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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Typical fallout shelter.
FALLOUT SHELTERS. People around the world were shocked by the devastation caused by the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of WORLD WAR II. Single planes had delivered single bombs that destroyed whole cities and killed tens of thousands of people in less than a second. (1)

On March 1, 1954 the United States tested its first deliverable hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The weapon yielded a force three times as large as its designers had planned or anticipated. The radioactive fallout cloud that resulted from the weapon would kill a fisherman located 100 km away, cause illness in hundreds and perhaps thousands of people across hundreds of miles, and contaminate entire atolls with high levels of radiation forcing people to leave their homes and never return. Slowly it became clear that, while this weapon had been tested in the Marshall Islands, its detonation was a global event. (2)

Fallout Map
Less than ten years later both the United States and the Soviet Union had developed weapons that made these original nuclear weapons seem small. Thermonuclear weapons, or H-bombs as they were called, were thousands of times more powerful with the potential to kill tens of millions of people with single detonations, many of whom would be far beyond the blast and heat reach of the weapon. The radiation produced by these thermonuclear weapons spread around the globe, both in the water of the oceans and in the atmosphere, contaminating fish, birds, animals and plants far from nuclear test sites. Many of these radioactive particles remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. (3)

U.S. strategic nuclear planners quickly recognized the radiological fallout as a powerful tool of war, separate from the power of blast and heat that were fundamental to nuclear war fighting strategies. Over time both the United States and the former Soviet Union developed weapons to poison vast swaths of the Earth with lethal levels of radiation into their plans for attacking and “defeating” each other in a global thermonuclear war. (4)

Gradually observations on the movement of radiation through the environment after nuclear weapon tests created a global environmental movement that remains a strong social and political force today across national borders. In the United States before WORLD WAR I and World War II, debate centered on the value of entering into a war that was happening “over there.” Many people came to understand that in World War III, there would be no “over there,” there would only be “here.” No place would be spared. Global thermonuclear war was a war against the Earth itself. (5)

Listed in the Telegraph Herald as Dubuque's "first 'fallout shelter,' the site belonged to George Kennedy of 1659 Born Street. Constructed according to government specifications, the shelter was nine feet wide, 22 feet long, and seven feet high. Steel reinforced concrete blocks twelve inches thick made up the walls. The roof was made of 10-inch thick poured concrete reinforced with steel rods. The floor was four-inch thick poured concrete. (6)

The shelter would accommodate nine people for two weeks. They would need to sleep in shifts. Ventilation was provided by a filter-system invented by Kennedy and a hand-operated crank in case of power outage. Among the supplies in the shelter were food, seven gallons of water per person, garbage and toilet facilities, radio (with Conelrad frequencies) 120-volt lighting system, reading materials and amusements for the kids. (7)

Kennedy was quoted as saying to build a shelter like his would take about four months of spare time and cost an estimated $1,000. (8)

It was uncommon for people to share information that they had fallout shelters. One of the primary reasons was that unprepared neighbors might break in--forcing you out or demanding to stay. Telegraph Herald reporters writing about fallout shelters in October 1961 insisted that they would keep the identity of their sources confidential. (9)

In 1962 a Cedar Rapids engineering firm was hired to locate all the buildings in Dubuque County that were or might be usable as fallout shelters. Buildings located were ranked from 1-8 according to the degree they offered protection. In Dubuque, 149 building owners signed contracts to shelter an estimated 94,000 people. (10) The shortage of suitable buildings and the reluctance of some owners to license their buildings as shelters alarmed officials at the Dubuque County Civil Defense Headquarters. As a backup to the buildings, every cave and tunnel was also listed in the survey. (11)

Shelter sign
Following the survey, the next step was to post signs carrying the fallout symbol on the interiors and exterior of all licensed buildings. This program was scheduled for completion by July 1, 1963. Despite these efforts, people were encouraged to go ahead with construction of their own shelters at home. (12)

Civil Defense officials were interviewed in November, 1962 about the estimated cost of a home fallout shelter. It was believed at that time that a family of five living in a house with a basement in good condition could have its own fallout shelter for one hundred dollars using 470 concrete blocks and mortar. Food to be stored in the shelter would include for each person: two packages of nonfat dry milk, four cans of evaporated milk, six quarts of fruit juice, four pounds of fruit, two pounds of dried fruit, twelve pounds of canned vegetables, eight cans of soup, twelve pounds of canned meats, two jars of cheese, two jars of peanut butter, fourteen packages of boxed cereals, two boxes of cookies, instant drink mixes, twenty-four bottles of soft drinks, one quart per day of water stored in class jars or 5-gallon containers. Sanitation was to be provided by cutting the seat out of a chair and placing over a pail with sufficient plastic bags and some disinfectant. Ventilation would be provided by furnace pipes and door cracks. (13)

A Civil Defense Report in 1962 indicated three main factors in determining protection against fallout--distance, shielding and time. Northeast Iowa was exposed to fallout due to high-altitude winds from the west where a likely target would be Omaha. The maximum warning time would be six hours. Because its proximity to industrial and military targets around the Quad Cities, Dubuque would also be subject to heat and blast effects. Fallout shelters would offer no protection. If all available buildings considered structurally adequate were licensed, there would be 66 shelters for 80,000 in Dubuque County. Contracts were issued in Dubuque for stocking all fallout shelters with "existence foods," mainly dry biscuits with high nutrition. Each shelter would also have three hand-operated instruments for determining the levels of radiation. (14)

The following buildings in Dubuque were designated, in whole or part, to be suitable for shelters and were licensed. (15)

Water Department Plant, Jefferson Junior High School, Marshall School, St. Mary's Home for Children, Irving School, Dubuque Senior High, Clarke College (four shelters), Masonic Temple (two shelters), Medical Associates Clinic, Loras College (three shelters), Washington Junior High (three shelters), University of Dubuque, St. Joseph's School, Mercy Hospital (four shelters), Federal Discount Building, Belsky Motor Company, Dubuque County Jail, Universal Motor Company, American Trust and Savings Bank, Dubuque Savings and Loan, Mount Carmel Motherhouse (five shelters), Bryant School, Berwanger Boiler Shop, Adams Company, Interstate Power Company, Post Office, Weber Paper Company, William S. Brown Building, Roshek Building (two shelters), J. C. Penney Company (three shelters), Interstate Power Company, St. Rose Priory (two shelters), Fischer Bowling Lanes, Fischer Investment Company (old Farley and Loetscher Building) (two shelters)

Civil Defense officials stated that children were expected to be taken care of at home. The original idea of designating shelters for school children within school building had been abandoned. "We're going to try to get the children home--the school shelters are for the public." (16)



1. "Nuclear War, Radioactive Fallout and the Earth’s Global Ecosystem," Before It's News, July 22, 2015, Online: http://hf-vhf.beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2015/07/nuclear-war-radioactive-fallout-and-the-earths-global-ecosystem-3188506.html

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. "Dubuque's First 'Fallout Shelter" Nears Completion," Telegraph Herald, October 9, 1960, Dubuque News, p. 1

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Gilson, Donna. "Iron Curtain Fallen, Fallout Shelters Remain," Telegraph Herald, April 21, 1991, p. 1

10. Ibid.

11. Shellum, Bernie. "Public Fallout Shelter for 1 of 9 Dubuquers," Telegraph Herald, September 16, 1962, p. 25

12. Ibid.

13. "Home Fallout Shelter Will Cost You $100, Telegraph Herald, November 11, 1962, p. 23

14. "Fallout 'Factors' High in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, September 23, 1962, p. 1

15. Ibid.

16. "Dubuque Shelters to Give Fallout Aid to One in Five," Telegraph Herald, November 22, 1962, p. 8