The students rejected a completely subterranean design as both too expensive and too depressing

Friday, July 15th, 2022

In 1959, the Cornell College of Architecture launched a study to design a city that could survive nuclear attack:

The Schoharie Valley Townsite project was one of the most ambitious civil defense proposals of the Cold War: a factory-town that could not only withstand nuclear attack, but maintain war production even as the hydrogen bombs burst around it.


As a baseline, they decided to design the town to withstand a 20 megaton blast at a distance of ten miles from city center, and to then maintain industrial production while buttoned up against fallout.

The next step was to choose a location in New York state for their new town. Based on local geology, the availability of transport, and being outside the blast radius of existing cities, they narrowed the choice to either the Schoharie Valley or Slaterville.


The Schoharie Townsite was explicitly modeled after the factory towns of the IBM corporation, and centered around the “EMF”, or Electronics Manufacturing Facility. Based on existing IBM factory-towns, they estimated a population of 9,000, of whom about 1,500 would work at the EMF itself.

The students rejected a completely subterranean design as both too expensive and too depressing to live in. Instead, they decided to build the town on the surface, with underground communal shelters for each neighborhood linked by tunnels. Since the different shelters were all connected, in an attack people could head for cover immediately, without worrying about being cut off from family members in different shelters. Every point on the surface would be within 1500 feet – about five minutes walk – from a shelter entrance. All underground space would be buried beneath at least four and a half feet of earth and a foot of concrete for blast protection and radiation attenuation.

The 9,000 residents would live in 1,158 apartments, 372 rowhouse and duplex units, and 951 detached houses, split among three main residential areas. Each residential area would be centered around a community center with an elementary school, shops, social center, churches, communal recreation areas, and a park. The entrances to the neighborhood shelter would be in the elementary schools. Each entrance would include mass decontamination stations, able to handle 60-75 people per hour.

At the center of the three residential areas would be a central business hub with a high school, municipal buildings, stadium, and shops. The town high school would sit on top of the downtown shelter, which would also be the hub of the subterranean network. The municipal offices’ basements would be hardened and serve as the town’s civil defense control center.

Unlike the rest of the town, the Electronics Manufacturing Facility would be entirely underground, in limestone one hundred feet below the surface. The access tunnel would have a series of turns to dilute blast, and the internal structures would be shock-mounted. The student planners saw the subterranean character of the factory as a bonus – “by virtue of its subterranean character, the plant inflicts no objectionable atmosphere upon adjacent residential areas, so that usual difficulties in industry-residence relationships should not arise.”

The town would get its water from underground wells, with an underground treatment plant and million-gallon subterranean reservoir in the rock above the EMF, and three other million-gallon reservoirs located elsewhere. A small light water reactor would supply the electrical power.

All of the underground spaces would serve secondary roles in peacetime. The rooms of the high school shelter would be used a gymnasium, library, auditorium, cafeteria, and storage facilities. The underground tunnels would hold a “seatway” transportation network, a sort of minimalist subway: “trains” of eight to ten chairs would be pulled along by a continuously moving belt, briefly disengaging from the belt at stations to allow passengers to get on or off.

This reminded me of a morbidly fascinating fact from Table C, “Per-Cent Mortality at Various Distances,” of The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: from 0 feet to 1000 feet from ground zero, percent mortality was 93.0. Not 100.0 percent. Not 99.9 percent. But 93.0 percent.

Hiroshima was 12 kilotons, less than a thousandth as powerful as a 20-megaton bomb.

(This reminds me of The Atomic Cafe, which makes a splendid Rorschach test.)

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had rather different results:

In considering the devastation in the two cities, it should be remembered that the cities’ differences in shape and topography resulted in great differences in the damages. Hiroshima was all on low, flat ground, and was roughly circular in shape; Nagasaki was much cut up by hills and mountain spurs, with no regularity to its shape.


In Hiroshima over 60,000 of 90,000 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged by the atomic bomb; this figure represents over 67% of the city’s structures.

In Nagasaki 14,000 or 27% of 52,000 residences were completely destroyed and 5,40O, or 10% were half destroyed. Only 12% remained undamaged. This destruction was limited by the layout of the city.

Rolling hills and a linear, rather than circular, shape could go a long way in reducing the damage to an otherwise ordinary city.

(Hat tip to Adamas Nemesis.)


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The really shocking part is to compare Detroit — the prosperous center of the arsenal of democracy in 1945 — with Hiroshima or Nagasaki, then and now. Far Left government is much more devastating than a nuclear explosion, albeit slower-acting.

    Face it! If your employer gave you the choice of Detroit or Nagasaki for your next job, which would you pick?

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    Of course, the real gripe of the “Atomic Cafe” types is “Why didn’t those stupid 1950′s chuds just panic and surrender to communism, like they were supposed to? How dare they display courage and resilience in the face of an existential threat!” Had the atomic bombs in question been Nazi, rather than commie, I have a feeling that the response would have been rather different. And, oh yeah, these are also the same people who today believe that we should fight a nuclear war with Russia over which corrupt, kleptocratic state gets to rule the Donbass. You just can’t make this stuff up.

  3. Bob Sykes says:

    You might also want to compare Moscow and St. Petersburg with London, Paris, New York, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Portland…

    The Russian cities are clean and safe, no homeless thugs, and the Russian economy is prosperous, even with the sanctions, or maybe because of them.

  4. Dan Daly says:

    One thing the eggheads always leave out is motivation. A man, unlike the soyboys in academia, will seek out vengeance for being wronged. It’s why the Europe and North American never descended into the degenerate slave states of the East and why the New World’s murder-based empires were so quickly smashed. Rather than submit to terror, true White Men preferred to die and take as many with them as possible. Once the survivors of a nuclear strike are consolidated and are past mere survival mode, the next thing to do is to plan retribution, to go on the offensive. The Will must have more of a purpose than merely living like rats in a cellar. However long it takes, vengeance is the gift of the Gods, and all true warriors are motivated to strike back at an oppressor. The Meek that shall inherit are not the sniveling simps of diversity. They shall be united in Blood, Steel and Religion

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