It may seem right out of an old science fiction or zombie apocalypse movie, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the country were focused on keeping selected government and senior military officers alive in the event of a nuclear missile attack. The solution? Stash them in a massive concrete bunker 75 feet below the surface of the earth.
In 1959, on the orders of then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, scientists and military engineers were brought together to prepare plans to secretly construct a series of underground Emergency Government Headquarters across the country. Many were constructed, but the largest was built to house the Federal government, military officials, and support staff, 535 people in all. It comprised 100,000 square feet on four levels, and was designed to withstand a 5-megaton nuclear blast as close as 1.8 KMs away, and keep everyone inside alive and well fed for at least 30 days. It took 18 months to build and was ready for use in 1961.
In the event of imminent nuclear war, the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and key support staff, as well as military leaders and their support staff, would be whisked away from Ottawa by rail to the bunker in Carp, about 30 to 40 minutes outside the capital. No one would be allowed to bring their spouse or other family members – and in fact when Diefenbaker learned this was the case, he refused to ever set foot in the bunker, and never did.
Fortunately no one was ever evacuated to the bunker, although when tensions were high during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, officials were ready to swing into action. For the next 30 years, it served primarily as a military communications base and training facility for reservists, finally closing in 1994.
It would have faded into obscurity had it not been for a group of local volunteers and former bunker staff who cleaned it up, re-furnished it and now offer special events, school tours, self-guided tours, and the day I was there, guided tours.
To enter the bunker, you head down a long blast tunnel designed to take the force of a nuclear blast through one side of the hill and out the other, thereby taking pressure off the heavy doors to the side that take you to the elevators. Our tour guide provided lots of great detail about what we were seeing, showing us the mini-hospital, the War Room, Cabinet offices, the Prime Minister’s bedroom, cafeteria, support staff bunk rooms, the mainframe computer room and more.
Perhaps the most surprising room was the huge Bank of Canada vault connected to the bunker. In the event of a nuclear missile attack, while government and military officials were on their way to the bunker, Bank of Canada officials would be loading trucks with gold bars, an important consideration when a country’s solvency was largely based on it’s gold reserves, and the last thing you want is for your gold to be radioactive.
A visit to the Diefenbunker is a great drive and day trip from Ottawa. Plan to spend at least an hour inside the bunker itself – I’d suggest two hours if you’re keen. Then lunch at the historic Cheshire Cat Pub on your way back out of Carp.