More than 100 years after it was built, the Lindenwood University-Belleville campus is starting to reveal its secrets—glimpses of life during an earlier era.
Lindenwood Belleville President Brett Barger said he’s ready to let them escape because they could serve as a window to one of the most troubling times in our country’s past.
Over the past century, tens of thousands of students have walked the grounds of the campus, originally constructed as Belleville Township High School in 1915. But very few are aware of the history that lies just below the surface. Tunnels hidden beneath the campus doubled as a Cold War-era bomb shelter and still hold a stash of emergency rations put in place more than five decades ago to help people survive a nuclear attack that still hasn’t come.
“This is history that I would like to be able to share with the students and the faculty,” said Barger, standing in a room where barrels of water and boxes of food and toiletries have gathered dust since 1962 and pondering what it would be like to have to survive there indefinitely if the worst happened. “I’d like to see it become part of a living, learning lab.”
While students over the years have been oblivious to what lies beneath them–except when a light snow falls and the heat from steam lines that run through the tunnels melts the snowfall on the ground above, leaving clues that there is something more than meets the eye--Barger said he thinks it’s important they learn about the past to prepare for the future.
“There are important events that touched lives all over the world, and there is evidence of that right here,” Barger said.
In the fallout shelter, dozens of metal containers, each holding 18 pounds of “Civil Defense all-purpose survival biscuits” sit undisturbed. One of the opened tins reveals contents that appear as if they were only a few weeks old. Next to them are several 17 ½-gallon drums filled with water that were meant to be used as toilets when the drinking water was gone. The liquid, in plastic bags inside the drums, still appears clear.
It would be impractical for students to go to the fallout shelter to study it. But Amy Gangloff, associate professor of history, said she’d love to see some of the historic artifacts displayed above ground where students can see them on a regular basis. She thinks it would be best if the bulk of the Cold War survival rations were left as they are for posterity.
“I love the idea of public history,” Gangloff said. “It’s important to be connected with the past and realize that it touched the places where we live today.”
Gangloff said it’s one thing to discuss cold war tensions or to read about them in a book. But it’s a splash of reality to see firsthand the meager existence people were planning.
“It’s the mythology of the happy 1950s family vs. the fear of nuclear war,” said Gangloff. “It seems a lot harder to be hopeful about the future when you’re staring at a tin box filled with survival crackers.”
The tins of survival biscuits are dated October 1962. At the time, it seemed likely they’d someday, probably sooner than later, be required to serve their grim purpose of providing survivors of a nuclear blast with about 700 calories a day for up to two weeks.
During the month of their manufacture, the United States was deeply mired in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff with the Soviet Union that threatened to drag the world into a nuclear nightmare. On Oct. 22, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the nation to announce the world was at the brink of nuclear war. The United States discovered in Cuba, just 100 miles from the coast of Florida, Soviet ballistic missiles that could incinerate U.S. cities in a matter of moments.
The world held its breath while Kennedy negotiated with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev to try to peacefully resolve the crisis as Soviet crews rushed to make the missiles operational and the American military pondered a strike to destroy the weapons before they were ready to be fired.
While that tense moment in history was diffused, the threat of nuclear war persisted. The stockpile on what is now the Lindenwood Belleville campus gathered dust as history rolled on with the Vietnam War; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the Watergate scandal; and the social and political upheavals that followed. More than 165,000 tons of survival rations were produced in the early 1960s until 1970, and they were placed in more than 100,000 fallout shelters across the country.
In 1969, Congress decided to defund the project which stocked the shelters. The products were only intended to last five years, meaning the ones at Lindenwood Belleville were no good by the end of the summer of 1967.
In 1976, the Department of Civil Defense announced that all cereal-based rations were likely to be rancid and recommended they be thrown out. It is unknown how many shelters are left, forgotten with their rations still in place.
“Fortunately, the supplies in the fallout shelter were never used for their original purpose,” Barger said. “Now their value is what they can teach us all about our past.”