How Austin Learned To Stop Worrying And Forget About The Bomb
To some people, the future of Austin in the 1950s wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t friendly, as the town’s moniker suggested. It was cold and dark. The future of "The Friendly City” was a crater.
The grip of the Cold War brought a wave of doomsday prepping that was as fleeting as the flash of a nuclear blast. As a capital city in the largest military target of all 50 states, Austin was keen to invest in civil defense – and it did. But it was hard to get public buy-in. Austinites needed an example of how to prepare for the bomb.
So, the city partnered with the Office of Civil Defense Management and the Department of Defense to build a model shelter – a template for residents looking to build a shelter of their own.
And there it sat, in the northeast corner of the lot that houses the Zilker Park Caretaker's Lodge, a pastoral cottage built in 1930 that has housed generations of the park’s caretakers. The shelter itself has gone largely unused since its christening. The L-shaped, 8-by-8-foot shelter became little more than an underground storage room. While it was open to the public, it was essentially abandoned.
Kim McKnight of the Parks and Recreation Department led the effort to revamp the Caretaker's Lodge. She says also renovating the shelter just wasn't possible.
"We simply didn’t have the resources to address the shelter," McKnight says. "But it is something we very much would like to highlight as soon as we’re able to get the funding and pull together an interpretive plan."
That interpretive plan would be tricky, though. The shelter is inundated with about a half-foot of standing water, and any plan to restore it would need to be in line with historical preservation standards. For now, it's shuttered, but McKnight says she'd like to see it restored one day.
"It could happen here"
“Sound beyond sound, fire beyond fire, smoke beyond smoke,” wrote Bob Rogers in The Austin American-Statesman. “IT COULD HAPPEN HERE,” blared the 1954 headline.
The threat of massive retaliation in the 1950s was a very real one, and Rogers' April 1 piece capitalized on that, suggesting Austin was ill-equipped to handle an attack.
An H-bomb has fallen on Austin. The target was easy: the pinpointing, inviting University of Texas Tower. In an instant shorter than time that never was the vital heart of a city is gone. Disappeared from the face of the earth. Disappeared to are the inhabitants. The area of COMPLETE ANNIHILATION – can we comprehend that? COMPLETE ANNIHILATION! – spreads for three miles on every side.
At first blush, given the dateline, it seems like an April Fool’s joke, but Rogers clarifies in the kicker, “No joke.”
Histrionics aside, state leaders had seen the potential, as well. The head of the Texas State Department of Defense and Disaster Relief told a group of civil defense volunteers that, given the number of population centers and military bases, Texas was in the "unwelcome position of being the state with the largest number of aiming areas in the nation," according to a 1958 Statesman write-up.
The "duck and cover" method of dealing with nuclear strikes was out of fashion, and civil defense officials were squarely emphasizing evacuation and shelter tactics to deal with a nuclear strike. With that, the City of Austin invested more heavily in civil defense, building more public shelters, but also emphasizing the importance of private shelters. To further that, the city partnered with the federal government to build the six-person model shelter.
Gov. Price Daniel, Mayor Tom Miller and the city's civil defense liaison, Terrell Blodgett, christened the shelter in April 1960. Its pantry was stocked by HEB; it featured a shortwave radio donated by Sears and Roebuck; its walls were a cheery gold to brighten the enclosed space.
The shelter became a showpiece; it was featured in the state PSA on shelters "Target Austin" – a KTBC-produced piece that imagined a nuclear strike in Austin.
After that zenith, public interest in the shelter seemingly fell out.
"No big deal"
Internally, the city's focus on nuclear disaster preparedness hadn't exactly reached the heights of frenzy as it had at the federal level.
"All that is to say, the City did not place much emphasis on civil defense at the time," recalled Blodgett, the city's civil defense director, who was a fixture at the shelter's opening and is featured in "Target Austin."
Austin briefly staffed the Zilker shelter, and Austinites looking to build a private shelter could visit the site by appointment, but it wasn't a priority.
Katie Hill, a grad student at UT's School of Architecture who helped McKnight and the Parks Department get the Caretaker's Lodge historical designation, spoke to Blodgett via email while researching the park.
"He passed it off as no big deal … but he was cited heavily in the newspaper articles around that time, pitching this as an affordable option that citizens should invest in," Hill says. "But his perception of it, this many years later, is it wasn’t that big a deal."
KUT reached out to Blodgett, but he wasn't available for an interview. Still, Council put money toward hundreds of public shelters. In a 1961 Council meeting, Mayor Lester Palmer touted the city's $86,000 budget for civil defense during a discussion of additional shelters at Hancock, Wooldridge and Zilker parks.
The city also stationed 13 PA systems to warn Austinites of an impending strike.
And, just over a year after the shelter was built, one of those sirens went off.
People flooded the city with calls. One police officer described the scene as “absolute panic.” People even packed up everything and fled. Radio and TV stations were off the air for 30 minutes, waiting for word from the Office of Civil Defense Management, which required radio and TV operators to tune to a specific frequency to broadcast any emergency alert.
Obviously, it was a mistake – a short circuit, most likely – officials told The Statesman. Everyone thought the city was going to test the sirens the next day at 3 p.m. – not in the middle of the night.
Despite that overwhelming response, a study done by UT sociologist Harry Moore, which was commissioned by the Department of Defense, found 80 percent of the 500 Austinites surveyed knew of the city’s civil defense program, but only 17 respondents owned a shelter and the majority hadn’t even seen a demonstration shelter like the one in Zilker.
As to whether there are other shelters like it, Hill says, it's hard to say.
“Every once and a while, someone does a remodel and they find one and it pops into the news briefly, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a record of where they were built," she says.
Austin didn't really track private shelter construction, but there have been shelters discovered – namely, one in West Lake Hills which, McKnight says, could serve as a template for a Zilker shelter remodel eventually.
“The biggest opportunity would be to restore it so that it actually reads like a 1960s shelter. So, you know, have food down there, have cans, so people can see what it would feel like to be in there. [T]here’s kind of a movement nationally to understand the infrastructure of the Cold War," she says. "So, this is part of a larger story of what the landscape and the sort of relics of that time are and how do we interpret that as a way of not repeating history.”
But, as far as private shelters go, it seemed to be a short-lived history.
Ten years after the construction of the Zilker shelter, in the spring of 1971, the sirens wailed again.
There was little response. No flood of calls. No “absolute panic.” People ignored it.