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North Neighborhoods
Edgeworth bomb shelter recalls another time when homeland security was a real concern

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

By Susan Jacobs, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Renee and Jim MacDougall bought their home in Edgeworth, they were charmed by its English Tudor style and the serenity of its secluded back yard. But the house came with an unexpected bonus: a bomb shelter from the Cold War era.

Renee McDougall, right, and friend Steve Hramika open the trap door leading to a bomb shelter behind MacDougall’s home in Edgeworth. The shelter, a relic from the Cold War era, had not been opened for 15 to 20 years. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The home's previous owner, Barbara Briller, told the couple about the shelter and said she had kept it bolted shut and surrounded by briar bushes to keep curious children away.

"I did my best to keep it quiet," Briller said. "I was terrified that some of the kids would fall down it."

Briller and her husband bought the house on East Drive in 1974, years after the shelter had been built. She ventured into the vault only once.

After the MacDougalls bought the house in late February, they decided to take a peek. Until they reopened the bunker a few weeks ago, it had been closed for 15 to 20 years.

"A whole generation of children grew up not knowing about it," Briller said.

A trap door covers the entrance to the underground shelter. The wooden stairs leading into it are almost completely deteriorated, so visitors must use a ladder to climb about 15 feet into its depths.

The shelter -- about 12 feet by 12 feet, plus a corridor leading from the old staircase -- is large enough for occupants to comfortably walk around. It has electric lights and a water spigot and an exposed pipe that might have been a hookup for a toilet.

Inside are eight metal-frame bunk beds covered with thin vinyl mattresses. The lower bunks rest on wooden storage areas, which still hold rusted cans of fruit, cooking fuel, batteries and jugs of water. A mirror hangs over a wooden cabinet that still contains a pack of partially disintegrated toilet paper and a package of 100 paper plates.

"It's a sign of the paranoia of the time," Renee MacDougall said. "It reminds me of the millennium with people building bunkers and stocking up on tuna and Evian."

But Briller said the fear of nuclear war was taken seriously by most people, unlike the beginning of the year 2000, when a minority of people expected the worst to happen.

"It's not at all like the turn-of-the-century paranoia," Briller said. "The Cold War was a serious thing. We didn't know what would happen." She lived in Philadelphia in the early 1960s and knew of a handful of friends and neighbors who built shelters.

Harton "Red" Singer owned the house when the bomb shelter was built.

Tom Doyle, an emergency room doctor at Sewickley Valley Hospital, recalled playing in the shelter as a young boy in the late '60s and early '70s. His family lived in the same block as the house, and he was friends with the Morecroft children, who lived there then.

"I remember going down there with just the kids," Doyle said. He said the opening to the bomb shelter was obscured by a wooden fence and by dog houses on either side of the trap door. "I just thought it was kind of a neat place to play."

The MacDougalls, who are friends with Doyle, invited him to check out the bomb shelter a couple of weeks ago. He said it was more or less the way he remembered it, including its supplies of canned food and water -- more than likely the same containers that were there 30 years ago.

"It's a pretty neat relic," he said.

Renee MacDougall said she wasn't sure what the family would do with the shelter, but the possibilities include making it a teen-age hangout for their children or a wine cellar.

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