Home > News > History > Helter Shelter: What happened to Reno’s bomb shelters?

Helter Shelter: What happened to Reno’s bomb shelters?

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

In 1962 the world was at the peak of the Cold War. Only a year off of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the hysteria and national readiness for a possible nuclear conflict with the then Soviet Union was a real and constant part of American life and culture, affecting large cities, rural America and even Reno.

One of the most iconic remnants of the 1960’s Cold War era are the bomb shelters that were funded and constructed across the country to be used as civilian defense shelters in case of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Reno was no exception. The Biggest Little City at one time had at least 52 different, known public fallout shelters.

The shelters were predominantly spread out across the city and located in public buildings fueled by the Kennedy & Rockefeller Public Building Mandates of 1961. The Civil Defense Program was first suggested to Kennedy by Nelson Rockefeller, who was advocating for shelters in both the public and private sectors of the country. 

In Reno, several bomb shelters were located in schools, at the university and in private businesses such as casinos and hotels like Harold’s Club, the Mapes and the El Cortez.

Shelters were stocked by the federal government with limited supplies of “carbohydrate” based rations, water and toiletries” – basically sugar candy and water canisters that could also be used for sanitation purposes. 

The Reno Evening Gazette from April 22, 1962 alongside a Reno Gazette Journal from April, 2022. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

One of the remaining shelters complete with stocked rations is located at the downtown Reno Public Library.

On April 23, 1963 the Reno Evening Gazette reported that $1million was offered for the construction of the new library downtown by the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation of Nevada. The library, designed by renowned architect Hewitt C. Wells, opened in 1966.

The fallout shelter inside the library can hold up to 257 people for approximately two weeks according to Melissa Wilson of the Washoe County Library System, who provides free public tours on request of the now defunct shelters. 

Running east to west under the library, the shelter is a curious mix of past-era nuclear cynicism and 1960’s-era Orwellian design. Approximately 5’5” tall, four concrete tunnels run hundreds of feet toward Virginia Street. Light is provided only at the end of the run by one antiquated fixture, and the tunnels are only accessible by a ladder descent into the subterranean environment. 

The shelter is stocked with the government supplied provisions to sustain a daily 700-calorie diet. The prospect of seeking shelter for any sustainable amount of time is almost incomprehensible after only a few minutes immersed in the structure. 

Food rations were comprised of sugar candy and water. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Given the social context of the era, with smoking and drinking being as much of a daily activity for Americans as eating dinner or driving a car, the idea of two weeks sleeping, eating, living and addressing basic human bodily functions would prove quickly unbearable in the shelter. 

Cold air drafts and lack of auxiliary power quickly bring to question the effectiveness of the shelters. 

The question of whether or not the program was designed for effectiveness or public placation is present almost immediately from the first step into the nuclear sanctuary. 

The $207 million Congressional appropriation Kennedy asked for in 1961 was reflective of the public interest in them during the early ’60s. Even then scientists were skeptical of their effectiveness, noting that “the incendiary power of explosions could cause firestorms for miles beyond the radius affected by the immediate blast, turning fallout shelters into deathtraps,” according to the National Park Service. 

After 15 minutes in the shelter downtown, this was my conclusion as well.

The library isn’t the only remaining structure stocked with supplies and memories of the early 1960-era Reno civilian defense program. Reno High School accommodates one as well. 

Inconspicuously nestled behind an unassuming door under the N Hall at Reno High are corridors that run seemingly for endless distances to government buildings hundred of yards away, now walled off and inaccessible. 

Under streets and structure, the high school building is home to one of the last Washoe County School District bomb shelters. 

Though several similar shelters were constructed for the school district, many have been converted to classrooms or storage areas. Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy confirmed to This Is Reno that there are no longer any active bomb shelters at local schools, stating, “some are mechanical spaces, some are actively used as classroom spaces, but to my knowledge none of them continue to be maintained or are planning to be used in that manner in any of our facilities.”

Searcy’s statement was apparent by the abandoned state of the shelter at Reno High School. He was also quick to note that he wasn’t sure about the design construction intent at the time. The school first graduated a class in 1952, a decade before the National Defense Program was introduced.

A few dozen boxes of Survival Supplies sit undisturbed under the school in almost pristine condition. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

The presence of federal provisions at Reno High School, though, confirm that the building was designated as an emergency fallout location in case of nuclear war. Along with the same food, water and toiletry provisions as the downtown library, the survival supplies at the school include a “ventilation bike” which was apparently designed to be ridden by someone in order to generate fresh air circulation. 

The survival room designated as shelter was also drafty and devoid of any kind of amenity. 

With recent events in the Ukraine and Russia testing new and powerful ICBM missiles, the United States has a different kind of conflict with Russia in the year 2022. 

Having lived through one of the peaks of Cold War hysteria and threats during the 1980s, reflecting on the bomb shelters and the thought process of the ’60s is both troubling and sad. 

Trying to shelter in the year 2022 from a nuclear exchange with Russia would prove not only futile but arbitrary. Russia claims to possess nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads.

What’s left of Reno’s bomb shelters would be inadequate to protect the citizenry from a nuclear attack.

Related Stories