February 24, 2024

Civil defense bunker falls to time

OLD TOWN – Built to withstand radiation and cushion the blow from bomb blasts when the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in people’s minds, an old civil defense bunker hasn’t fared so well against the ravages of vandals and time.

Located on University of Maine property off Stillwater Avenue, the bunker has had its doors welded shut, duct holes filled with concrete and its entrance shafts filled with earth to prevent further damage by vandals and to curb potential injuries for anyone trying to gain entry, according to the University of Maine.

Earlier this month, as part of a review of its files and records, the university sent a letter to the Penobscot County commissioners, ending the 99-year lease it penned with the county in 1964.

County officials said they already had curtailed the $1-per-year lease some eight years earlier, also with a letter.

So, now what to do with the building?

Janet Waldron, UM vice president for administration, said Thursday that with at least $100,000 needed to restore the building, it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the bunker could be reopened.

“I don’t see that happening, at least in the near future,” she said Thursday, adding that the university may be open to some future opportunities for the site, although she is not sure what those could be.

For Penobscot County Commissioner Tom Davis, talk this week about the bunker brought back memories of another era, of his youth and going to school at St. John’s Catholic School in Bangor when emergency drills had pupils seek protection under the cellar stairs.

“What a terrible thing for a student in grammar school to do … look out the window, waiting for the flash,” Davis said on Tuesday, after a commissioners’ meeting during which the university’s letter was discussed.

Constructed in 1965, the bunker covered 8,000 square feet and was state of the art in its time, with communications equipment to tie it in with national civil defense facilities. There were living and working quarters for 60 staff and officials.

Roberta Robichaud, 50, was about 11 years old when the bunker was put in place. Since then, it has become part of the scenery.

“It seems like it’s always been there,” she said Friday morning as she walked her son’s Akita named Cherokee along one of the recreational paths that runs past the bunker. Built into a banking, the front entrance to the civil defense bunker now is overgrown with brush and small trees.

There was also a sense of mystery about it, then and now.

“Growing up, I always wondered who was going to be able to go in there,” if the bombs ever fell, Robichaud said.

With worries about dealing with a nuclear attack, the bunker was built to house leaders and emergency personnel in the area, including county commissioners, who were to direct emergency operations.

But within two decades after it was constructed, the reinforced cement bunker had lost its luster as its intended use and in 1986 began a brief career housing low-security female inmates from the Penobscot County Jail. That lasted for about two years until the new jail addition was complete.

Davis said that over the years, the bunker has been checked, including the generators to power the facility. Not everything worked as it intended and Davis said the stores of dry food were found to be bug infested and unfit, even the water wasn’t good enough to flush.

And shortly after it was occupied by inmates, the septic system failed and backed up. Davis quipped recently that in light of that failure, had the bunker been used as an emergency shelter for public officials as intended, they would have “stewed in their own juices.”

Other factors quickened the deterioration. Since the inmates vacated, vandals have attacked the facility.

Davis said the bunker, once considered impenetrable, was broken into by vandals who were under the mistaken impression that the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department stashed seized marijuana inside.

In her letter to the county, Waldron said the bunker no longer contains air handlers, plumbing or electrical fixtures and that walls have been destroyed. According to the university, that last of the welding work done to the facility was five or six years ago.

Interest in maintaining the bunker was also waning in the 1980s as America prospered and communism faltered and the Berlin Wall fell.

“The whole picture changed,” Davis said Friday. “We stopped watching for the flash.”

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