June 10, 2022
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the author’s blog, Saint Paul by Bike.
The Cold War, according to most historians, started in 1945 following the end of World War II. Tensions between the US and Soviet Union grew from, among other things, the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 and the 1950 start of the Korean war.
Fears of nuclear war escalated in the early ’50s after successful tests of the exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb by both the United States and the Soviet Union. The government created evacuation plans for the residents of major US cities, who in the event of a Soviet attack, would evacuate. Civil defense leaders based this plan on the belief that ground observers and military radar would detect Soviet planes in time for people to evacuate.
It’s hard to understand the palpable fear among US citizens after the Soviets’ successful 1957 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch. Officials scrapped the evacuation plans after realizing Soviet ICBMs would reach targets in the US far too quickly to move millions of people out of cities. Civil defense efforts turned toward dedicated group fallout (bomb) shelters—in schools and private buildings—bolstered by a $200 million appropriation from the Kennedy administration for construction of public facilities.
President Kennedy introduced the plan in a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961:
“Such a program will provide Federal funds for identifying fallout shelter capacity in existing, structures, and it will include, where appropriate, incorporation of shelter in Federal buildings, new requirements for shelter in buildings constructed with Federal assistance, and matching grants and other incentives for constructing shelter in State and local and private buildings.”
Efforts went beyond public fallout shelters, as President Kennedy also promoted construction of home shelters. Despite the controversy about the ethics and effectiveness of private home shelters, the number in the US jumped from an estimated 1,516 in 1960 to about 200,000 in 1965. While more than a 100-fold increase in private fallout shelters, it represented only a paltry 0.4 percent of homes in the United States.
There is no easy way to determine how many home fallout shelters were built in Minnesota and how many remain. However, at least one endures, in nearly pristine condition tucked in a quiet residential part of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.
No matter how closely you look, it’s impossible to tell the modest, well-kept bungalow at 725 Ridge St. has a fallout shelter underneath it. Chris and Cindy Weber had no inkling about the bomb shelter when they stepped into the house with their realtor in 1996. As they toured the basement, Chris said the realtor spotted a door that looked out of place. “He goes over there and he opens it up and he starts swearing. ‘Holy s—!’ He’d never seen anything like it before.” Chris said, chuckling at the memory. Obviously, the fallout shelter didn’t discourage them from purchasing the house.
When Chris and Cindy moved in, the shelter was empty other than an old gas mask—no civil defense food rations or water containers, no first aid kits or other supplies. Chris told me they haven’t removed or changed any of the features of the shelter in the 26 years they’ve lived here, though they added a couple of shelves for storage.
The shelter revived Cindy’s recollection of the “Duck and Cover” drills in which she participated in the early 1960s, according to Chris. “In school, they had nuclear drills; hide under your desk, and she started talking about that.”
Chris invited me into the house and took me through the kitchen to the basement stairs.
Once in the basement, he pointed out the odd door that led to the discovery of the fallout shelter so many years before.
The first thing I noticed after descending from the basement into the shelter was the solid, foot-thick cement walls. The low concrete ceiling — between six-and-a-half and seven feet tall — and two glaring industrial lights (“for hazardous locations”) created a feeling of confinement, despite the relatively roomy 25-foot by 25-foot size. It was cool in the shelter — low-60s I’m guessing — and it felt and smelled faintly damp, much like a typical basement. A distinct echo played upon our voices, footsteps and every other sound we made. The starkness of the room and harsh lighting contributed to an overall unsettled feeling.
Chris and Cindy haven’t attempted to open the shelter wall safe. “We never pursued trying to open it and we have no combo for it,” Chris believes it’s empty but remains curious.
The government line in the event of a nuclear attack was that citizens would need to stay in a fallout shelter for two weeks after an attack to allow radiation to dissipate to a safe level. Therefore, public and home shelters alike had to be stocked with food, water, a first aid kit, sanitation supplies and other necessities.
Chris has intensely reflected upon Cold War fallout shelters from many perspectives. First, there’s the geopolitical circumstances that led to the nuclear threat and fallout shelters. “I was thinking what went through their minds, because this doesn’t make sense to me. This does not make sense to me that you would do something like this because even if you survive, even if you live down here and a nuclear blast comes through, you’re not gonna live.”
He’s also considered the logistics that were required to fully prepare the 1960s shelter. He speculates the two metal plates mounted to the stairway walls (above) were part of a pulley system used to move large, heavy or bulky items into the shelter. “You could get heavy equipment down there. And then once it’s down there, of course it’s easy to move around.”
The apparent lack of a toilet puzzled Chris (and me). It turns out empty water barrels were designed to double as toilets (below). At a certain point, it would have been necessary or at least prudent to remove the bag and its contents from the shelter.
Tax records indicate that 725 Ridge Street was built in 1938, several years before the Cold War began. Construction of the shelter came about 20 years later. Dr. Wilfred W. Wetzel, a 3M scientist, owned the home and had the shelter built. Wetzel was one of the scientists responsible for breakthroughs with magnetic audio recording tape, revolutionizing the music and broadcasting industries by making it practical to record broadcasts and live performances for later playback. According to Chris, “He made a lot of money off the royalties. And he took the money and he did things like this.”
Constructing the shelter must have been quite a project. The builder had to dig a sizeable hole 15 to 20 feet deep in the front yard and build the shelter below the basement level. Chris still ponders the techniques and materials used in building the shelter, which shows negligible signs of wear or decay. “Let’s say it’s been in here for 50-plus years nobody’s ever touched the roof or the walls. How the heck are they still intact? I’m thinking to myself, ‘I bet this is lead lined,’ and God only knows what other materials are up here to make sure this thing never cracked from water or tree roots or anything.”
Chris gets a kick out of showing visitors, especially younger people who have little knowledge of the Cold War, the shelter. “I’d say, ‘You wanna see the bomb shelter?’ The kids would go, ‘What’s that?’ We’d come down here and talk about it and, and what it meant. And they’re in shock when they see it, because they’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Chris doubts they’ll mention the fallout shelter in the listing when they sell the house. “We talked to the agent—was it last year or the year before about it?—and he said, ‘What’s gonna sell the house is that porch and the stuff up above. This is not gonna help sell a house.” Although Chris is correct about that, there’s little doubt the fallout shelter makes 725 Ridge Street a more intriguing place to live.
Elsewhere In Highland Park
The rest of the ride obviously didn’t offer anything as dramatic as Chris and Cindy’s fallout shelter but there were still many sights worth noting. For example, about a block away, a large expanse of grass and the driveway was all that remained where a massive home stood for more than 80 years.
Past residents include a member of the Weyerhaeuser family (Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis) the former head of Cray Research who was nominated for the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration and the disgraced former owner of a travel agency.It will be very interesting to see what goes up on this 3.5-acre wooded property, among the biggest in Highland Park.
Highland Park south of Ford Parkway features a bountiful number of homes built in the mid-20th century. Several homes on Hampshire Court have interesting architectural details that are found on homes from the early 1950s.
Riding east on Hampshire to Davern Street I came upon a Little Free Library in the most unconventional location. It apparently belongs to the home at 1020 Davern but it’s quite a hike from the house to the library. Not only that, the library is 15 feet from Davern and partially obscured by a bush.
The view of the Highland Park Water Tower on Snelling Avenue is significantly better after the removal of the reservoir to the south.
Finally, a couple other random scenes around Highland Park.
In thinking back on this ride, I cannot help but consider the historical significance of the fallout shelter. I am old enough to vaguely remember some of the saber-rattling between the US and Soviet Union. I’ve seen fallout shelter signs, provisions, gas masks, water and waste buckets and many other Cold War relics. I’ll never forget the time in third grade, sitting on the school bus in the Milwaukee area, watching in awe as half a dozen Nike surface-to-air missiles and their launch platforms were raised from underground bunkers and shortly thereafter, lowered back into them. But none of that made the impression that 45 minutes in Chris and Cindy Weber’s fallout shelter did.
Except where noted, all photos are by the author.