Head for the Hills

Spokane’s Air Raid Evacuation Test of 1954

In 1954, Spokane made international news when the entire city staged a drill for a nuclear attack

On a rainy spring morning in Spokane, the wailing cries of air raid sirens rang across downtown. Operation Walkout had begun, as thousands of employees and residents evacuated the downtown district on foot. They gathered at points where busses were to transport citizens away from the city to the shelter of the surrounding hills.

As the citizens fled, mock air attacks on the city were performed by military fighter planes. One bomber dropping a slew of pamphlets warning of the dangers of the hydrogen bomb. The Pentagon and city leaders considered the event to be a major success, as it was highly organized and publicized, with over 10,000 participants all cooperating effectively.

Though the goals of Operation Walkout had been met, this demonstration of readiness for a nuclear war was highly staged. The evacuation plan assumed that a substantial forewarning of an attack would take place, when, in reality, the warning for Spokanites could consist of only a few minutes. Additionally, the long-lasting effects of a nuclear fallout would cover most of the Spokane region, making life unsustainable regardless of attack survival. With these shortcomings in mind, later plans for survival shifted toward public fallout shelters where citizens could remain protected for an extended period of time.

Stockpiles of food and supplies were gathered and stored underground, with the largest and most successful public fallout shelter lying underneath the Bon Marché department store building. Though most public shelters could accommodate a few thousand evacuees, the Bon Marché topped them all, claiming to have enough supplies to host over 12,000 citizens.

The public fallout shelters of the 1960s provided a sense of security and hope for the people of Spokane. However, federal funding quickly began to decline due to the Vietnam conflict and the growth of détente in the 1970s. As a result, public shelters began to revert back to storage areas while stockpiles were redistributed to the Spokanites, including the massive stores of the Bon Marché fallout shelter. Today, only small remnants of these historic shelters remain under a choice few of Spokane’s downtown businesses.