When fallout shelters dotted the Stanford campus

Fallout shelter sign
A classic 1950s Cold War fallout shelter sign.

Recent news coverage of missile attack threats brings to mind a time more than 50 years ago when fallout shelters dotted the Stanford campus.

The time was April 1963, about six months after the Cuban missile crisis. Here is the description of the fallout shelters established throughout campus from “A Chronology of Stanford University and its Founders,” published by the STANFORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY:

Black and yellow civil defense signs are posted on campus identifying basement areas that are newly stocked as nuclear fallout shelters. This act, inspired by the Soviet missile crisis in Cuba, touches off the first major postwar political protest on campus, including a peaceful 24-hour vigil outside President Sterling’s home and office. Stanford’s shelters, part of a nationwide civil defense program financed by the federal government, are stocked with survival supplies sufficient for a two-week period, theoretically accommodating 6,800 people.

Some 25 years later, in November 1989, student journalists from the Stanford Daily went in search of the remnants of the fallout shelters, discovering old medical kits, crackers and canisters of water dated July 1962. Among the basements selected as fallout shelters by the federal government were those in Stern, Wilbur and Roble halls, according to the resulting article by JEFF BROCK.

The students also found a basement door in Zapata that carried a “tiny sticker which reads ‘Fallout Shelter—Inspected 1972—The shelter supplies inside were inspected this year by the owner—your local government.” Evidence of other fallout shelters were found in Escondido Village.

Brock wrote, “The Zapata shelter was haphazardly filled with old supplies. The medical kit contained a variety of essential survival items, such as bandages, cotton, penicillin, baking soda, soap, water purification tablets and syringes. All the liquid medicine had long since crystallized.”

He continued, “With the spirit of glasnost sweeping the communist world, civilian preparation for nuclear war has lost its momentum. The civil defense drills of the 1960s only dwell in memories, and the nuclear fallout shelters that once could be found across the nation have deteriorated and been forgotten.”

The Daily reporters found few campus officials who knew anything about the fallout shelters, with the exception of retired Fire Chief JOHN MARSTON.

“Those were the rough days,” he told the students, referring to the Cuban missile crisis era. “The government made a survey of the best places on campus for fallout shelters. … The directors of the dorms were very organized in case we had a red alert.”