They all knew what they’d have to do. At the very first wail of an air-raid siren or the earliest broadcast bulletin of an impending atomic attack, they were ready to drop everything and rush to the secluded refuge they had created six feet under an orange grove on the edge of Mount Dora. As many as 100 members of 25 prominent local families – doctors, lawyers, a bank president, a minister and even Mount Dora’s mayor – would strive to reach their shelter in time. For, once the “Security Committee” had dropped the steel trapdoor across the entranceway, any stragglers (including spouses and children) would be left behind. And all those who made it down the concrete stairwell into the bowels of the 5,000-square-foot labyrinth knew that it would be impossible for them to open that2,000-pound door again.
Rather, after enduring their elaborately organized underground domain for as long as six months, the survivors of nuclear warfare would have to dig their way out through a partially pre-constructed tunnel or “escape hatch,” carrying with them cans of uncontaminated seeds they had safeguarded during their time below.
Built secretively at the height of nuclear tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1961, “The Catacombs” was not only the biggest privately constructed shelter in our area, but federal officials have termed it the nation’s largest. Yet, its affluent members were far from the only residents of our towns to jump on the bomb-protection bandwagon. Homes all over the area – from Deidrich Street in Eustis to Alfred Street in Tavares to Tremain Street and Tenth Avenue in Mount Dora – still boast fallout shelters, all dug by fearful folks in the late 1950s and early 60s. Today, most of the concrete rooms are used for storage, though several owners see their potential as hurricane hideouts, wine cellars or party rooms.
“I was in high school in Lauderdale and whenever we visited my grandparents in Mount Dora, they would take us down for a look at their shelter,” recalls Ruth Ault, who now lives here. “My dad made us watch John Kennedy’s famous TV speech [during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962], and it put a scare in me. It bothered me that we couldn’t have a place to escape in South Florida like my grandfather did.”
In the tri-towns of Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares, the fear became particularly palpable after the publication in 1959 of writer Pat Frank’s nationally renowned novel “Alas, Babylon.” It is the story of one small Florida community’s struggle for survival following the nuclear annihilation of Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Frank, actually the pen name of journalist Harry Hart, lived in Mount Dora at the time he wrote the book, and his fictional setting of Fort Repose was (not coincidentally) one of a triangle of small towns not too far north of Orlando.
Not long after “Alas, Babylon” became a best-seller, Lake County Health Director Dr. James Hall, citrus magnate William Baker, and retired paper-manufacturer and big-game hunter Theodore Mittendorf, as well as several of his fellow members of The Mount Dora Yacht Club, approached local builder J. G. Ray about the idea of designing a group shelter for their families. They thought that pooling their efforts would be more cost-effective than creating single-family shelters, and that they would draw comfort and strength from their number.
Ray took on the $60,000 job, even though he personally did not care to join the cooperative venture, which cost each participating family at least $2,000 toward construction plus around $200 in annual upkeep fees. According to his son, Jeff Ray III, who was in college at the time, “My dad was offered a room in the building as part of his fee. He told me that he said to them, ‘No way! I’m not about to go in there with a bunch of old fogies.”
The project was so carefully thought out that even the likelihood of resident deaths was anticipated. Burial crypts line the wall at the base of the entry stairs, across from the electrical-generator room. More than 30 other rooms are included in the complex, including 25 family residences, each 12-foot by 12-foot (about the size of a small college dorm room). There is a kitchen at the edge of the central hall for group gatherings, separate lavatories for men and women, and a medical clinic, which is still furnished with a refrigerator for chilling antibiotics and a reclining wicker wheelchair where one of several doctors could perform examinations or even surgeries.
They were fairly successful in keeping the project secret from the local public, who they feared would demand access in an actual emergency. Maintaining confidentiality was no easy feat, particularly with lots of heavy equipment and a large crew on site during six months of construction. According to various reports, the man who offered his property for the shelter told anyone who asked that he was simply building tennis courts or (even less credible) a croquet court.
Today, 45 years after its construction, The Catacombs remains remarkably intact, though the foot-thick walls teem with thousands of palmetto roaches, and rust and mildew are abundant, having flourished since the electrical system and dehumidifiers were disconnected many years ago. The original cooperative relinquished its claim to shares of the underground space in the 1970s, long before the current owner purchased the property two decades ago.
The owner recently permitted Pulse photographer Richard Stayton and me to tour the complex. (We agreed not to divulge its location due to concerns about liability as well as his privacy.) The entrance is in a shed just beyond the backdoor to his home, which was built soon after completion of The Catacombs.
Taking deed to the giant shelter was not a consideration in his family’s decision to purchase the property. “I couldn’t figure out anything legal to do with it,” he says with a laugh. “Hydroponic gardening, perhaps? Initially, there were some parties, and my kids played in it a few times. But eventually I just closed it up.”
“What is mind boggling to me,” he adds as we descend the stairwell into the darkness, “is that so many people could come together to do this thing.”
Click here for Part 2 when the writer and photographer take a trip inside the catacombs.
"Gimme Shelter" was written by Bill Sievert, owner of The Wow Factory in downtown Mount Dora. The photographer was Richard Stayton. The article was originally published in PULSE Magazine in 2006. Bill was one of the founding partners of PULSE, along with Carole Warshaw, Jane Trimble and Aaron Marable. There are catacomb photos included in this re-published article that have never been published. The top photo is the staged PULSE cover photo of the issue featuring local residents Michele & Ric Wilson and their children in a much smaller bomb shelter.
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