Coal mines as bomb shelters? – An impractical Cold War idea from the Coal Region

“The threat of a third world war demands that civilian defense have top priority,” declared Pennsylvania’s outgoing governor in a speech to the state legislature in the  on January 2, 1951. The Plain Speaker of Hazleton ran the Associated Press story about Governor James H. Duff’s speech before the legislature on its front page.

The governor’s fears about a global conflict weren’t far-fetched as 1951 dawned. War on the Korean Peninusla between American-backed forces in the south and communist forces in the north raged fiercely. Chinese and Russian involvement only worsened fears of global escalation using nuclear weapons – the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949.

Governor James Duff

Across the United States, citizens began grappling with the fact that the Soviet Union had become a nuclear-armed foe. American government officials, from city councilors to members of Congress called for defense measures to protect the nation from atomic weaponry.

The notorious “Duck and Cover” film for schoolchildren was still a year away from making its debut, but Americans still took preparation for nuclear assault as deadly serious business. In cities like New York, plans were being drafted to turn subway stations into shelters from atomic blasts.

In Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, these discussions went to a natural place. Massive bomb shelters for entire communities were expensive. Could cities like Hazleton utilize nearby anthracite coal mines to shelter their populations in case of Russian aerial assault with atomic bombs?

The January 2, 1951 issue of The Plain Speaker explored this topic in depth and found the “fantastic ideas” to be a little far-fetched:


Some fantastic ideas are being advanced in connection with the possible use of abandoned hard coal mines as bomb shelters should there be war with Russia.

The question is being considered by some civil defense councils, it is said, but it is extremely doubtful whether the plan would work.

The suggestion that old mine workings could be converted into shelters stems from New York, where the subways would afford considerable protection. Proposals for such shelters have reached the stage where New York authorities may request a federal loan for financing the project.

Some mining authorities say that with a reasonable outlay for ventilation and sanitation, anthracite workings that are no longer operative might be available for shelters, but the big obstacle is how they could be reached in case of an attack.

It would be necessary for people to go through deep shafts, which if closed, would make them death traps. The workings are not centrally located and to let persons down in cars is a slow process when it is taken into account that thousands would want to get into the underground chambers. Most of these old workings have caved in and might be as much of a menace as the effects of an atomic bomb.

Along with the shelter idea for the populace, the suggestion has been renewed that mine shafts be made suitable for housing of industrial plants in production of defense material. This has some elements of feasibility but otherwise they would offer nothing really practicable as security against the bomb.

The plans being mulled over to put coal mines into service as bomb shelters never came to fruition.

Hazleton 1950s
Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the 1950s. (Standard-Speaker)

On the same day as his speech about the need for civil defense expenditures in the Keystone State, sources told the press that Governor James Duff had told a caucus of Republican state senators that “there is no defense against the atomic bomb…” and that organized shelter programs were “intended only to lull the public into a sense of false security.”

Subsequent estimates by state officials in January 1951 foretold more than $125 million in costs to construct adequate shelters for Pennsylvania’s urban populations in the event of Soviet attack. Much of that money went into building and supplying fallout shelters for the public, despite Governor Huff’s admonitions.

By the early 1970s, Hazleton had become home to 53 public fallout shelters. No longer did the citizens of the Coal Region need to think of running to the nearest mine shaft for protection from the bomb.

It wouldn’t have done much good…

Featured Image: A photograph of an American soldier inside a Pennsylvania coal mine during the Second World War. (Library of Congress)

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