The Hidden Fallout Shelters

By Quinn Guy

What lies beneath our feet?

Image from SUNY Brockport

In the 1960s, the world was at a crucial point in history. The United States of America and the Soviet Union were in the middle of a nuclear arms race as part of the Cold War between these two countries. Determined to prove their strength, both nations spent countless hours and money to “one-up” each other. Out of fear of being bombed by the Soviet Union, American citizens worked with the Civil Defense Administration to create fallout shelters in preparation for a Soviet attack. These fallout shelters were supposed to be the people’s last resort, protecting them from a nuclear blast and any resulting radioactivity until the levels were safe again. The shelters could be found anywhere: in someone’s basement or backyard, at schools, community centers, sometimes above ground but most often below ground. A majority of the shelters were built with concrete and had multiple layers or “shields” to protect those inside from the radiation. Other materials such as bricks, earth, and sand were also used since they are dense enough to provide protection. One such shelter was recently rediscovered at SUNY Brockport.

Blueprints of Brockport’s Fallout Shelter

Did these shelters really offer protection or an ineffective reaction driven by fear? A little bit of both. The shelters did have the ability to protect people from the radiation but given the time period and the technology they were not built to well enough to provide the lasting protection needed. They did not have the proper ventilation or waste disposal to sustain their occupants for very long. It is likely that those inside would have died from suffocation, heat exhaustion, or even starvation.

In addition to helping the shelters being built, President John F. Kennedy Initiated the Community Fallout Shelter Program in 1961. The purpose of this program was to locate and stock as many fallout shelters as possible. These fallout shelters were stocked with non-perishable food, medicine supplies, pillows, blankets, and other necessities that they believed would help them survive “the end of the world.” One very common non-perishable food found in them were saltine crackers. These crackers, referred to as Civil Defense Survival Crackers, were believed to be the most ideal food that the government could provide. Cheap, easily produced, and long-lasting, the crackers were mass produced by cereal companies and distributed to communities across the nation. These crackers were one of the items found in Brockport’s fallout shelters.

Civil Defense Survival Crackers found in the shelter

Brockport’s fallout shelters were built in 1962 and were located underneath Benedict and Dobson Hall. The shelter was built with 16 inches thick concrete walls and reinforced with the rebar, a type of steel mesh. They were equipped with 51 portable toilets, 438 triple bunks, a furnace, water tanks, and some form of a ventilation system. But why Brockport you might ask? Why here? Brockport itself was not a potential hit area if an attack were to happen. But roughly twenty to thirty minutes away by car, the city of Rochester was.

City likely Red target, state CD head Warns”

Democrat and Chronicle headline from 1952 about the city of Rochester

Rochester at this time was a big defense manufacturing area. Multiple manufacturing companies had branches or were even based in the city, one of them being Kodak. Kodak industries is a manufacturing company with its headquarters in Rochester, New York. What put Kodak on the Soviet’s potential hit list was the fact that at the time Kodak was creating and testing imaging hardware that could be used to spy on the Soviets. This imaging hardware was supposedly a satellite named Gambit-1, which was part of a now unclassified mission to spy on the Soviet’s nuclear missile sites. Due to the presence of companies such as Kodak, the state of New York drafted a plan for SUNY Brockport’s fallout shelters as a precaution. Fortunately, these shelters were never needed.

From Meghan Finnerty & Anthony Arnone, “Brockport’s Cold War Fallout Shelters Revealed,” The Port, 25 January 2021.

Sources:

Meghan Finnerty & Anthony Arnone, “Brockport’s Cold War Fallout Shelters Revealed,” The Port, 25 January 2021

History.com Editors, “Cold War History,” History.com, 27 October 2009

“Kodak,” Wikipedia, 12 November 2021

“Fallout Shelters,” Fallout shelters, accessed 18 November 2021

“Civil Defense Museum,” Civil Defense Museum-Community Shelter Tours, accessed November 18, 2021

1 comment

  1. An interesting article – I’ve been at Brockport since 1970 and never knew about them until the article in The Port. I wonder whether anyone used them for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It would be very interesting to know who knew about their existence?

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