L-R: Touchstones Museum archivist Jean-Philippe Stienne and executive director Astrid Heyerdahl show off some of the items included in the opening of Nelson’s Cold War bunker. Photo: Tyler Harper

Take cover! Cold War bunker opens to public in Nelson

The shelter was built in 1964 in case of nuclear fallout

If Canada had ever become targeted by nuclear attacks during the Cold War, approximately 70 people would have been sent in secret to live and work in a bunker located in downtown Nelson.

Those attacks, obviously, never happened. The bunker has remained empty even as life continued above in the Gray Building, which is currently home to tenants including a Canada Post office located next to Touchstones on Vernon Street.

“Certainly everyone who worked in the building knew of the existence of the bunker,” says Touchstones Museum executive director Astrid Heyerdahl. “It was sort of like, ‘oh yeah, just the bunker in the basement.’”

On Saturday, Touchstones Museum opened the bunker to the public after a three-year effort to renovate what is a time capsule of a fraught period in the 20th century.

The approximately $320,000 project, which was funded from grants by every level of government, provides a glimpse of a place few people would have seen at the peak of tensions between Western countries and the then-Soviet Union.

More than 50 of the so-called Diefenbunkers, nicknamed after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, were built across Canada. Six such bunkers were constructed in B.C. including Nelson’s very own shelter in 1964.

Touchstones archivist and collections manager Jean-Philippe Stienne said having a bunker located in Nelson made sense in the 1960s. Cominco in Trail was still producing heavy water, which is key to nuclear weapons production.

Even if an attack had occurred outside the Kootenays, Stienne said the bunker would have been key to Canada’s communications network. He noted at the time Nelson had plenty of residents who worked for BC Tel.

“The idea behind this bunker was that it would keep life going on,” he says. “It would be about continuation of government.”

Nelson’s bunker featured decontamination showers, a water and food supply, a generator, two large dormitories for men and, perhaps tellingly, one small dorm for women.

No children or families would have been allowed in the bunker, which would have housed municipal government officials like the mayor, emergency operations and civil defence staff and communications experts. But their stay would have been brief — the bunker only had resources to provide shelter for two weeks.

Heyerdahl says the history of the bunker offers lessons relevant in 2020.

“Why talk about it? Because this can teach us about the future and how to move forward in a better way,” says Heyerdahl.

“It can create critical dialogue within our community … Even in a Cold War heritage site, we can have these kinds of conversations. So for us it’s very much about heritage always being relevant for critical dialogue.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

The exhibit features plenty of items from the 1960s that would have been used in the bunker. Photo: Tyler Harper

The exhibit features plenty of items from the 1960s that would have been used in the bunker. Photo: Tyler Harper

Touchstones Museum has opened up Nelson’s Cold War bunker to the public. The unique exhibit includes artifacts from the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Tyler Harper

Touchstones Museum has opened up Nelson’s Cold War bunker to the public. The unique exhibit includes artifacts from the 1950s and 60s. Photo: Tyler Harper

Just Posted

Dr. Albert de Villiers, Chief Medical Health Officer for the Interior Health Authority. (Contributed)
‘People need to start listening’: IH top doc combats COVID-19 misconceptions

Dr. Albert de Villiers says light at the end of the tunnel will grow in step with people’s adherence to PHO guidance

(File)
One death and 82 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

1,981 total cases, 609 are active and those individuals are on isolation

Bootleg Gap Golf Course has been sold to Simkins Golf Management Inc. for $3 million.
Bootleg Gap Golf Course sold to Simkins Golf Management for $3 million

After the decision was made to sell back in October 2019, Council… Continue reading

Robyn Ostlund wants to get people moving in December and also raise money for the Food Bank. Photo submitted
Fundraiser for Kimberley Food Bank keeps you moving

Last year, Robyn Ostlund of Kimberley organized a fundraiser to assist the… Continue reading

Stock photo courtesy Cliff MacArthur/provincialcourt.bc.ca.
Double-murder trial in case of Cranbrook couple killed adjourned until January

A trial has been adjourned until January for two men charged with… Continue reading

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

Three more health care outbreaks, 12 deaths

Good Samaritan Mountainview Village located at 1540 KLO Road in Kelowna. (Good Samaritan Society)
First long-term care resident dies from COVID-19 in Interior Health

Man in his 80s dies following virus outbreak at Mountainview Village

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

Amanda Weber-Roy, conservation specialist for BC Parks in the Kootenays. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
VIDEO: Kootenay youth climate group works to protect Nelson’s water supply

Youth Climate Corps members spent five weeks thinning forest in West Arm Park

(Pixabay)
Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated with the second wave, study finds

Increased substance use one of the ways people are coping

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

Most Read