Going underground: Extensive Cold War-era bomb shelters dot the valley
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Ever wonder why basements are rare in Southern Nevada, while they’re fairly common in other parts of the country?
Most are quick to point to the stubborn caliche sedentary rock concentrated in local soil, but that’s only part of it. The other reason, says Courtney Mooney, historian with the city of Las Vegas, is that the water table in Las Vegas is high, and subterranean structures often flood. It’s why there aren’t many underground parking lots in Las Vegas; they’re just too problematic.
Still, the impracticality of building below earth didn’t discourage anyone from doing so during the Cold War scare in the 1940s and 1950s. Clark County Heritage Museum Administrator Mark Hall-Patton guesses there were 70 or so designated shelters in the valley, an estimate he gathers from pins on an old bomb-shelter map. “The overall idea was that we could have enough space for everyone in the valley,” he says.
Many shelters were designated casino basements, others were homes, abandoned mines, bridges such as the Charleston Underpass and at least one bunker that was built specifically as a fallout shelter.
Arden Civil Defense shelter is the best known and only existing bunker today, says Deputy Fire Chief Emergency Manager Fernandez Leary, though it’s been “mothballed” and is out of service. Learly says there were likely others in the valley, but nobody seems to recall where. Hall-Patton describes the shelter, which is located in Arden, off of Blue Diamond Road, as “a hole in the ground lined with railroad ties.” It was meant as a headquarters for local officials to meet in the event of an attack.
Surprisingly, the shelter was only dismantled 15 or so years ago, says Hall-Patton, whose museum received some of the supplies.
In the case of a Soviet attack, locals planned to flock to casinos for safety. Most casinos had shelters, Hall-Patton says.
Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum, says the shelters remained stocked into the ’70s and even ’80s. In 1995, the Sands casino was cleared out, and the museum received a sanitation kit, dated 1962, that included gloves and a commode toilet seat.
Mooney says Golden Gate Casino, the oldest surviving hotel-casino property in Las Vegas, was designed with a basement that serves as an underground shelter with tunnels that still exist today. “And who knows where the tunnels go,” she says.
McBride, who grew up in Boulder City, laughs when he thinks about the town’s emergency plan — particularly a little known, largely flawed protocol. In the event of an attack, people were supposed to drive to Hoover Dam, to hide out inside the dam structure.
“You look at it now and think, how ridiculous,” McBride says. “Six thousand people trying to get down into the dam with the mushroom cloud in the background.”
Perhaps the most famous is the expansive underground home at Flamingo Road and Spencer Street, a luxurious, several-thousand-square-foot dwelling built by businessman Girard Henderson. The house rests below a normal-looking home, and features a hot tub, sauna, pool, putting green and guest house. Even “outdoor” lights change to mimic dawn, daytime and dusk.
In addition to Henderson’s lavish shelter, modest households also built small bunkers.
Lindy DeMunbrun of the Clark County Heritage Museum and McBride recall a house on Avenue A in Boulder City that had a backyard bunker. McBride says it was a concrete locker with a concrete dome roof, furnished with camp beds and stocked with foods like beef jerky and canned milk. DeMunbrun describes it as resembling “big corrugated pipes with a lid.”
Mooney says she knows of three or four underground shelters in the John S. Park neighborhood, dug in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
MINES AND RAILROAD TUNNELS
Abandoned mines were commonly stocked with supplies in case of a nuclear attack. One was located in Blue Diamond, and was only cleared out about a decade ago. Some supplies are on display at the county and state museums. Nevada State Museum has an old first-aid kit. Hall-Patton says mines today are likely still loaded with forgotten supplies. “They’re old supplies, not things you’d want to be using,” he says.
Railroad tunnels overlooking the lake and underground tunnels made by engineering companies were also potential shelters.
“When the Cold War came they just assumed they’d be great shelters,” McBride says. “You have to laugh.”
Boulder City maintains disaster shelters in various public buildings, such as the recreation center, multipurpose room and Boulder Creek Golf Course. “It depends on what’s happening,” says Fire Chief Chuck Gebhart.
In Clark County, Leary says, “shelter in place” is the new standard. If a bomb dropped on Las Vegas, those who survived the initial blast should remain in structures that aren’t damaged or blown over. But not all homes are created equal, Leary says. Single-story, single-family stucco homes with no basements are the least safe; concrete-fortified buildings or multistory homes with basements are ideal.
While all the fuss seemed to be for nothing, the sentiment was “better safe than sorry.” “The worry was that the bomb might come,” Hall-Patton says. “And if it did, we wanted to survive.” Besides, he notes with a chuckle, today “they make fine wine cellars!”