June 10, 2022
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 Soviet’s successful 1957 intercontinental ballistics 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 couple hundred million dollar 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.”President John F. Kennedy
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% of homes in the US.
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 Saint Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.
No matter how closely you look, it’s impossible to tell the modest, well kept bungalow at 725 Ridge Street 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 disapate 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 he 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 sabre-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.
Wow, I’d love to know about other shelters in the area. I wonder if there were a few contractors who specialized in them?
Colin, there is an app that claims to have mapped the ‘nearly 5,000’ locations of fallout shelters in the Twin Cities area. It’s cleverly called Fallout Shelter Map TwinCities. I chose not to purchase it so far.
Yes, there were contractors that specialized in building shelters, according to an article by the National Park Service. They were typically either building-supply retailers or construction contractors. Here’s the link to the article: https://www.nps.gov/articles/coldwar_civildefense_kennedyrockefellerandcd.htm
Another colorful look into the unique and somewhat zany in St. Paul. But how did you learn about the shelter in the first place?
Hi Don. Thank you for reading the post. Years ago, my wife and I lived near the home now owned by Chris and Cindy Weber. A previous owner told me about the shelter and I filed it away in my memory.
Another fascinating post, Wolfie! When I was in college, I was a janitor/security guard at the Lowry Medical Arts Building in downtown St. Paul. I discovered a Civil Defense cache of supplies that were stored (and forgotten) in a room off of the basement parking area. There was a variety of supplies stored there, including medical supplies, cans of water, portable toilets and a Geiger Counter. It was kind of spooky. You can still see Fallout Shelter signs on buildings around town.
Gary, you have had so many interesting jobs which always seem to tie in with the blog posts you comment on. Wonder if those civil defense supplies are still in the basement of the Lowry Medical Arts Building. Let me know if you want to check it out! Thanks for commenting, Gary.
Great article and amazing reporting Wolfie! I really enjoy reading your blog posts!
Thank you so much, Missy! I appreciate you reading the posts.
I may have missed it, but did you include the place where Sara Jane Olson was arrested in 1999?
Hi Michael. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned where she was arrested, nor have I commented on her house in Highland. I don’t know if she still lives there. Feel free to fill in more details if you have them. Thank you for reading and commenting.
Wil Wetzel was my Uncle. He and his wife, Lydia had no children. It’s great that he is finally recognized for his work at 3 M, too. The Shelter was really something, wasn’t it? Loved to see it today! Thanks for your reporting!
Mary Lux Mueller
Hi Mary. Thank you for sharing this information about your uncle! Fascinating. Do you have any other recollections about the shelter–when it was built, cost, how long it took, what the neighbors thought?
Fascinating post, Wolfie. Thank you!
Kirk, thanks so much! Nice to hear from you, by the way. Hope you are well.
I saw a link to this on LinkedIn. Wolfie, how did I not know about this blog? This is so fun! I am looking forward to reading your earlier posts. This one was so interesting, and I really enjoyed your writing style.
Hi Angie. Thank you for reading and your kind comments! It’s nice to hear from you. How are you and the children?
Wolfie, you find the coolest stuff. I wonder who removed the door (and why and how)…
Thank you, John. I really appreciate Chris taking me into the shelter, which is so unusual and fascinating for many reasons. Your questions are excellent ones and I have no answer for them.
As kids living on the east side of Bloomington in the 50s, my friends and I routinely roamed far and wide in the neighborhood, including poking around the countless new houses under construction. One house we explored had a strange basement space with thick walls, a concrete ceiling and no windows. I figured it was a fallout shelter but my friends were divided (2 nays to 1 aye) that it was. A couple months later, the house was finished, and someone had moved in. My friends and I knocked on the door and told the residents that we were doing a survey for a school project (we weren’t) on how many houses in our neighborhood had fallout shelters. The guy not only told us he had one–he was positively proud of it. Years later, after Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues” came out, I wondered if the guy was still bragging to everybody that he had a fallout shelter… “Gimme a string bean, I’m a hungry man! Shotgun fired and away I ran. I don’t blame him much though–he didn’t know me.”
bolobilly, thanks for sharing the great story. That must have been quite a thrill to experience the fallout shelter during construction. Talkin’ World War III Blues might be appropriate once again. Dylan sure can write…
I would LOVE to have a house like that!! A big part of the local fallout shelter story are the sandstone caves of the Twin Cities. About the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the architectural firm TKDA was hired to survey the caves and calculate how many citizens would fit into them. Well, some people are claustrophobic, so they had a drug to “treat” that ailment, namely phenobarbital. This episode in our local history is covered in my book SUBTERRANEAN TWIN CITIES.