Brockport’s Cold War Fallout Shelters Revealed

The SUNY Brockport campus was once reinforced and stocked to survive the fallout of a nuclear attack. Find out what happened and what’s left of it all — including one shelter location that remains up for debate.

It was under your feet, and you didn’t even know it.

Three underground bomb shelters were built on the SUNY Brockport campus during the Cold War. And they’re now coming to light because of a single tin of crackers.

Mike Ryan, a plant utilities engineer, dusted off a rusty tin labeled “Civil Defense Survival Crackers” while working in a dirty crawl space that connects Dobson and Benedict Halls. He brought the most intact tin he found to Jim Wall, vice president for administration and finance.

They both thought the tin was interesting as it sat for months in Wall’s office, hinting at a larger conversation: Why is it here? And what else is there?

The history of Brockport’s Cold War connection has remained campus folklore for more than 60 years. The stories and leftover supplies hadn’t even reached the college’s Rose Archives. Writers for The Port attempted to uncover documentation of Brockport’s fallout shelter plans, but they found only a few hard copy blueprints and one document in the New York State Archives that tied the Cold War to campus.

Maybe the information was intended to be hard to find — to protect us from our enemies. Or, maybe it’s just been forgotten.

Who knows? Not us.

But if the crackers were a conversation piece, the rest of what’s left in the shelters would be, too.

“It’s more than likely that there are very few people [at Brockport] that are going to have information on this, because it’s just been down there for so long,” Ryan said.

It was years before Bill Thomas, a general mechanic who started in 1998, ever saw the spaces. He says a flood damaged nearly all of the Cold War supplies down there.

While one shelter location is unconfirmed, spaces in Dobson Hall and Benedict Hall are known to have been filled with cots, bedding, and pillows. But none of that remains today.

In January 2021, maintenance supervisor Alan Bosko, Thomas, and Ryan shared what’s left of the shelter in the Dobson Hall basement. The walls are 16 inches thick, built with concrete and reinforced with rebar. A furnace, which was once an incinerator to be used for medical waste, was transformed into a heat source some time ago.

Then to the massive water tanks. Bosko estimates that each holds at least 1,500 gallons. Filling the tanks with fresh water would’ve been someone’s first job upon the sound of a civil defense siren, according to Bosko.

Two bathrooms sit in the back right corner of the main shelter room. Inside each are two 500-gallon tanks, with toilet seats attached to the top. Ryan criticized their design. “Nobody was thinking, because once this container is full, there is no way to pump the sewage up and outside,” he said. “There is a large vent that goes outside, but then what?”

The bathrooms will be removed in an upcoming campus project, which leaves one less piece of evidence.

Down the hallway from the main room is an access point into a pitch black crawl space covered in dust, rat droppings, and spider webs. About six feet at its tallest and three feet at its shortest, it connects two shelters. Thrown across the floor are cardboard boxes labeled “Civil Defense” dated 1962 and ’63, filled with crackers and medical supplies.

Facilities workers say most supplies have been thrown away.

At one time, the remnants included tins of hard candy, but they were drawing out rats. Thomas said the college donated them to pig farmers.

Leftover medical supplies include a mix of broken and empty bottles and boxes. A few are perfectly preserved — aside from the dust.

Thomas seemed to be joking when he said that, 15 years ago, he treated a toothache with a few antibiotics left over from the supplies.

But no joke. “It worked,” he said.

Supplies found inside of a crawlspace that connects two fallout shelters

The History Behind Cold War Shelters

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were in control of enough nuclear weapons to cause irreversible damage to the planet, which is why fallout shelters became America’s primary defense.

President Dwight Eisenhower and the Federal Civil Defense Administration launched “Grandma’s Pantry” in 1955, a campaign for Americans to prepare their own seven-day supply of food and water. Citizens were advised to stockpile cans of food, practice duck and cover drills, and install private and community fallout shelters.

Were these defenses practical? Professor of History James Spiller doesn’t think so.

“There was a great and profound anxiety in America and around the world during this time,” said Spiller. “Fallout shelters were a response from the Civil Defense Administration to this fear. While they could protect you from radiation poisoning as the levels dwindle over time, nothing could protect you from a thermonuclear explosion besides distance.”

According to Spiller, that anxiety crept into everything, from schools to the entertainment industry. Films and comics are a prime example. Multiple superheroes of the era gained their powers from some form of radiation. 

An overwhelming fear of destruction left Americans feeling helpless — their lives hinging on the press of a button from either side. However, the production of shelters gave citizens some sense of control.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy initiated the Community Fallout Shelter Program. In the same year,  Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller passed statewide civil defense legislation that funded the creation and supply of fallout shelters in state buildings, schools, and colleges. 

The total number of shelters in New York remains a mystery,  but 584 are documented in Monroe County alone.

Researchers believed  Rochester was a potential on the Soviet’s hit list due to its manufacturing and defense industries. A Democrat and Chronicle headline from 1952 reads, “City likely Red target, state CD head Warns.” In a now unclassified project,  a satellite camera created at Kodak, called Gambit-1, was used to spy on the Soviet Union’s nuclear and missile sites.

So, was legislation the driving force behind the creation of the fallout shelters on campus? Or , was it that Rochester had a target on its back? Probably a mix of both. 

Other SUNY institutions had similar shelters in place. 

“I do remember a substantial bomb shelter below the women’s physical education building with stacks of rations and barrels of water,” said Ray Haines, former assistant to the president at  SUNY Oswego. “Particularly disconcerting was the long row of toilets without partitions. Perhaps it was a more friendly time…”

Nick Paradiso, a retiree who once worked at SUNY New Paltz, said, “I was given the assignment to clear out the campus Cold War shelters located in the basement of the Old Main building. In addition to tins of crackers, there were many other supplies, such as flashlights (no longer operable), cans of water, a few gas masks, assorted bedding, and five-gallon containers of medication.”

Why Crackers?

After the Eisenhower administration determined that “Grandma’s Pantry” wouldn’t suffice for doomsday, the government created a plan to feed America. The Department of Agriculture decided on a cracker: cheap, palatable, and long-lasting.

The research cost millions of dollars.

In December of 1961, cereal companies like the United Biscuit Company of America (Keebler), Nabisco, and others produced enough crackers to feed 50 million people by 1964.

In 1962, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Visher explained to Congress, “It (bulgur) has been the primary subsistence ration for many portions of the earth for thousands of years. Its shelf life has been established by being edible after 3,000 years in an Egyptian pyramid.”

While Port staff members did survive a 2021 cracker taste test, we can definitively disagree. Tins that have busted open and rusted through suggest that Brockport’s cracker stash has a much shorter shelf life than 3,000 years. Watch the video above for taste test footage, and hear our raw reflections in “Port Behind the Scenes” below.

What We Do and Don’t Know

Results of the “Radiation Fallout Shelter Survey” for Brockport State Teachers College were the basis for the design of the campus shelters. That design came in the form of 51 portable toilets, 438 triple bunks, accommodations for 2,550 people, and the use of three buildings. The project totaled an estimated $95,070 — worth about $819,000 today.

So, where is this third shelter?

Ryan remembers seeing fallout shelter signs when cutting through Hartwell Hall on his way home from school as a kid. But Thomas believes it exists in Cooper Hall, even though Cooper wasn’t owned by the college back then.

The buildings are listed on the survey as simply #9, #19, and #20.

In the end, our best guess as to when the fallout shelters were built comes from plumbing, heating, and ventilation blueprints dated November 5, 1963.

Do you know more?

SUNY Brockport welcomes anyone with information about Brockport’s ties to the Cold War or its fallout shelters to email theport@brockport.edu.

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Author: Meghan Finnerty & Anthony Arnone