NEW YORK — In 17 years of working on the city’s bridges, Joe Vaccaro has made some unusual finds: a 100-year-old copy of a newspaper, sepia-toned photographs.
But none matched the discovery he and his co-workers made last week in the structural foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge.
There, in the musty dark, the workers found a Cold War-era cache of provisions to have been used in the wake of a nuclear attack: some 350,000 packaged crackers, paper blankets, metal drums for water and medical supplies.
“I’ve never found anything as significant as this,” Vaccaro, a carpentry supervisor, said Tuesday while standing in the attic-like room amid the stockpile.
Ghost of a fearful time
The artifacts recalled a fearful period in U.S. history a half-century ago, when the country and the Soviet Union were sworn enemies and air-raid sirens and shelters were common.
“This is a treasure of modern history,” said Vaccaro’s boss, Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.
Weinshall said she has contacted the Civil Defense Museum and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about taking the items, which include syringes and Dextran, an intravenous drug.
The Office of Civil Defense, a unit of the Pentagon that coordinated domestic preparedness in the early 1960’s, probably put the supplies there, Weinshall said.
It’s also possible a city agency was responsible for the stash, first reported Tuesday by The New York Times.
Weinshall said right now there’s no way to tell whether the supplies were intended to be used at the bridge in case of an attack or if the bridge was only a storage space.
“Until we get to the bottom — when it was put here, who put it here — we won’t know fully,” she said.
Two big years noted
Some of the items were stamped with two especially significant years in cold-war history: 1957, when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, and 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis seemed to bring the world to the precipice of nuclear destruction.
Fallout shelters were common around the country in the 1950s, but such finds are rare, said John Lewis Gaddis, a historian at Yale University.
“Most of those have been dismantled; the crackers got moldy a very long time ago,” he said. “It’s kind of unusual to find one fully intact — one that is rediscovered, almost in an archaeological sense.”
The 17.5-gallon metal drums, presumably once filled with water, were labeled, “Reuse as a commode.” The Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Crackers were sealed in dozens of metal canisters. One of the canisters, however, had broken open.
Weinshall tasted a cracker.
“It tasted,” she said, “like cardboard.”
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