Inside the Brooklyn Bridge, a Whiff of the Cold War
To step inside the vault — a dank and lightless room where the walls are lined with dusty boxes — is to be vividly reminded of the anxieties that dominated American life during the military rivalry with the Soviet Union, an era when air-raid sirens and fallout shelters were standard elements of the grade-school curriculum.
Several historians said yesterday that the find was exceptional, in part because many of the cardboard boxes of supplies were ink-stamped with two especially significant years in cold-war history: 1957, when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, and 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis seemed to bring the world to the precipice of nuclear destruction.
"Civil defense agencies were building fallout shelters all over the country during the 1950's and stocking them with supplies of food and water and whatnot," said John Lewis Gaddis, a historian atYale and a pre-eminent scholar of the cold war.
"Most of those have been dismantled; the crackers got moldy a very long time ago. It's kind of unusual to find one fully intact — one that is rediscovered, almost in an archaeological sense. I don't know of a recent example of that."
The Department of Transportation, which controls the bridge, has moved to secure the site while figuring out to do with the trove of supplies.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been contacted to handle the drugs, which include bottles of Dextran, used to treat or prevent shock.
City workers commonly find coins or bottles when repaving streets, fixing water mains or probing sewer drains, said the transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall. "We find stuff all the time, but what's sort of eerie about this is that this is a bridge that thousands of people go over each day," she said. "They walk over it, cars go over it, and this stuff was just sitting there."
The room is within one of the arched masonry structures under the main entrance ramp to the bridge, not far from the Manhattan anchorage. Three city officials gave a brief tour of the room yesterday — taking care to step gingerly over broken glass and fallen wooden boards — on the condition that the precise location not be disclosed, for security reasons.
The most numerous items are the boxes of Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers. Printed in block letters, on each canister, was information about the number of pounds (6.75), the number of crackers per pound (62) and the minimum number of crackers per can (419).
Joseph M. Vaccaro, a carpentry supervisor at the Transportation Department, estimated that there were 140 boxes of crackers — each with six cans, for a total of some 352,000 crackers.
The officials would not open any of the supplies because of safety concerns over germs, but Mr. Vaccaro said that one of the canisters had broken open, and inside it, workers found the crackers intact in wax-paper wrapping.
Nearby were several dozen boxes with sealed bottles of Dextran, made by Wyeth Laboratories in Philadelphia. More mysterious were about 50 metal drums, made by United States Steel in Camden, N.J. According to the label, each was intended to hold 17.5 gallons and to be converted, if necessary, for "reuse as a commode." They are now empty.
For the officials who gave the tour, the discovery set off some strong memories. Judith E. Bergtraum, the department's first deputy commissioner, recalled air-raid drills — "first it was under the desk and then it was in the hall" — at Public School 165 in Queens. Russell Holcomb, a deputy chief bridge engineer, remembered watching Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the United Nations in 1960 on television.
Several of the boxes in the room have labels from the Office of Civil Defense, a unit of the Pentagon that coordinated domestic preparedness in the early 1960's. State and local governments often appointed their own civil-defense coordinators, said Graham T. Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Dr. Allison acknowledged that fallout shelters would probably have been ineffective in the event of nuclear war but that the precautions were comforting.
"At least people would think they were doing something, even if it didn't have any effect," he said.
In 1950, the city's Office of Civil Defense, the predecessor to today's Office of Emergency Management, was formed to prepare for a possible atomic attack. In 1951, during the Korean War, floodlights and barbed-wire barriers were set up on and around the city's bridges, and bridge operators were organized into defense batteries, as part of an overall civil-defense strategy aimed at deterring sabotage.
Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who served from 1954 to 1965, appointed several civil-defense advisers. In 1959, a federal report concluded that two hydrogen bombs dropped near the Brooklyn Bridge would kill at least 6.1 million people.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian at Columbia University and a former president of the New-York Historical Society, said he was curious about how the stockpile got there. "Is this a secret cache of supplies the city was trying to put together, without warning the community of a serious threat?" he asked.
"What surprises me," he added, "is that we have all these little nooks — that in this huge city with people crawling everywhere, we can find rooms still filled with stuff, 50 years after the fact."