It wasn’t too long after moving to Memphis that I noticed the Fallout shelter sign located on the Masonic Temple on 4th street downtown. It was the first visual I had of a fallout shelter besides what I knew in movies like “Blast from the Past,” and “Matinee,” (I know.. not critically acclaimed movies but entertainment for the time.) There was also this fascinating documentary on the History Channel about nuclear testings in Nevada becoming quite the hit for tourist attractions, which I probably would have paid to see.
The basic concept of a fallout shelter from what we know is that it is an enclosed space underground designed to protect civilians from radioactive debris or fallout from a nuclear explosion. Walls were at least 12 inches thick, generally made of concrete, and occupants were recommended to sleep in the shelter for several months. The Cold War was responsible for the existence of these shelters, when there became a sense of a nuclear war threat. In 1949, President Harry Truman made it publicly known that the Soviet Union had detonated their first atomic bomb. The fear of nuclear war grew throughout the 1950s with the development of the hydrogen bomb by, again, the U.S. and Soviet Union.
But enough about bombs. Why are there so many fallout shelters in Memphis? Well as you may already know, Memphis was such the transportation hub and could also be seen as an obvious target when you take into account its industries of the time. Initially, the city plan for its occupants was to evacuate everyone beyond the “Safety Line” upon hearing the air-raid sirens. Each area of residents had their own evacuation route to follow by vehicle but the system was truly impractical. Thus, came the National Shelter Program in 1961 which allowed hundreds of fallout shelters to be built in every city. 279 of these shelters were constructed in Memphis alone, each accommodated with food and medical supplies.
Looking back, it seems unfortunate to think of the wasted time, energy, and supplies spent on these shelters.. but on the bright side, we didn’t get attacked which is always a good thing. For a particular Memphis resident, Hoyt B. Wooten will be known for constructing the world’s largest private bomb shelter. This 13-room complex beneath the land of Whitehaven had room for 52 people. They could enjoy a game of pool, eat at a dining table, and/or rest at the morgue if needed. Wooten was proud of his establishment, so naturally, he opened it for tours. I would have paid to see it most certainly, but from what I gather, it stands empty.
You can see a few images of Wooten’s shelter like the postcard image above at historic-memphis.com
To read a great article which further discusses the shelter procedure and Memphis fallout shelter history, check out “Helter Shelter” by Vance Lauderdale.
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