This Federal air raid siren sits on a telephone and light pole in Medford, Massachusetts. Medford had an extensive network of pole mounted air raid sirens, and many of them are still there today. It is unknown when the system stopped being used or maintained, but based on the condition of the control box under this one, it was long ago.
Civil defense and the protection of the citizens of the United States started before the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. This was in the form of air raid sirens, air riad shelters, and blackout orders.
However, once the atomic bomb was born and the nuclear arms race began, protection became even more necessary because a new threat arose with the creation of these new weapons: fallout.
It was soon apparent as nuclear weapons were tested that radiation from the bombs could travel far away from the blast in the form of fine dust and particles. Not only would people in the area of the blast be affected, but cities and towns miles away could also see radiation issues with fallout.
Tensions with The Soviet Union only increased once they made a nuclear weapon of our own, and the possibility of nuclear war became a very real thing. In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy had given a speech, and during that speech pledged to increase civil defense in the US.
On July 25, 1961, he gave another speech regarding the Berlin crisis (which is available above). During this speech, he outlined his wish for citizens in the United States to be able to protect themselves in case of attack, and with the line below (around the 16:15 mark), the Fallout Shelter as we know it came to be:
Tomorrow, I am requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: To identify and mark space in existing structures, public and private, that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack; to stock those shelters with food, water, first aid kits, and other minimal essentials for our survival.
By September of 1961, the Fallout Shelter sign had been created and the National Fallout Shelter Survey began. It would be close to a year in many places before signs were posted and shelters were stocked, and this continued through the mid-1960s until funding started to decrease and the program fell out of favor.
As the Fallout Shelter program turns 60 this year, it is important to remember where it began in the first place.
An exterior Fallout Shelter sign is seen on the United States Post Office Building in Littleton, New Hampshire this past fall.
The weathered sign shows a capacity of 355. New Hampshire’s first Fallout Shelter sign was posted in Concord in 1962, and shelters were more prominent in some of the larger cities like Concord and Manchester. There were, however, shelters in various places throughout the state.
In typical Hollywood fashion, one location can easily double for another, and a Fallout Shelter sign in the background does not care where it’s actually supposed to be.
This screenshot from Spenser: For Hire, Season 2, Episode 15 shows an exterior Fallout Shelter sign on the outside of 150 Causeway Street, which when this was filmed was the former Boston Garden. This arena was connected in some fashion with North Station, but neither had a bus terminal, so some artistic license was used in the shot.
This building was closed in 1995 and demolished in 1998, but it’s memory lives on in Boston sports legend and modern day streaming services.
This screenshot from the TV series Spenser: For Hire shows an exterior Fallout Shelter sign on the outside of a residential building at 96 Beacon Street in Boston. This shot came from Season 1, Episode 22 (“Hell Hath No Fury”) and was taken as Spenser (played by Robert Urich) turns from Beacon Street on to Arlington Street.
The building is still there today, but the sign is long gone.
The sign marks are still very prominent to the left of the entrance door. It is unknown when the sign was removed but it was well before the mid 1990s.
Spenser ran three seasons from 1985 to 1988 and was filmed almost entirely on location in Boston.
People are seen walking past a Fallout Shelter sign at 3 Park Street in Boston, just down from the Massachusetts State House, on April 5, 1968. These people had been engaged in demonstrations taken place after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Memphis, Tennessee the day prior.
The building, which appeared to have been a bank when this was taken, still stands but the sign is gone.
This photo in the Boston Globe, taken by Boston Globe staff photographer Ellis Herwig on March 18, 1970 shows a couple walking by (or perhaps parting ways) outside the entrance to Arlington Station on Arlington Street. While the majority of downtown stations were marked (and some stocked) as shelters, this is the first photo I’ve seen of signage on Arlington Station.
This entrance still exists today at the southwest corner of Arlington and Boylston Streets. The former tony jeweler Shreve, Crump, and Low was once across the street but moved to Newbury Street in 2012.
No caption was with the photo, but one wonders if they had different ideas of where to go.
The above photo, submitted by our lead correspondent Tim, is an screenshot from the CBS Sports coverage of Game 5 of the Celtics-Lakers series of the 1984 NBA Finals. The game took place at the Boston Garden on June 7, 1984 and an interior Fallout Shelter sign can be seen on the upper wall behind the people entering the turnstiles.
The Boston Garden opened in 1928 and closed for good on September 28, 1995. It housed not only the Boston Celtics, but the Boston Bruins and was host to a variety of concerts and shows. I distinctly remember an exterior Fallout Shelter sign on the building facing Causeway Street, but could never find a picture to verify it. This picture shows it was in fact a shelter, although I’m not sure where the shelter area in the arena was.
If anyone has any information on the shelter inside the arena, or photos showing shelter signs, please send them along.
Our first Out of Town Mini Series comes from our lead correspondent, Tim, who took these photos at different times in 4 different US cities: Buffalo NY, White River Junction VT, Cleveland OH, and Las Vegas NV.
This worse-for-wear sign is on a commercial or mixed-use building and doubles as the address indicator for the building.
This sign, located at the rectory and offices of The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland, shows a capacity of 220+ and appears to have been re-mounted at the top with new screws. The original fasteners remain intact at the bottom, so it’s likely the top of the sign came off the building at some point. This sign remains as of 2019.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT
This Fallout Shelter sign is on the former Post Office in White River Junction, VT (now The Center for Cartoon Studies).
LAS VEGAS, NV
These two Fallout Shelter signs are a bit of a mystery, as they’re on an open-air parking garage for the Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It is unknown but presumed there is an underground level or basement that served as the shelter area; otherwise, it’s odd these would be on this structure as there would be no protection provided for occupants.