When Andy Reeves came to work as director of facilities at Lindenwood University-Belleville, he could see the work needed above ground, but he was surprised to find what was underground.
“The students kept telling me stories about the tunnels,” he said. “I was like, ‘What tunnels?’”
The tunnels are the stuff of legends, as generations of Belleville West High School students, and now Lindenwood students, spread rumors of all sorts of things that supposedly happened down there.
Reeves poked around in the boiler room and soon found the network of tunnels that run underground between buildings on the campus at 2600 W. Main St. Besides carrying steam pipes that provide heat, electrical conduit and now computer connections, he also found that during the 1960s, the underground space was used as a civil defense shelter.
Out of sight, out of mind—the tunnels became the collecting places for a lot of junk, from obsolete electrical panels to unused or burned out generators, to 1960s-era Civil War defense survival supplies.
What remains of the supplies—a few barrels of water, crackers and biscuits—hint at a story of a tense time in American history, when everyone was advised to duck and cover in case of a nuclear attack, and when civil defense shelters were established in basements of schools, public buildings and courthouses all over the country.
Starting in the early 1960s, the civil defense program placed more than 165,000 tons of survival rations in more than 100,000 fallout shelters around the country. The products were intended to stay good for five years.
But the water in one 17.5-gallon barrel below Lindenwood is in a plastic bag, and 55 years later, is still transparent. In another barrel the plastic was torn, and rust on the inside of the barrel was all the evidence that remained of the water that was once there. The crackers looked brand new in their cellophane packets.
Tins each contain 18 pounds of civil defense all-purpose survival biscuits, which makes me wonder what purpose they had beside consumption. Of course, the water barrel itself was dual-purpose because after the water was gone, it was to be used as a toilet.
The biscuits were intended to supply 700 calories a day for two weeks for survivors when, nuclear holocaust or not, it would apparently be all right to come out.
Meanwhile, people would be spending their days and nights in the cramped, dirty tunnels, probably with the power out, so there would be no lights or ventilation and certainly no entertainment. And the toilet facilities obviously would not be ideal.
Congress cut the money for the program in 1969, and in 1976, the Department of Civil Defense recommended the supplies be thrown out. Sometimes they were. Lindenwood officials think there may have been caches like the one they found throughout the tunnels.
The folks at Lindenwood are excited at the historical find and are considering how best to display the artifacts to illustrate that stretch of history without having to parade people through the tunnels.