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Underground, Upper Valley’s Relics of Nuclear Terror Wait Patiently

  • From left, South Royalton, Vt., residents Cille Meberg and Tom Remp, and Woodstock, Vt., residents Jeff Lue and Emily Gaynor look up at the estimated 18 inches of concrete separating them from the surface as they tour the Rockefeller family's fully-stocked fallout shelter at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park during a 1960s cocktail hour event in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday, June 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chief of Interpretation and Education Stephanie Kyriazis, of Woodstock, Vt., gives a tour of the Rockefeller family's fallout shelter at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller national Historical Park during a 1960s cocktail hour event in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday, June 29, 2018. Roughly 86 people can be housed between the two fallout shelters on the property. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dressed in 1960s-era attire, from left, Ashley Blanchfield, of Norwich, Vt., Cheryl Addams, of Woodstock, Vt., and Zachariah Ralph, of Hartland, Vt., partake in a picnic on the grass of the Rockefeller's garden before taking a tour of the fallout shelter located in the house behind them at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller national Historical Park during a 1960s cocktail hour event in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday, June 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chief of Interpretation and Education Stephanie Kyriazis, dressed in a 1960s-era ranger uniform, of Woodstock, Vt., announces the first of the tours she will give on the Rockefeller fallout shelter located under the house behind her at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller national Historical Park during a 1960s cocktail hour event in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday, June 29, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cans of food from the 1960s that would be used during the event of nuclear fallout sit out on display at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park cocktail hour event in Woodstock, Vt., on Friday, June 29, 2018. According to Chief of Interpretation and Education Stephanie Kyriazis, several park employees tried the food, and are still alive to this day. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, July 02, 2018

Growing up around Boston, Alexandra Conrad knew little more about the Cold War than what she read in history books and saw on black-and-yellow signs designating some public buildings as fallout shelters in the event of nuclear attack.

Then last fall, the recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst started coordinating events and volunteers at Woodstock’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park — and learned what lies beneath the private bowling alley where Laurance and Mary Rockefeller used to topple pins with visitors to Mary’s family’s estate.

After descending through a stairway of whitewashed brick, passing through a security door and then an anteroom with a single toilet, Conrad entered the long, narrow fallout shelter that Laurance had ordered built in the early 1960s at the urging of his brother Nelson.

Separated from the bowling alley by 18 inches of concrete, it contains a ventilation system, one phone for calling to the outside world and an intercom for staying in touch with occupants of a separate shelter in the Rockefellers’ main mansion, as well as bunks for 32 people, food and basic supplies such as packages of clean underwear and pull-on sneakers.

And then Conrad and other Student Conservation Association interns tasted some of the vacuum-sealed, reconstituted rations with which the Rockefellers had re-stocked the shelter in the late 1980s, not long before the Soviet Union imploded and the family started making plans to turn over the property to the National Park Service.

“It was mostly pretty gross, though you could still get it down,” Conrad recalled on Friday night, while serving fresh Billings Farm cheese to visitors on the lawn outside the so-called Belvedere building that contains the shelter to which the Park Service leads public tours. “There was some spaghetti-and-meatballs mix that tasted a little bit like Chef Boyardee.

“Until then, I hadn’t been able to experience firsthand what it would be like to have to take shelter under those circumstances. With the food, it’s so visceral: It raises the question: What if (Laurance Rockefeller) had had to use those shelters?”

The Rockefellers weren’t alone in worrying about fallout — radioactive particles from a nuclear blast drifting on prevailing winds to the Upper Valley. In the decade after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite into orbit, in 1957, many well-to-do people and some of modest means reinforced their homes.

The closest they came to needing them came in October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy faced down Nikita Khruschev over missiles that the Soviet Union had installed on Cuba. The saber-rattling between the U.S. and North Korea has renewed interest in mid-20th-century nuclear safeguards.

Growing up in Hanover in the 1960s, Michael Hinsley lived next door to a family that “had a bomb shelter, a real one” near the town line with Lyme. Now deputy fire chief and fire marshal in Hanover, Hinsley continues to come across the occasional house where prominent people, most of them working at Dartmouth College, had reinforced their basements.

“After World War II, there was huge growth, a lot of expansion at the Thayer School (of engineering) and the medical school,” Hinsley said. “There have been new owners who, when putting in modern heating systems, ask us, ‘Why do I have a double concrete wall?’ ”

Playwright Marisa Smith, who also grew up in Hanover, said in an email exchange that her father, Dartmouth psychology professor and dean William M. Smith, installed such a shelter at their Ridge Road home in the mid-1960s.

“I remember being worried that the ‘cannon balls’ might be able to roll into the opening,” Smith recalled last week. “It was a cement block ‘room,’ in the basement that had bunk beds and canned goods and water. It was a clubhouse of sorts. My neighbor Lorenzo diBoneventura — the son of Mario diBoneventura, the conductor of the Dartmouth Symphony — asked my parents if he could bring his two younger sisters to the shelter if needed.”

While the family that eventually bought the Smiths’ house removed the shelter, as did many subsequent owners around the country, the Rockefellers maintained theirs until the Park Service took over the property. As a senior architectural conservator for the Park Service, Naomi Kroll has spent several years assessing the condition and the history of both the mansion’s shelter and the one under the bowling alley.

“They’re a pristine, almost time-capsule example of one time period that has hardly changed at all,” Kroll said last week. “There are so few of them left intact. It’s such an immersive experience when you’re in them, with the original furnishings and the original supplies. It really transports you back to that time period.”

After Sputnik, the Eisenhower administration started encouraging the construction of in-home shelters, when it became clear that it wouldn’t be practical to evacuate families from urban and suburban areas near potential targets of nuclear bombs. Planners also came to realize, in the wake of nuclear tests, that the transport of nuclear fallout over long distances was a longer-term threat to more people than the initial blast at ground zero.

Among the biggest advocates of retrofitting homes was Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth graduate then serving as governor of New York. Kroll said that Rockefeller went so far as to propose legislation requiring all new construction in the state to include fallout shelters, and to adapt existing houses by 1963.

“That never went over well with either party in the New York Legislature,” Kroll said. “He also tried to pitch it to President Kennedy as something that would not just save lives, but be a deterrent against a first-strike by the Soviets.”

Kennedy ultimately dismissed that “tone-deaf appeal,” Kron added, and eventually the government’s focus shifted toward creating public shelters.

Harold Swartz, a Lyme resident and longtime radiologist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, found in his own research over the ensuing decades that, beyond the impact zones, most survivors of a nuclear attack would be fine in the shelter of their own basements.

“Almost any structure will give you more protection than you would have if you were outside,” Swartz said. “Time is very much on your side. The fallout will disperse. It will blow somewhere with the wind. The radioactivity decreases very quickly with time — 48, 72 hours. And unless there were an unusual weather pattern if a bomb were to hit New York or Boston, the chances of getting a lot of life-threatening fallout is not real high in the Upper Valley.”

Swartz said that he had not heard about the Rockefeller shelters during his years living in the Upper Valley. He does remember the anxiety of the era, having served as an Army medical officer in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s.

“There was a lot of interest in building bunkers and shelters in the area, with a supply of fresh air, food for several weeks, enough water for several weeks, and hygiene need,” he recalled. “In my role, I was supposed to have things packed and ready to go. When a (color-coded weather) balloon went up (as a signal), I was to grab my stuff and be brought to a shelter in Virginia, where I would be helping to take care of high-level people in the government. It was a major shelter.”

While Swartz never got to see such a shelter, Vermont-born journalist Garrett Graff describes a similar one in his recent book, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die. The book’s revelations became topical during the recent crisis with North Korea.

“There was the idea of keeping the government going, and exhaustive research on how to do it from Eisenhower through the Obama administration,” Kroll said. “There were all sorts of government shelters, almost all of which were decommissioned.”

Kroll added that before North Korea launched 23 missiles in 2017, the peak of five years of testing whether nuclear bombs could reach the U.S. mainland, most Google searches about home shelters turned up ads aimed at survivalists, for kits from Sam’s Club and Costco, as well as blueprints and contractors who installed them.

Conrad said that visitors to the Rockefeller shelters who grew up during the Cold War have been comparing those times to current threats.

“It makes you think, ‘Who do you bring into shelter for your next society?’ ” Conrad said. “It makes you think about today, when people have those fears.”

Swartz, who for more than a decade has been developing a device with which first-responders can detect radiation levels in the teeth of survivors of nuclear disasters, suspects that if the Korea crisis ebbs, so will interest in how to weather an attack.

“Human beings are human beings,” Swartz said. “You prepare for something that’s imminent, on your radar, then you forget about it.”

The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site offers tours of the bowling alley and fallout shelter on Friday afternoons at 2 through Oct. 26. To learn more, visit nps.gov/mabi and click on Plan Your Visit.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Recommendations for local oddities for us to document in the weekly feature Lost, Hidden or Forgotten also can be sent to ahanson@vnews.com.