Today in History: State of Washington breaks ground for fallout shelter under I-5

The circular-shaped community fallout shelter under Interstate 5 in Ravenna was dedicated in March 1963, and was used by the State of Washington as a place to get driver's lcenses.

SEATTLE — Friday marks 57 years since the State of Washington held a groundbreaking ceremony for a fallout shelter in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.

The following is a recap of the event in a historylink essay written by Paula Baker

On May 15, 1962, the State of Washington holds groundbreaking ceremonies for a fallout shelter in Seattle at NE 68th Street and approximately Weedin Place in the Seattle Freeway (now Interstate 5) construction site. The shelter, to be nestled beneath an overpass, is designed to house up to 300 people in the event of thermonuclear attack. It features a squad room, a radio dispatch room, a clerical area for the Washington State Patrol, beds, a medical center and sick bay, toilet facilities, decontamination showers, and a recreation area.

The Seattle Times identified the structure as "the nation's first fallout shelter to be built into a freeway" (May 15, 1962). A January 4, 1961, press releases stated, "The Ravenna highway fill shelter will be the first of its type in the United States providing an example for public officials to integrate shelter into highway construction and the more complete utilization of rights-of-way ("Seattle Freeway Prototype..."). Constructed on state-owned property, the shelter was federally financed.

Total Disaster Preparedness?

The Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 and an Executive Order mandated an "effective and viable civil defense program ... and planning and assistance to local government in their achievement of total disaster preparedness." On January 31, 1961, the engineering firm of Andersen Bjornstad Kane completed plans for the shelter under the Seattle Freeway.

Once shelter construction began, contractors were given 120 days to build it, so as not to delay freeway construction. The shelter was covered with 4 1/2 feet of backfill and 429 tons of sand to protect shelterees from radiation. In addition to emergency supplies, the shelter housed radiological testing devises. Planners assumed that those seeking shelter in the event of an attack would need to stay there for up to two weeks.

Which Green Lake and Ravenna neighborhood residents would potentially be sheltered apparently depended on how fast they reached the shelter's door. "Since no specific segment of the population has been assigned to this facility, entry will not be denied until such time as the maximum occupancy has been reached," a March 1963 Public Fallout Shelter Utilization Plan stated ("Seattle Freeway Prototype...").

Any food or supplies shelterees brought with them was to be turned over to the shelter manager for equitable distribution. "In general, survival rather than comfort will be primary the objective," the 1963 shelter guide continued. "All planning for shelter occupancy must consider American unfamiliarity with living for a protracted time in a mass shelter environment. However, to the extent that it is given understanding of the situation, and with proper leadership, the public will respond favorably."


The completed prototype community shelter was dedicated on March 29, 1963. Seattle newspapers apparently did not cover the event, but the planned program included an address by Washington Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), dedication remarks by King County Commission chair Ed Munro (1905-1987), Seattle mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011), and Washington State Patrol Chief Roy A. Betlach (1922-1999). Members of the Seattle-King County Civil Defense Women's Activities Committee served refreshments.

A fact sheet distributed at the dedication lists shelter contents at the time:

"a. Food, medical, and sanitation supplies for 300 persons for a period of two weeks. Radiation and monitoring instruments. b. Underground emergency water supply with additional inside water storage facilities. c. Books, games, and recreational equipment provided by the Red Cross. d. Emergency generating equipment to provide necessary electrical needs. e. Collapsible metal bunks and insulated paper blankets. f. Decontamination facilities for removing harmful accumulations from clothing. g. Emergency communications equipment for State Patrol and civil defense use. h. Complete ventilation system with particulate filters to remove radioactive dust particles."("Seattle Freeway Prototype...")

A Calming Color

Civil Defense guidelines directed that shelters be integrated into the daily life of the community. The Ravenna shelter became a driver's licensing facility. (The street address is 6800 Weedin Place NE)

Walls of the 28 foot 5 inch radius cylindrical shelter were painted a pale, institutional green. Enormous shelves, well bolted, fill the main area in the middle of which a large pylon supports the southbound lanes of freeway roadbed. The ceiling height is 11 feet, 3 inches. Freeway noise is audible, but muffled.

The body heat of the 300 people it was designed to accommodate had been factored into the shelter's design. Occupied by fewer, the reinforced steel and concrete structure was cool in summer and cold in other seasons, a situation Department of Motor Vehicles staff assigned there remedied by using numerous electric space heaters. This drove electricity bills into the stratosphere.

By the late 1970s, the shelter was being used as a District Records Storage Center facility for the Washington Department of Highways. The emergency escape tunnel was blocked and the communications equipment removed. It now (2010) sits vacant.

Although initially envisioned as a prototype for freeway/shelter combinations nationwide, the Ravenna shelter is apparently unique, exemplifying the coincidence of interstate freeway construction with fearful Cold War planning.


National Archives and Records Administration abstract No. NWDNS-397-S, National Archives and Records Administration, Pacific Northwest Region, Seattle, Record Group 30, Bureau of Public Roads, Box 16; Paula Becker Interview with Candy Coe and Marchelle Williams, Washington Department of Transportation, 2002, notes in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle; “First In Nation,” The Seattle Times, May 15, 1962, p. 3; “Seattle Freeway Prototype Fallout Shelter, 1959-1961, 1962, 1963-70”, Box 31, Series 30 - Shelter Programs Washington State Department of Civil Defense records, Washington State Archives, Olympia. Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.