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Seattle’s 1960s Fallout Shelter

Posted by Johnine Larsen on September 27, 2019
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If you’ve driven I-5 through North Seattle, you’ve passed above our city’s Cold War fallout shelter. The city built this worst-case-scenario bunker in 1962 and 1963—the only fallout shelter in the country built inside an interstate.

Beneath southbound I-5, under the north end of Ravenna bridge, you’ll find a metal gate and a passage. The passage disappears into a massive wall of concrete. It looks like a generic maintenance tunnel, or, if you see it with nuke-fearing, Soviet-era eyes, like a public fallout shelter.

In the event of nuclear war, this bunker could have theoretically sheltered 200 people. Conditions would have been Spartan, to put it mildly. From WSDOT’s 2010 blog post about this relic:

A giant concrete pillar in the center of the shelter supports the 18-inch-thick concrete roof of the 3,000-square-foot room. From overhead, the muffled sounds of I-5 traffic filter into the shelter…Ahead, the doors to three small rooms stand open, the spaces vacant save for an old rotary phone and a 1969 day planner. In the event of a nuclear attack, the rooms would have been used for food storage and distribution, medical care, and day-to-day shelter operations.

To the left, down the hallway leading to the escape tunnel, are two doors to his-and-hers bathrooms and decontamination showers. For the suggested 200 shelter-ees: Three toilets, one urinal, two sinks, two showers. All of which are accessible through doorways that—at best—might be 28 inches wide. It’s enough to make airline bathrooms seem positively spacious in comparison.

The windowless, stifling shelter would have supplied its occupants—stuck for who-knows-how-long—only with folding metal chairs for furniture. The showers had just a single 40-gallon hot water tank. The bunker doesn’t even have a kitchen; instead, survivors would have been instructed to warms cans of food in their armpits. Two hundred people stuck inside that concrete box sounds preferable to being left outside, but not by much.

In the event of nuclear war, the shelter manager was instructed to let in the first 200 people (regardless of whether they were neighborhood residents or travelers along the highway), and then lock the door. Anyone who showed up later would be directed to the next available shelter. (There wasn’t, however, another shelter anywhere in Seattle).

Fortunately, the bunker only saw action as a Department of Licensing office. In order to get the Bureau of Public Roads to approve the project, Seattle had to follow the rule that anything built into the interstate wasn’t just an empty, open space. So from 1963 to 1977, going to the DoL was even more depressing than usual.

The bunker now sits forgotten and unused. It’s a monument to a past age, and yet another little feature that makes Seattle so unique.


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