Gate where the South Cafeteria parking lot exists today. (FYI, the cafeteria that served Sandia and Lab employees in that area for nearly 40 years just closed down.) By pushing back some ground cover you can spot it—still in good condition. Joanne is a member of the international Geocaching.com adventure group that hunts for landmarks and GPS points all over the world. But that’s another story. Rich Larson from Sandia also hunted for the benchmark but confined his search to the south side of the street where I erroneously reported it might be.

 

The columnist can be reached via email at :

Historian2sbcglobal.net

or by snailmail at:

Barry Schrader
PO Box 446
Livermore, CA. 94551

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