(March 13, 2020 in the Herald-Citizen)
During the Cold War, Americans across the country feared the outbreak of nuclear war – a conflict with the potential to end all life on earth. Once the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb using stolen US intelligence in 1949, both sides had the capability of annihilating one another. Danvers, like towns across the country, took preparations in case the “hell bomb” fell.
During the 1950s, some citizens built makeshift fallout shelters in their cellars and constructed small concrete buildings in their backyards. The Danvers Chamber of Commerce worked with the VFW to construct an example home shelter on display near Danvers Square for interested Danversites to use as a model for their own homes. In 1961 and 1962, Massachusetts and local communities began planning and marking public fallout shelters in coordination with the local Civil Defense volunteers responsible for emergency preparedness.
Danvers had public fallout shelters in all sections of town, which were located in the lowest levels of sturdy brick buildings and were to be used only if one could not take shelter in their own cellars. The fallout shelters in Danvers included Xavier Hall at St. John’s Prep on Spring St., St. Mary’s School on Otis St., Great Oak School on Pickering St., Danvers Savings Bank in the Square, the telephone exchange (Verizon building) on High St., Creese and Cook Tannery on Water St., Danvers State Hospital (with 11 shelters and a total capacity of 3,000 people), and the Sylvania building at 75 Sylvan St. These shelters were overseen by the local Civil Defense Committee, which stocked them with supplies such as snacks, flashlights, water, radios, and flashlights, but those taking refuge were expected to bring supplies with them.
Civil Defense had a chain of command, and at the state level it was headquartered in the governor’s nuclear bunker in Framingham, where the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is based today. In addition to the state director, there was a regional director, town director, and local volunteer neighborhood wardens. Unlike the military side of national defense, women had important roles in the Massachusetts Civil Defense, serving as local wardens and assistant regional directors.
Danvers’ Civil Defense Committee was established in 1950 and was based in the cellar of town hall before moving to the cellar of the old police station on Maple St. across from Hotwatt. On the tower atop the old Central Fire Station (where Atlantic Ambulance is today) next to the old police station was a radio antenna that, along with a second one at the DPW garage on Hobart St., could communicate with all sections of town. For public warning, air raid sirens were constructed at Plains Park and on Route 1 near the state hospital. These sirens were regularly tested, though there was one incident during the summer of 1964 when the air attack sirens went off accidentally and threw the town into a panic.
Civil Defense trained locals in first aid, showed preparedness films such as “You Can Beat the A-Bomb” to local civic groups, established an emergency electrical generator system for Hunt Hospital, organized blood drives, and established a volunteer auxiliary police force for emergencies when Danvers did not have enough regular officers. Interestingly, during several years in the 1950s this special police force was called out on Halloween to manage the shenanigans of teenagers, which must have been quite out of hand. Civil Defense even had its own marked cars and trucks that were given to local communities from army surplus.
In addition to the nuclear attack preparedness associated with civil defense, the organization was also responsible for all types of emergencies: epidemics, floods, earthquakes, large fires, hurricanes, release of radiation from the Seabrook and Plymouth nuclear power plants, aircraft crashes, blackouts (such as the 1965 Northeast Blackout), and riots. If the town’s Civil Defense Director received the secret code word – in 1973 it was “MAYFLOWER” – from state officials he would mobilize all local resources to deal with whichever type of disaster was occurring, alerting the police and fire departments, the selectmen, the Civil Defense volunteers, the police auxiliary volunteers, and the Civil Air Patrol volunteers at Beverly Airport.
Along with these public programs, the threat of nuclear annihilation also spurred private citizens to act. One private endeavor in Danvers that dwarfs all others was Galo Putnam Emerson Sr.’s “doomsday motel” project. Emerson, the then-owner of Putnam Pantry Candies on Rt. 1, planned to build a “bomb shelter motel” – an ordinary motel with an enormous fallout shelter in the cellar.
The motel fallout shelter was meant to contain 6 months of supplies, including four giant underground tanks filled with fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline and water. Those saved by this shelter would be local Civil Defense officials, town leaders, medical professionals, a lawyer, estate planner – one might think that his job needed to be completed before the bomb fell – mechanic, farmer, fisherman, chemist, cook, teacher, and machine gunner, among other specialists. In addition to these professionals, the shelter was designed to include local citizens and whichever motel guests happened to be there, whose job was to repopulate Oniontown. To aid them in reestablishing humanity, the shelter included what the Boston Globe referred to as a “nuclear Noah’s Ark” – a cow, bull, rooster, chickens, seeds, farm equipment, and fishing gear.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for this last resort were held on November 14, 1961, and included guests such as the project’s engineer F. Parker Reidy, Danvers Town Manager Daniel J. McFadden, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Baron Mayer, and Massachusetts Civil Defense Director John J. Maginnis. However, it does not appear that the project continued any further then this ceremony due to the costs involved.
To directly counter the atomic threat, Danvers and Beverly each had a missile base equipped with Nike nuclear-tipped missiles to defend against the “Red menace.” These bases, which will be described in a future article, made Danvers and Beverly frontline communities during this period of atomic fear.
Danvers, Town of. 1950-1970 Annual Town Reports. Danvers, Mass.: Town of Danvers, 1956.
“‘Doomsday Motel’ Dream: The Danvers Candy Man Who Hoped To Build Underground Bomb Shelter.” Boston, Mass.: WBUR, March 2, 2017. https://www.wbur.org/news/2017/03/02/danvers-doomsday-motel.
Massachusetts Civil Defense Agency. Community Shelter Plans: Essex County, Middlesex County, Suffolk County, 1979. http://archive.org/details/communityshelter00mass_1.
Massachusetts Civil Defense Agency, and United States Office of Emergency Preparedness. Massachusetts State Disaster Plan, 1973. http://archive.org/details/massachusettssta00mass_2.
Sullivan, Jerome. “General Putnam Descendant Builds Nuclear Noah’s Ark.” Boston Globe; Boston, Mass. November 15, 1961.