Duck and cover: A look back at bomb shelters and disaster preparedness in East Dallas

A Fair Park sign during the Cold War. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)
A Fair Park sign during the Cold War. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)
The location of the city’s bomb shelters. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)
(click for full view of map) The location of the city’s bomb shelters. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)

Emergencies and disasters are a part of life. Some are manmade, others are natural. Dallas has seen its share of emergencies — from yellow fever and influenza pandemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to 100-plus years of recorded floods, to the devastating Oak Cliff tornado of 1957, and beyond.

While emergency management has existed in crude form in Dallas since the 1870s, it wasn’t until the Cold War era — 1954 to be exact — when the nation was gripped with fear of another World War, and the Dallas City Council established the City-County Civil Defense and Disaster Commission. In response to the threat of nuclear attack, the commission built emergency shelters all over Dallas, including a number in East Dallas and Lakewood.

Stocked with food and survival supplies, these shelters were located in both public buildings and private businesses — From St. Thomas Aquinas School on Abrams and the East Dallas YMCA on Worth Street to the Dallas Independent School District headquarters on Ross Avenue. Even Woodrow Wilson High and Baylor University Medical Center had their own fallout shelters. Today, most have been de-activated following disuse and the diminished threat of nuclear war.

In 1962 at the peak of the nuclear scare, the council created a Civil Defense Emergency Operations center underneath the former Fair Park Health and Science Museum — complete with a 1962 kitchenette and aluminum sliding panel doors to serve as a situation room. Eric Green’s civildefensemuseum.com includes a video tour of the Fair Park facility. Like the others, that space is no longer used as any sort of emergency shelter.

Emergency preparedness continues today in the city’s Office of Emergency Management, which works before, during and after emergencies to minimize impacts on the community. Their work coordinates with other departments in government, the private sector and community stakeholders to advocate for planning, response, recovery and mitigation following any sort of disaster.

John Slate is the city archivist for Dallas who pens pieces on local history.

The City of Dallas is observing National Preparedness Month this September. The Dallas Municipal Archives partnered with the Office of Emergency Management to produce the exhibit “Emergency,” on display in the main lobby of Dallas City Hall Sept. 1-30. The exhibit features both historical documents from the archives’ emergency preparedness collections as well as bomb shelter artifacts. 

Clockwise: Flooding at White Rock Lake in 1962. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)
Clockwise: Flooding at White Rock Lake in 1962. (Courtesy of Dallas City Archives)

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