A shelter odyssey

February 18, 2017 GMT

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — During an era in which students were taught to “duck and cover” under their desks, and Civil Defense as well as the possibility of nuclear war were taken extremely seriously, The Clothes Tree in downtown Corvallis was a bank and its vaults were part of the county’s fallout shelter program.

In Albany, a living, breathing fallout shelter is just a brisk walk from downtown.

The backyard

In 1988 Bob and Marilyn Hill purchased a 1906 historic home that they have been renovating ever since. The home includes a backyard fallout shelter that was built in 1961, reported the Corvallis Gazette-Times (

During those Cold War days homeowners could receive a government grant to build a shelter if they were willing to display it to the public.


A few weeks ago Marilyn Hill led a tour. She opened the door and we went downstairs into the past.

Counting the stairwell, the shelter is a 10-foot by 8-foot concrete blockhouse. The walls are eight inches thick, and if you are 6-foot-6 your hair will scrape the ceiling. Two metal-railed fold-up bed frames with 4-inch-thick mattresses anchor one wall.

Shelving on one wall includes shelter-era relics: food tins and water bottles. Some of the items were in the shelter when the Hills purchased the house. Some were badly corroded. The Hills and their relatives also collected items from garage sales.

The shelter includes a hand-cranked ventilation system . that when in operation emits a noise like an air-raid siren.

“Right now it’s a quaint bit of Americana,” said Hill. “Our friends thought it was a neat thing. If war happened we all have somewhere to go, they thought. But it’s really a small space. And given how long you might have to stay in there . well, I’m not sure it’s really an option.”

The shelter was designed for eight people, although you would need either extra beds or sleeping in shifts to make it work. And then there would be the problem of the noise of the ventilation crank, which had to be fired up every 20 or 30 minutes.

“During the first Gulf War nobody talked about it anymore. There were no more jokes,” Hill said. “And I’m wondering now if it is more sound for earthquake protection than my house.”

Hill’s oldest son Greg, now an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Linfield College in McMinnville, slept in the shelter in the summer for 10 years during his high school and college days.

“It was dark, cool and quiet,” said Hill, who described the upstairs bedrooms of the house as “hot and stuffy in the summer. The fallout shelter was a nice alternative.”

But it had its limitations as summer quarters and as a refuge from nuclear mayhem. There was no bathroom. It was awfully dark when the lights were off. And then there was the noise of crank.


“From a time standpoint, especially with no bathroom, being down there for any extended period of time would be difficult,” Hill said. “If the electricity goes out you’d only be able to see until you ran out of battery power. I would think that sitting in pitch black for days would likely start to affect people psychologically fairly quickly.”

“I’ve never spent the night there,” Marilyn said, adding that the biggest problem with the shelter is that “it’s difficult to landscape around.”

The basement

If you want to get to the bottom of an issue, one of the best ways is to find a map. And we found one at the Benton County Historical Society and Museum in Philomath. It’s beautiful. Brightly colored. Chock-full of information. Including a list of the sites in Benton County that served as official fallout shelters in 1968.

More than 55 sites are listed. Most of them are at Oregon State University, which boasted platoons of capacious basements to store supplies and people.

Many of the sites are in downtown Corvallis and many - such as the post office and the Julian Hotel - serve the same functions in 2017 as they did during the Cold War. Including The Clothes Tree.

Returning to The Clothes Tree led to a trip down a bizarre staircase that passed a huge bulge in the concrete wall that required a weirdly shaped handrail . and into the basement.

“There is so much history in this basement,” said Nicole Nystrom, the owner of The Clothes Tree on Southwest Madison in downtown Corvallis who explained that fuel chutes used to exist for coal shipments to fire the boiler. Bank employees used to eat lunch there.

Much of the basement is devoted to inventory for the business, but against one wall are what must be two of the heaviest bank vault doors in Corvallis history.

According to Benton County emergency services records reviewed at the Historical Society, a Dec. 31, 1972 inventory of shelters and supplies noted that The Clothes Tree had space for 410 persons and was stocked with 12 days’ worth of supplies. The largest-capacity shelter in town was the College Inn (now OSU’s GEM housing project) on then-Kings Road. The inn could handle 2,175 persons.

By far the largest shelters were at OSU, where Gill Coliseum in the 1972 records showed a shelter capacity of 9,458, eerily similar to the above-basement seating limit for athletic events.

Approximately half the buildings on the list had supplies on hand. The rest were stored at the Corvallis Municipal Airport. Shelters allotted 10 square feet of space and the supplies were based on 700 calories per day per person.

That said, it must be noted that nowhere near 410 people could be lodged behind the two vault doors in The Clothes Tree. Thus, a certain Darwinian thread ultimately would be part of the bargain.

Documents galore

In addition to the map the Historical Society also included a plethora of government pamphlets on all manner of Civil Defense issues: firefighting tips, emergency sanitation, fallout protection (written by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara), family action exercises (including how to tie knots in sheets to create a rope ladder for escapes from upper stories) and family shelter designs, virtually all of them including a ventilation crank such as the one in the Hill’s shelter.

A 1966 OSU Extension brochure on protecting families — and livestock — included plans for a shelter that would hold six family members and 40 cows. It was 65 feet by 110 feet and noted key shelter requirements for livestock: water, feed, space and ventilation.

A 1966 Family Circle magazine reprint of an article called “Suppose Your House Goes Dead” included the following paragraph on the role of mothers in the Civil Defense fight:

“More and more American women are facing this sort of calamity in these years of increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, and flash floods. Men too, of course — but its Mother who sets the family attitude toward disaster. If she hasn’t thought out a few answers beforehand, she can be pretty sure that nobody else will work last-minute miracles of preparedness.”

Also at the museum is an eight-page special section published July 1, 1960 by the Gazette-Times. Items of note included key Oregon target areas (Portland because of its population and Klamath Falls because of its Air Force base), that gum, candy and tobacco are deemed “optional” for shelter supply lists, first aid tips, a prevailing winds chart, a graphic that compared the size of bomb mushroom clouds with the pattern produced by thunderstorms and an ominous story on how much better the Soviets were at civil defense.

Modern times

Kevin Higgins, who joined the Benton County Sheriff’s Office in 1989, remembers seeing Cold War-era supplies at the Corvallis airport, including canned water, portable toilets and hard candy. The supplies were thrown out in the early 1990s said Higgins, who now manages the county’s emergency services program.

“It seems like interest (in Civil Defense) just kind of faded away,” said Higgins, who grew up in California, where earthquake drills were more the order of the day. “At conferences I go to we seldom focus on nuclear attack preparations. There are far more discussions on what might happen with a nuclear release (from a weapons lab or power plant).”

Looming over Oregon, meanwhile, is the possibility of a massive Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Is the mid-valley ready, Higgins was asked?

“A lot of people think government is going to be able to take care of them,” Higgins said, “and we’re not going to be capable of it. The main thing we will be doing is getting to people in the greatest need . getting roadways open, making sure people can get to the hospital.

“People are going to need two weeks of food and water, and we don’t have the equipment or manpower or supplies to set up distribution centers.”

Higgins said that rural residents tend to be better prepared than city folks. “They are used to being without power,” he said. “Rural people have learned to prepare. My hope is that people will choose to be prepared and not expect someone else to take care of them. We need to focus on people who can’t take care of themselves. That’s about all we can do.”

Meanwhile, the political situation has heated up, and some of that Cold War-era anxiety has returned. North Korea. Iran. Russia. China. And a new president has talked about the use of nuclear weapons in a far more aggressive manner than most of his predecessors.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists publishes a “doomsday clock,” which uses proximity to midnight as a measure of how close the planet is to disaster.

The clock was set at 2.5 minutes to midnight for 2017, its most dire forecast since 1953, the year the Soviets tested their H-bomb . one year after the first American H-bomb test obliterated the Pacific Ocean island of Elugelab. In 1968, when Benton County produced its list of shelter sites, the doomsday clock was at a relatively comfortable 7 minutes to midnight.

Rising S Co., a bomb shelter manufacturer in Murchison, Texas, about an hour south of Dallas, reports that sales of its shelters, some of which cost several million dollars, have risen 700 percent amid the election fallout.

“It definitely has picked up a little as Donald Trump emerged as president,” Gary Lynch, general manager of Rising S, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Lynch added, however, that sales also spiked when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

“When a Republican is president, the left wants to buy a bunker,” Lynch said. “It’s the opposite when a Democrat is president.”


Information from: Gazette-Times,