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The Rising Tide Creeps Below: A Look At The Lost Bomb Shelter

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The Rising Tide Creeps Below: A Look At The Lost Bomb Shelter

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For the past 50 years, the halls of Sehome High School have welcomed thousands of students five days a week to learn, laugh, and play. These hallowed halls are the setting for hundreds of thousands of memories. But not far below lies a hidden secret, unknown to many Sehome students both past and present. Sehome’s bomb shelter is a unique relic and a testament to America’s past that will be missed with the migration to the new school.
Sehome’s Head Custodian Jeffry Allen walks these halls just as he has for years, knowing what lies beneath. A soft-spoken but authoritative voice on Sehome’s past and future, he gazes off past my shoulder as he recounts the past he remembers so well.

Allen grew up during the Cold War in Bellingham and experienced firsthand the fear of nuclear fallout that permeated the air at the time. His family has an extensive history at Sehome, with his grandfather serving as a carpenter on the original building. As someone who makes weekly checkups on the bomb shelter, he knows its history all too well.

“Back in the 50s, the Cold War was a really real and present danger,” said Allen. “So, all… schools in the Bellingham School District, they considered basement areas a ‘bomb shelter.'”

According to Allen, the bomb shelter is officially designated as the school’s plenum, in which air is collected, has its temperature regulated, and is distributed to each classroom through a ventilation system. The label of “Bomb Shelter” was only given to Sehome’s plenum because of the time the school was built in.

This designation of buildings’ lower floors as bomb shelters didn’t only occur in schools, either. Allen said that many other older brick buildings around downtown Bellingham had similar accommodations for nuclear fallout.

“Right on the corner of Cornwall and Holly, there used to be a shoe store there called Carl’s Shoes,” Allen said. “Down in the basement there, there was a [bomb shelter], and they had signs up that said, ‘civil defense’, or ‘bomb shelter’.”

As a staff member who’s been working at Sehome from the mid-80s, Band teacher Craig Snyder has been down in the bomb shelter a number of times and can recall how it’s changed over the years.

“When I first saw it, it had a couple of cots still in there, from those days when the federal government funded… all the fallout shelters in the United States,” Snyder said. “They had food, latrines, bedding, and Geiger Counters down there originally, but the first few years I went down there, those things kept disappearing”.

Sehome History Teacher Shannon Eubank is another staff member who knows full well of the significance of Sehome’s bomb shelter and wants students to know the same.

“I’ve been taking classes down into the bomb shelter for about fifteen years, with the unit we do on the Cold War,” Eubank said. “It’s one of the best learning experiences I have all year because kids get to ‘do’ the actual history.”

Students who’ve had Eubank in the past can speak for the bomb shelter’s importance in their learning about America’s history. Klara Schwarz (11), who had Eubank last year, said that being able to see the bomb shelter really helped her to put herself in the shoes of Americans during the Cold War.

“I’d never been in a bomb shelter before,” Schwarz said. “Some freshman and even seniors don’t even know it exists, but it’s a really important piece of history, It’s something that not many schools have, It’s just unique.”

Eubank knew that she was technically breaking rules, but she made sure to clear the time when she was going down with the administration and until recently, they gave her the go-ahead each time.

“I made a tacit agreement with the administration,” Eubank said. “I would get my class to all agree to not bump or touch or inhale any of the asbestos on the pipes… and that nobody would yell.”

However, as the building has grown older and leadership around the school has changed, the administration has been tightening its grip on rules related to the bomb shelter since around 2015 or 2016. According to Eubank and confirmed by admins, the general policy has always been that no one is allowed in the shelter, due to past asbestos use on pipes and dangers related to the updated air filtration system’s open-blade fans.

“We don’t access it for anything but maintenance and care for the building in regards to air ventilation,” Assistant Principal Mike Couto said.

Unfortunately, due to these safety concerns and the move to the new school, access to the bomb shelter has been closed off permanently since December 15th, so that Dawson Construction can begin preparing it for the school’s teardown, according to Construction Foreman Jack Cunningham.

However, for those who still want to see what it looked like, History Teacher and Dean Kim Kirk has a video of the bomb shelter that she says she’d be willing to post to YouTube for those interested.

As the old Sehome High School is prepared for demolition, the bomb shelter will go too, with a valuable part of American history leaving with it. Its existence, however, will be preserved by the individuals who were lucky enough to experience it before it’s gone.

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The Rising Tide Creeps Below: A Look At The Lost Bomb Shelter