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Retro Baltimore: 60 years ago there was a rush on fallout shelters

Sixty years ago, America teetered on the brink of war. Crises in Berlin and Cuba threatened all. People feared Russian missiles were coming — and took steps to hunker down for a nuclear attack.

Fallout shelters, they would build.

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In the early 1960s (with a nudge from the government, which offered do-it-yourself pamphlets), homeowners began constructing bunkers made of concrete and steel in their basements and backyards. Never mind their slim chance of survival; shelters gave folks hope against unseen horrors.

Baltimore bought into the frenzy. While the city stockpiled essentials in more than 600 public shelters carved from the basements of schools, banks and other sturdy buildings — even Peabody Conservatory had one — the suburbs followed suit. In Howard County, a railway tunnel at Patapsco State Park morphed into a fallout shelter, as did the cellar in an Ellicott City supermarket.

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Interior photo of a bomb shelter, 1961.
Interior photo of a bomb shelter, 1961. (Baltimore Sun staff/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Other “safe rooms” began to beef up private residences. The first, The Sun reported, was completed in January 1960: an 8-by-10-foot enclosure in a home in the 1300 block of Limit Ave. as part of a $1,400 federally-funded experiment.

The project had the blessing of President John F. Kennedy, who called the shelters “a base for our survival and recovery as a nation” in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

People were anxious but just as curious. In 1961, the exhibit of an aboveground shelter at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium drew more than 27,000 passersby. On Loch Raven Boulevard, a Sunoco gas station displayed a sample shelter until the owner was pressured to remove it. The structure, made of rolled steel, ”adds to the hysteria and assumes the inevitability of nuclear war,” said the Rev. Carroll Doggett, of the Loch Raven Methodist Church, whose parishioners threatened a boycott of the station.

Students John Wallace and Jonda Tackett talk with Gen. Richard G. Prather, Baltimore civil defense director and Dr. Houston Jackson, an assistant superintendent of the city's Department of Education, outside an acceptable fallout shelter in the basement of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in 1962.
Students John Wallace and Jonda Tackett talk with Gen. Richard G. Prather, Baltimore civil defense director and Dr. Houston Jackson, an assistant superintendent of the city's Department of Education, outside an acceptable fallout shelter in the basement of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in 1962. (GARRETT/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

But interest mushroomed as world tensions held sway. In 1962, Baltimore civil defense officials unveiled shelter models at three city high schools — Southern, Carver and Mergenthaler — to the chagrin of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which argued the enclosures created a false sense of security, along with “guiding students in air raid drills [and] crawling under cafeteria tables. Many teachers felt the futility of such methods of dealing with the H-bomb.”

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Nonetheless, Armco Steel Corp., on East Chase Street, began selling 9-by-10-foot fallout shelters ranging from what it called “a simple basement unit for less than $400 to a spacious underground [unit] providing what civil defense described as ‘absolute protection.’“

In some areas, homeowners coalesced to protect one another. In 1961, more than 100 neighborhood groups in Baltimore County — notably in Pikesville, Randallstown and Dundalk — made plans to build “community” shelters to house anywhere from five to 100 families. In Northeast Baltimore, managers of a new 128-room Holiday Inn on Loch Raven Boulevard trumpeted the fact that the motel’s meeting rooms could double as fallout shelters, approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Homebuilders added shelters to their designs. In Odenton, each of the 268 houses in the planned Maple Ridge community would have them. In Cedonia, a new neighborhood off Belair Road, a family could add an escape room to its floor plans for $325. And at Fox Ridge, in Essex, developers of the 3,000 homes there promised each would include a 7-by-12-foot concrete chamber under the front porch, which could double as a game room or office.

A model basement fallout shelter is on display at the Towson Plaza.
A model basement fallout shelter is on display at the Towson Plaza. (KLENDER/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Pragmatic readers of The Sun took such measures to task.

“I’d prefer to die like a man on the face of the earth, with a last look at the sun, rather than like a rat in an underground box made of reinforced concrete,” wrote Ivor Kraft of Baltimore.

Over time, tensions with the Soviet Union eased and, by the end of the decade, talks had begun to limit the number of long-range missiles on both sides. The cramped sanctuaries built to provide refuge for two weeks (while radiation abated) morphed into playrooms, pantries and man caves. Most public shelters were dismantled, their medical supplies donated to local fire departments for training aids and their stale foodstuffs — more than 2,600 tons of high-protein biscuits in Maryland alone — were buried in landfills or fed to pigs.

Only a handful of such bunkers are still maintained in the state, including those in its emergency operations centers and another, reportedly, in the leaky tunnels beneath the State House in Annapolis. How many shelters remain tucked away in private homes is anyone’s guess.

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