A Look At Smith County’s Abandoned Fallout Shelters
Inside the basement of the Cotton Belt Building, a yellow tin sign with a black centered circle and three triangles pointing down represents little more than a reminder of nuclear hysteria during the late '50s and early '60s.
"The Cold War is over," said an amused Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton, who also serves as the county's emergency management coordinator, in response to questions about dozens of now defunct fallout shelters. "Didn't you know that?"
Seaton is right. In 1966, the government abandoned its public program to have community buildings designated as shelters and to promote construction of private shelters to reduce casualties a nuclear holocaust might inflict.
But in the early '60s, the Cotton Belt Building and 70 other Tyler buildings were federally designated fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. They were surveyed as a part of the Civil Defense program to save lives from falling radioactive matter created by a blast.
The federal government spent more than $378 million in 1962 and 1963 on the Civil Defense fallout shelter program, according to a Department of Defense report.
Shelters were typically marked with the sign, which also indicated its capacity. Tyler's population was 51,000 in 1960. Emergency management records indicated individual capacities of some structures, but an official count of structures and overall capacity is not available, Seaton said. The county courthouse's capacity was 1,723. The U.S. Post Office, now the Federal Building, was stocked with provisions to support 1,019. The Cotton Belt basement could hold more than 700.
"It was a phenomenon," said amateur historian James Wilkins, who compiled information and donated the material to the Smith County Historical Society, including the list of structures surveyed. "The Bay of Pigs and fear of a Communist takeover, that was what got (the shelter program) going."
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and America was in full swing in 1960, and after the attempt to overthrow Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, tensions and fear escalated.
front-page story featured the East Texas Fair and plans to showcase a fallout shelter. Surrounding it were two Associated Press stories about "Reds," a term to describe Russian communists, and one about Castro.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the "theoretical limits" of church and school basements, office buildings, public buildings, radio stations, the north Bois d' Arc Street water tower, banks, even the present-day processing center for the
Tyler Morning Telegraph
. The structures were stocked with sanitation kits, provisions and radiation meters in anticipation of a maximum two-week stay.
Building and stocking private shelters also was encouraged by the government.
Tylerite Jack Pollard was in the construction business in the early 1960s when the federal government promoted fallout shelters. Pollard said a friend convinced him to sell and build private concrete shelters.
However, he decided he was in the wrong business after approaching a local radio station about advertising. The production person suggested sirens and other "fear tactics" associated with an atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"That was a reality check," he said, laughing. "I decided (selling shelters that way) wasn't something I was interested in doing."
Pollard said he didn't sell a single shelter.
More than a half-dozen businesses sold steel or concrete shelters in the area, Wilkins said. The shelter displayed at the East Texas Fair was 12 feet long, 8 feet wide and 7 feet tall. It had a chemical toilet, sleeping quarters and an air-filtering system.
Eric Green, an amateur historian and collector, started the online Civil Defense Museum to showcase Cold War-era historical items.
Green said the shelters were designated because they could protect people up to two weeks. He said official reports released by the Department of Defense regarding the Civil Defense program painted a dire picture of casualties in the different scenarios for a 210-million-person population surviving with or without shelters and blast shelters.
Without any protection, estimates were more than 144 million dead, or 69 percent of the U.S. population. Fallout shelters would save 48.5 million people expected to die without protection.
They were built to stop exposure to radiation, not take on a nuclear blast nearby, he said.
"It was about lifesaving potential," he said. "People say the government tried to mislead people about the shelters, but it's not like any of the information makes you feel good."
Seaton said the preparation and the shelters really wouldn't have mattered if the Department of Defense expectations of an attack came to fruition. The federal government expected all large and medium-size airports to be targeted, he said.
"Any community with a decent airport was considered a target," Seaton said. "Tyler was in the kill zone."