Seattle fallout shelter Family fallout shelter billboard, December 1959. Photo: Werner Lenggenhager via Seattle Public Library

While we’re on the subject of Fallout 4, an insanely popular video game released this week set in post-apocalyptic Boston, BuzzBuzzHome is pleased to present a brief history on a fallout shelter in Seattle. Rather than emerging from a cryogenic bunker 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse to confront terrifying relics of 1950s Americana, you can simply read on to learn about Cold War hysteria in the Pacific Northwest. That is — if you’re willing to put down the controller.

Seattle fallout shelter 1 President John F. Kennedy speaking at UW in 1961. Photo: Museum of History and Industry

On November 16th, 1961 President John F. Kennedy came to Seattle and gave an address at the University of Washington’s 100th Anniversary Program in Edmundson Pavilion. He emphasized the danger of a nuclear holocaust if American diplomacy failed with Russia. Frightened by terrifying images of mushroom clouds and radiation, Washingtonians began preparing for the worst.

1954 Spokane Washington Air Raid Drill. Video: Public Domain Footage

Seattle is the only city in the United States with a fallout shelter built under a freeway

According to Washington State Department of Transportation historian, Craig Holstine, about a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis, construction of the fallout shelter under the I-5 highway began. It was intended to be a prototype for other cities to use to build community shelters. However, very few publicly financed shelters were ever built, leaving fearful citizens to finance their own private family shelter. Historian Holstine writes:

“Prompted by President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 ‘shelter program,’ the federal government mostly left shelter preparedness to private citizens. Privately financed shelters pitted the rich and well-to-do against the less fortunate, homeowners against renters and apartment dwellers. Basic family shelters could cost $2,500 when median family income was only $5,315 in 1961.”

fallout shelter Woman demonstrating how to enter fallout shelter, Milwaukee. Photo: Imgur

Fun Fact — Median family income today is $53,046 (US Census Bureau) and an average family fallout shelter today would cost $80,000 (Underground Bomb Shelter). Remember when you could get a Coca Cola from the drugstore for a nickel? We don’t either.

Seattle fallout shelter 2 Children under a table during an air raid drill in Burien, 1958. Photo: Museum of History and Industry

Under the I-5 freeway at the north end of the Ravenna Bridge, lurks an ominous reminder a fearful time in American history. Built in 1962 as a safeguard against the potential threat of nuclear warfare, this Seattle freeway fallout shelter was the first of its kind in the nation. The engineering firm of Andersen Bjornstad Kane originally designed the shelter to protect up to 300 people in the event of thermonuclear attack. The shelter cost $67,000 to build.

4579121771_7aa08b99e2_b I-5 Fallout Shelter Exterior. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

It features a squad room, a radio dispatch room, a clerical area for the Washington State Patrol, beds, a medical center and sick bay, toilet facilities, decontamination showers, and a recreation area. The shelter was covered with 4.5 feet of backfill and 429 tons of sand to protect shelterees from radiation, reports History Link, the free online encyclopedia of Washington State History.

Seattle fallout shelter 4 I-5 Fallout Shelter Exterior. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

In the event of a nuclear attack, the plan was to offer protection in the shelter to Greenlake and Ravenna residents on a first come, first serve basis. The food and supplies shelterees brought with them was to be turned over to the shelter manager to be equally distributed among the 300 who escaped the nuclear holocaust. The uncertainty of safe harbor during this time must have been terrifying.

Seattle fallout shelter 5 I-5 Fallout Shelter Exterior. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

The shelter was integrated into the community as a driver’s licensing facility. It was designed with the body heat of 300 people in mind, but with fewer occupants it required space heaters to stay warm. The cost of electricity was astronomical.

Seattle fallout shelter 6 I-5 Fallout Shelter Exterior. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

Food, cots, and supplies have since been removed, and the space now serves as a storage facility for the Washington Department of Transportation.

fallout shelter 2 Fallout Shelter in Carroll Gardens. Photo: Jurgen Stemper

If reading about Cold War nostalgia has reignited latent paranoia, you can find fallout shelter inspiration in this weirdness and also this luxurious underground bunker that can withstand a 20 megaton nuclear blast. We hope you enjoy playing Fallout 4 and that nuclear warfare doesn’t kill us all.

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