A look in the tunnels tells a tale of past domestic threats

Elizabeth Dunbar

Nothing seems out of the ordinary about the tin candy canisters on retired veterinarian Walter Mackey’s desk until its packaging, age and source are revealed.

Along with a 1950s survival plan measuring two and a half inches thick, the candy tells the history of a country’s looming fear of a nuclear attack that had been long since buried under the University’s St. Paul campus.

There, concrete pipe tunnels were designated to house hundreds of people in the event of an attack.

The candy canisters and books, along with several other items, remain from a project the 78-year-old Mackey started almost one year ago: to retrieve remnants from the University’s Cold War fallout shelters.

Threats of domestic attacks against the United States started long before Sept. 11, said Mackey, curator of the Minnesota Veterinary Historical Museum.

“Terrorism today is not a new thing. We started dealing with it back in the ’50s,” he said.

“There was a pretty serious threat back then,” he added, recalling former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s threats to bomb U.S. soil.

According to his research, approximately 6,500 homeowners in Minnesota built shelters during the 1950s and ’60s, including himself.

“It was a historic event for people to go to that much expense and that much effort to protect themselves,” he said.

The University set up the fallout shelters in 1954 in existing central heating steam tunnels. In late 2001, Mackey enlisted the help of Facilities Management mechanic Larry Taylor to uncover supplies inside the shelters.

Taylor removed boxes from some of the cleaner tunnels connected to the original steam plant, and said there are still boxes of supplies and sleeping cots in some of the closed off tunnels, which are contaminated with asbestos.

Seeing all of the supplies reminds Taylor of his days as a youth.

“I’ve known about civil defense my whole life. I can remember the duck-and-cover drills we had to do in grade school,” he said.

A couple of the boxes Taylor gave Mackey still sit in Mackey’s office, overflowing with Geiger counters, siphoning tubes for water, penicillin, medical supplies and dosometers, which measure the amount of radiation a person is exposed to and can be clipped onto clothing.

Mackey said the most interesting item he found was a sanitation kit. The kit is inside a three-foot-high cylinder made of heavy cardboard that was to be used as a toilet. The kit contains toilet paper, deodorizing chemicals, a makeshift plastic seat cover and a plastic bag to line it.

“I think most people find that pretty hard to believe,” Mackey said of the kit.

Mackey has since displayed the civil defense items in the Veterinary school, and plans to donate them to the Minnesota State Historical Society.

The tunnels met the recommendations for shelters because they were made with at least 8-inch thick walls of concrete, but Mackey said he can’t imagine what it would have been like with so many people in such a small space.

“All I can think about is thank God I never had to live in those pipe tunnels,” he said. “It would have been a grand and glorious mess as far as I can tell.”

Elizabeth Dunbar welcomes comments at [email protected]