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Toronto Urban Legends: Gimme Shelter, Queen’s Park Version

Is there a massive, Cold War–era fallout shelter underneath Queen's Park?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

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Model fallout shelter, Queen’s Park Crescent and College St., July 1960. Courtesy of the Archives of Ontario (C 5-2-2-47-3).

There’s a story about a secret fallout shelter at Queen’s Park, supposedly constructed during the Cold War to save the provincial government from nuclear annihilation. Was it real—and could it still be operational?

Well, no. But the tale isn’t that far from the truth.

Many people today don’t realize just how fearful of atomic apocalypse everyone was in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t all ironic-with-a-nervous-giggle like last year’s Mayan apocalypse, or even a fill-the-tub-with-drinking water-just-in-case situation like Y2K. The Cold War was a continent-wide panic attack in slow motion that lasted for more than a decade.

And while school kids were being taught to duck and cover under their desks, (presumably to avoid the trauma of seeing the blast that would incinerate them), sturdy underground shelters were being constructed for the political leadership that would cheerlead survivors into rebuilding civilization once the radioactive dust had settled.

In Canada, the most well-known of these shelters was the so-called “Diefenbunker” outside of Carp, near Ottawa. Nicknamed after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, the hideout was a poorly kept secret even as it was being built in the late 1950s. Essentially a huge concrete box buried in gravel, it was designed to keep several hundred select federal officials safe from Communist aggression, up to and including a near-miss from a 5 megaton bomb (about 350 times the size of the device that made Hiroshima famous).

This Costco-sized supercrypt was for the elite feds only, of course. Lesser public servants would have been expected to ride out the hostilities in basic fallout shelters or remain on the surface, mutating quietly in preparation for future careers fighting chainsaw death matches at Thunderdome.

The City of Toronto had its own mini-Diefenbunker, located under an old farmhouse outside of Aurora. The Metropolitan Toronto Emergency Preparedness Centre couldn’t withstand a nuclear blast, but the underground 35-by-60–foot concrete shelter would have shielded occupants from fallout while they coordinated a response more effective than leaning out the door and shouting “Everyone OK?”

It’s not clear precisely who would have fled north had hostilities broken out, but most likely the group would have included the mayor, a few key minions, and some military personnel. (Toronto’s mayor during the most dangerous years of the Cold War was Nathan Phillips, who came out ahead by becoming the namesake of the place where Gord Martineau spends his New Year’s Eves, rather than the man who presided over the reduction of the city to glowing rubble.)

With the other levels of government prepared to hunker down, it’s not surprising that the provincial pols would have wanted some of that sweet bunker action.

Now, this is where we’d do the big reveal if we hadn’t already told you that there’s no shelter under Queen’s Park, but since we did we’ll just say straight out that the provincial hideout was way out in Trenton, Ontario. Intended to accommodate the premier and other officials who didn’t rate the federal bunker but were too important for Aurora, it housed two large generators, as well as supplies and amenities sufficient for a prolonged stay underground.

None of the above bunkers were ever used for their intended purpose, of course. The original Diefenbunker is a museum, Aurora’s is a private residence (although it’s expected to be opened up for Doors Open Aurora next year), and the Trenton facility has had its entrance bulldozed over.

So why the myth of the Queen’s Park shelter?

Even on cursory examination it’s unlikely. Toronto would have been an attractive secondary target for Russian bombers flying over the pole to the Eastern U.S., and with the provincial parliament a stone’s throw away from the likely Ground Zero, there would have been no basement deep enough to prevent legislators from becoming shadow puppets.

Most likely the idea came in part from a model fallout shelter set up briefly at College Street and Queen’s Park Crescent in 1960, as part of the government effort to convince the population that a post-nuclear-war lifestyle could be fun—like camping, only with Geiger counters instead of transistor radios and cholera instead of s’mores.

The appearance of an apparent bunker right next to the legislature, along with the general understanding that governments were wily enough to have some plan to survive the coming apocalypse, probably led to the widespread belief that there was a hidden pleasure dome of bottled water and corned beef hiding under Queen’s Park.

But there wasn’t, and isn’t. And if the missiles ever do fly, our MPPs are going down with the rest of us.

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