HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia’s first nuclear bomb shelter is still in use today despite the subsided threat once felt at the height of the Cold War.
Henrico County leaders started construction on its nuclear fallout shelter in 1964, with completion coming the following year.
Today, the 8,600 square-foot shelter sits two stories below the Dabbs House Museum on Nine Mile Road in Henrico’s east end.
The house is riddled with history dating back to the Civil War - serving in 1862 as headquarters for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. However, most people recognize the building as the old Henrico County Police Division headquarters.
“We [still] get people who come in to the tourist information center wanting to pay a ticket,” Kim Sicola, Recreation Manager for the County Recreations & Parks Department, said.
However, some residents don’t realize the secrets that sit two stories below in the nuclear bomb shelter.
“They’re awed,” Sicola said. “They can’t believe that it’s still down here. Well, one, they can’t believe it actually was built.”
The county spent $284,000 on the shelter in 1965, a hefty price tag back then.
“This was supposed to make them feel better. In the event of a nuclear attack, the county could continue to operate,” Sicola said.
The concrete shelter has walls 14 inches thick and is equipped with essential rooms like decontamination showers.
“If you’d been outside, you could go directly in and have the nuclear fallout washed off of you,” Sicola said.
There’s even a small kitchen and storage room which was kept stocked in the event of a bombing.
“It is still so pristine, what it would have looked like in 1965,” Sicola said. “Just down to the pendant lights, the stainless-steel counter tops, it really gives you a sense of that era. It’s a time capsule.”
The shelter was built to keep as many as 650 county employees safe from an attack for nearly two weeks.
"It was a very dangerous time,” Sicola said. “The fear of nuclear attack was real."
Staying underground for a long period of time meant bringing in special equipment for clean air.
“They didn’t want to bring in fresh air if there was nuclear fallout, so this was a system of cleaning the air and recycling the air,” Sicola said.
The Police Division originally moved into Dabb House, establishing its headquarters in 1941 before relocating to a new facility in 2005 off Airport Drive.
As fears of a nuclear attack subsided, Henrico Police took control of the house and shelter below. Some rooms in the shelter were used to plan covert operations from the 60s to early 2000s. A “plan” is still drawn on a chalkboard in one of the rooms at least a decade later.
"It was a drug bust, so not only do they have the neighborhood, but also the house they were going to actually go to and seize the drugs and make their arrest," Sicola pointed out.
The shelter is still used today for some county offices (General Services) despite the decades-old appearance.
“It’s just a snapshot in time,” Sicola said. “We feel fortunate to have it. There are not many left across the country, so we’re going to preserve it.”
While the shelter is not open for tours, staff at the Dabbs House Museum have photos and information about the shelter.
For more information on Virginia’s history, check out NBC12′s podcast “How We Got Here.”
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