Once, they were everywhere: yellow and black signs that directed Americans to shelters where, it was hoped, they could survive an atomic attack.

Now, however, the signs are mere curiosities. The few that remain visible are faded and rusting – relics of an age when Americans feared the country could be wiped out in an unimaginable torrent of heat and nuclear radiation.

Dover was no exception when it came to worries about nuclear war. Located just 90 miles from Washington D.C., military and civilian authorities felt an atomic assault on the nation’s capital would certainly result in lethal amounts of radiation drifting over Kent County.

Watching the skies

As early as 1951, only two years after the Soviet Union countered America’s atomic superiority with its own nuclear weapons, Gov. Elbert N. Carvel was holding regular meetings with his Office of Civil Defense to address the possibility of nuclear war. Newspapers regularly carried stories about preparing for a Soviet attack, and several communities formed groups to watch for enemy aircraft.

The Lions Club in Hartly was the first in the state to build an observation tower that allowed members to scan the skies in a full circle. A similar tower was built on Salisbury Road in Dover, where four women −Audrey Long, Doris Long, Mary Reed and Mrs. James Davis − also watched for enemy bombers.

The tower stood near the current Walgreens, said Mary Reed’s nephew, Jeff Reed.

“I remember my mother talking about that tower,” he said. “There were pictures inside of the airplanes that they were supposed to be looking for. Aunt Mary swore they never saw one of those airplanes, but they did see a UFO.”

In Harrington, 13 Civil Defense block wardens were appointed to direct that city’s response to an attack, and the state declared that Fort Delaware − a Civil War-era fortress in the middle of the Delaware River − would be an ideal site to seek refuge against atomic radiation.

Duck and cover

In the late 1950s, when the Soviets developed missiles capable of reaching the United States with almost no warning, civil defense took on additional urgency. Dover schoolchildren were taught to “duck and cover” under desks or to take refuge in hallways if attack sirens sounded.

To increase chances of survivability, Army officials surveyed buildings throughout the county to gauge their suitability as emergency shelters. The Delaware Public Archives has records on 35 structures in Dover and Milford that were graded on their ability to hold up under an attack.

Actual shelters in Dover were established in several places, including the old Armory on Legislative Mall, the Kent County Courthouse, Central Middle School, the Kraft Foods plant, Delaware State University and the former post office building.

In an effort to stimulate interest in civil defense, Dover’s City Council in May 1961 approved construction of a model fallout shelter next to the old City Hall.

“There was a real push on for people to build fallout shelters in their cellars,” said longtime Dover resident Doug Van Sant, who took part in the project. “There was a genuine concern that we could be attacked.”

Constructed out of cinderblock and supplied with sealed barrels of drinking water, the one-room model got a lot of public attention, Van Sant said.

While the city was working to construct fallout shelters inside existing buildings, it also was encouraging private citizens to build their own. In October 1961, Dover City Council requested an ordinance requiring building permits be issued for fallout shelters, but exempted them from permit fees and tax assessment.

‘Like a jail cell’

Concern about an atomic attack apparently moved the owner of at least one home in the Sherwood subdivision to build a bomb shelter in his basement.

Current owner Scott Secrest learned of the shelter from a real estate listing when buying the home two years ago.

The shelter is accessible via an 18-inch wide passage. Secrest said he has found plans for similar shelters in contemporary editions of Popular Mechanics and Scientific American magazines. Built of cement blocks, it contains two bunks, shelving, a small desk and a locked metal cabinet that Secrest has yet to open.

“The owner probably kept firearms in there,” he said. “People were panicking back then and the whole country was freaked out.”

Secrest describes the tiny shelter, which he now uses for storage, as “kind of Hannibal Lecter-ish.”

“It’s more like a jail cell than a shelter,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have to stay in here.”

Unused and forgotten

As time went on and worries about atomic attacks eased, the idea of civil defense gave way to concerns about natural disasters. In 1972, Gov. Russell Peterson redesignated the Division of Civil Defense as the Division of Emergency Planning and Operations.

Slowly, the shelters began to disappear from around Dover, and stockpiled emergency supplies were redistributed or destroyed. In 1974, 80 tons of survival rations were shipped from Delaware to help relieve a famine in Bangladesh.

“By the mid-1970s, most of that stuff had ceased to exist,” noted Kevin Wilson, a spokesman for the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, the successor to the emergency planning and operations division. “We transitioned from civil defense to emergency management with the atomic threat not being a forefront issue.”

Former Emergency Management Director Dawson Hollenger said when he took over in the early 1980s, many had forgotten about the shelters.

“I visited one at Delaware State University and it was empty except for a table and some chairs,” he said. “The kids had been down there, playing poker.”

Reviewing other shelters, Hollenger gathered up a number of unused Geiger counters, used to measure radiation, and turned them in for reclamation. Expired drugs and medications stored in the shelters were flushed down toilets.

Today, evidence of America’s preoccupation with atomic war is difficult to find. One fallout shelter sign remains on the former Dover City Library, and signs are still posted on two buildings at the Elizabeth J. Murphey School, although survival supplies, including emergency litters, were discarded almost 30 years ago.

But many remember how important those shelters were when the threat of mutually-assured destruction was a daily concern.

“We really took it seriously,” Van Sant said. “We were worried the Soviets would fire a missile at us. Some people thought it could very well happen. Even though we didn’t think Dover itself might get bombed, we knew any radiation from other bombs could spread. The shelters were a way to protect ourselves.”