Urbex: Kitchener’s Cold War Bunker

You wouldn’t know it was a cold war fallout bunker, especially when on the front of the building there’s a sign that reads Kitchener-Waterloo Rowing on the front of it.  I’ve lived here all but a few years, and had I not known of its existence from stories, I’d be none the wiser.   All that can be seen from the street are two radio towers and some pipes sticking out of the ground, near a concrete entrance.

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But an underground bunker known as MEGHQ-FREEPORT sits along the Grand River in Kitchener’s Schneider Park.

In the 1960’s, the threat of a nuclear holocaust was hanging over the heads of North Americans. In Southwestern Ontario, Hamilton was a prime target for enemy strike with its steel mills and harbour. Prevailing winds would blow fallout to the north, into the Golden Triangle, affecting Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, and Guelph.

Thus, the fall out shelter was built in 1966 at the height of the Cold War and was conceived and crafted to serve as a fallout shelter to protect 40 key officials for several weeks following a nuclear attack. This ensured continuity of government and the aim was to keep the essential functions of government operating during a nuclear attack, restore order and the rebuilding of the country after the emergency had subsided. Of the 40 local key officials these included 10 elected officials, fire, police, and public utility officials, as well as more practical positions such as eight radio operators, four typists and a cook.

The architect?  Webb Zerafa Menkes and Matthews, the same firm who years later would build the iconic CN Tower.

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The now abandoned shelter was intentionally situated on an acre and a half along the banks of the Grand River because they wanted the nuclear fallout bunker to have access to water. The bunker was built to be self sustaining and was equipped with its own generator and septic system.

It was originally designed to be all underground; however, the idea was then that it would be built all out of concrete and then it would be covered up with dirt.  The building is partially underground and has 25-centimetre-thick doors and walls. That process gave it a fallout factor of 500 – which means the radiation is 1/500 of what it is outside.

The building was decommissioned in 1992 and leased out.  However, since 2017 it was deemed to be unfit for use with a leaking roof and a part of the ceiling collapsed. It is  contaminated with water, mold, asbestos, lead, and other hazards.

The 5720 sq ft bunker is one of the few that are still within municipal ownership. There is another close by in Aurora, which is a designated heritage site, however it is no longer owned by the municipality.

The fact officials chose to build the bunker

“demonstrates this region’s ingenuity and its desire to have good governance, even in a nuclear disaster”

said Bridget Coady, Principal Planner at Region of Waterloo

A Heritage Impact Assessment found the building is worthy of designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. In November 2021 Regional councilors voted to spend $687,000 on emergency repairs to its crumbling Cold War bunker. It will undergo repairs in 2022.  Staff say fixing up the former fallout shelter could cost $4 million to $4.5 million. Yearly operating costs would be around $200,000, depending on its eventual use.

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The windowless bunker was meant to be an operational headquarters, administration building and training centre. It included decontamination showers near the entrance and 14 rooms, including a large operations room, message centre, radio room, several offices, a kitchen, and separate dormitories and washrooms for men and women.

I’m glad they have decided to restore the bunker.  It’s a part of history – of an era and for the Region.  The historic shelter remains one of the Canada’s largest standing municipal Cold War-era bunkers.  Preservation of history is important.

I walk my dog along the Grand quite often in the summer months, I walk by the bunker regularly.  I will revisit the site this summer and post some updated photos … where the grounds are not snow covered.

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