When you think of the geography of the Atomic Age, as we’re all wont to do, Idaho generally doesn’t make the map. But it really should.

  • The first breeder reactor1 was built at Idaho’s own Argonne National Laboratory, which was part of the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS).2 Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EBR-1) was first fired-up on December 20, 1951. It is the first nuclear power plant, as it created enough electricity to illuminate four light bulbs. Now, four light bulbs may not sound that impressive, but can you do that? Maybe with a potato, but still. After the bulb-lighting, EBR-1 was used to generate electricity for its building and used in experiments until 1964.
  • Arco, Idaho, was the first town illuminated by nuclear power on July 17, 1955. The power came from our friends at Argonne National Laboratory.
  • The NRTS was also home to the Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number 1 (SL-1) meltdown, which was the world’s first and the United States’ only fatal nuclear reactor incident. The event occurred on January 3, 1961. Three people died in the incident.

The NRTS, Argonne National Laboratory, Arco, and Idaho’s other nuclear environs, sit kind of at the connecter point of the long and short arms of Idaho’s L-shape. If you haven’t been to this part of Idaho, it’s a lot like the planet that serves as the backdrop for the awesome fisticuffs between Captain Kirk and The Gorn in “Arena.” For you non-nerds, it’s deserty. The whole area is part of an ancient lava flow and is very, very weird looking. So weird in fact, that it is a national monument.

Craters of the Moon National Monument is an almost-national park (more about this later) that has such a strange, volcanic landscape that the astronauts actually trained here before going to the moon. Craters of the Moon National Monument will always hold a place in my heart because it’s the place where I was introduced to the National Parks Passport. The National Parks Passport is kind of like an old school version of Four Square. It’s an address book-like booklet that you can get stamped at all 392 national parks and monuments, historical and heritage sites operated by the National Parks Service (NPS). Except for Poverty Point National Monument in northern Louisiana. I drove all the way from southern Louisiana and found no Federal facilities, which most importantly meant, no official cancellation stamp for my passport. The host offered to stamp my passport with one of their stamps, but I declined. When I got home, I wrote to the NPS, yep, I’m that guy, and apparently the site has been the subject of a bitter land battle between the State of Louisiana and the NPS for years. According to the NPS guy, Louisiana just won’t surrender the land. The NPS guys said I could send in my passport and they would stamp it for me, but I didn’t fall for it.

Most of Idaho’s atomic history is of the Atoms for Peace variety, however, there was a bit of the weaponry sort as well. During the Cold War, Mountain Home Air Force Base staged B-52s (not the band) equipped with hydrogen bombs. The planes were ready to take-off and launch their weapons should the nuclear clock strike midnight. There were plenty of reasons for the U.S.S.R. to take out this chunk of the Gem State.

What were the tens of people of the L-region of Idaho to do when the sky began to fall? Apparently, kick it very old-school with… caves!

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The Community Fallout Shelter Program began in 1961 with the aim of providing community shelters that would protect people from the initial blast and subsequent fallout from a nuclear strike. This was a pretty complex program that ensured all Americans had shelter and knew how to get to it when the sky started to fall.

The sheltering program generally focused on urban and suburban communities because that’s where the people were. The country was collectively suffering from a severe bout of fallout shelter fever at this time. Honeymoons were spent in shelters, massive surveys of tunnels, mines and caves were undertaken and shopping center/fallout shelter design competitions were held.

There was a large push to disperse population centers (cities, guys) to the suburbs with the thinking that a single strike wouldn’t take out such a large number of folks in Stepford as it would in Manhattan. The plans for these new suburbs often had suburban shopping centers that doubled as fallout shelters at the core, with acres of tract houses radiating from the center creating a large pseudo-atomic shape. Think Edward Scissorhands.

This was all fine and dandy for places with people, but what about mostly unpopulated areas like Idaho? There was still infrastructure to destroy and people to irradiate. In an area with very few large buildings capable of supporting a community shelter, and an economy that certainly wouldn’t support a new, large suburban shopping center, the cavernous landscape provided a natural, but very afterthoughtish answer to the shelter question.

I haven’t found a whole lot of information about what made certain caves suitable shelters and others not, aside from the ability to create a “spot” within the cave turned shelter for less than $100 ($775 in 2012). A spot seems to have included 1 quart of water, 700 calories of food (that’s one Big Mac) per day, along with, sanitation supplies (toilet paper, cups, etc.) and radiation detection instruments for one person. No word on bunks, blankets or anything of that sort.

Shelters were generally stocked for an anticipated stay of two weeks, because everything would surely be better by then, with 17.5 gallon water barrels and food in the form of crackers, biscuits and “carbohydrate supplements”, i.e., hard candy.3 Medical kits were also supplied to the shelters with equal amounts of aspirin and Phenobarbital were in each kit. Valley of the Dolls up in this fallout shelter, yo.

Caves as fallout shelters were also supposed to be equipped with “ventilation kits” (I have no idea what these are) and capable of providing forty times the protection from radiation that a person without shelter would have.

Community shelters of all sorts were supposedly at least partially stocked if they displayed the iconic yellow and black fallout shelter sign. And lucky for you, I’ve visited a couple of these places.

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There are at least two caves in this part of Idaho that the Community Fallout Shelter Program had in its sites. Now I have visited both of these tourist trap caves several times throughout my childhood and adult life, and still cannot keep them separate in my brain, so I’m not really going to attempt to segregate the visits at all.

I asked about one of the caves as a fallout shelter, and apparently the cave’s owners were approached by some government men (suuurrre) in the early sixties and asked if the government could use the cave as a community fallout shelter. In exchange, the government graveled the road from the highway to the cave, stocked the cave with the necessary supplies, and installed a platform for loading in supplies. This apparently happened, yet there is nary a nuclear artifact in site, save the sign.

There are a couple of pretty good non-nuclear stories going along with the caves. First, Princess Edahow is frozen in the ice in one of the caves. Apparently the princess died and instead of burying her in the ground, her fellow Shoshones decided to place her in the ice instead. No word on how they got her into the ice without melting it. Anyway, not only did they entrap her body in the ice, the also entrapped her spirit.4 Whoops! The princess will supposedly be freed, body and spirit, when the ice thaws. Which brings us to our second story.

During the forties and fifties all of the cave ice melted. It seems the ice cave was such a popular tourist destination (this area was teaming with folks thanks to the explosion of work at Argonne National Lab), and the access tunnel was in such a bad spot, and I’m speculating here, and someone probably left the door open, that all of the ice in the cave melted. Why wasn’t Princess Edahow freed, you ask? Your guess is as good as mine. Through a study of the cave’s air currents and a well-placed door, the ice was restored and remains in place today. Tinfoil hat time: I like to think that the ice was intentionally melted, preparing the cave for life as a fallout shelter. Bring it on, Syndicate.

What are the caves actually like? They’re cool. (One of the biggest boasts in the cave marketing world is that a particular cave is cool even when the above ground temperature is in the high nineties.) They’re dark, like spooky-dark. And really big. Like big enough to thoroughly hide not one but several DeLoreans when the Calvary is coming after you in 1885, Marty. There are also some mildly interesting rocks. Overall, it’s all pretty boring. Like Fraggle Rock minus the socks and awesome. But then again, I don’t have a single spelunking bone in my body.

Weirdo that I am, I’d be much more interested in the cave portion of the tour if the cave was setup like the shelter in Blast from the Past, or if this possibility was even alluded to by more than the iconic yellow and black fallout shelter sign hanging over the entrance and the answers to my tens of questions for the guide/high school senior.

So after donning one of the courtesy coats at the entrance (I probably still have cooties) we enter through a door that was not nearly as freezer or castle-like as one would expect, and wait for the guide to let everyone into the cavern. He shuts the door. And oh my was it dark, with that quiet type of darkness that makes you feel like the world has literally stopped. We wandered down a wooden path, kind of like a pirate ship plank with a metal fencepost/chicken wire combo guardrail, which I assume is to keep you from plummeting the several inches onto the ice floor. Falls seem to be the biggest fear of the proprietors of the places I visit.

The guide/high school senior leads us down the wooden path for twenty minutes or so, pointing to several very realistic displays of bear bones and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. He also told us several “real” stories blending fantasy, science fiction and history and featuring tiny people and dinosaurs! Just when the cave started to look mildly interesting, i.e., dangerous, we turned around and came back the way we came. Cold, dark, mildly entertaining stories again, blah, blah, basically just not my jam. No need to fret though, the real treasures of the tourist trap caves lie in the outbuildings and statuary scattered about the property.

Outside the cave there are several cement/plaster/hard stuff statue of Indians, ice cave people,5 dinosaurs and other things straddling the line of political correctness, science and religion, which I have to say I appreciate very much. The best statue is the stories-tall dinosaur, that is either pea soup or neon green depending on the year you visit, being ridden by a cranky caveman. Creationism is alive and well at the tourist trap caves.

In addition to the awesome statues, each cave has its own “museum”. Now there are some legit museum/gift shop goods in these shops: the original 1969 (I think, I didn’t read it that closely) bill asking for expansion of Craters of the Moon National Monument to National Park status. Also: gems, minerals, plain old rocks, coffee mugs, thermometers, your general tourist crap, but there are also the taxidermied “animals.” This place looks like The Arc Titanicked itself on a lava rock and Dr. Frankenstein happened across the wreck and decided to get all “artsy.” There are two-headed baby chicks, I don’t know if they were that way in life, really badly posed birds of prey, (do they normally have tongues?), wolfish creatures and every other once living thing you haven’t even imagined. It’s like Dr. Moreau decided to summer in the lava beds of central Idaho. It is seriously one of the most awesome and simultaneously horrifying places I’ve ever visited.

There’s a whole lot of geology/religion/something going on here.

After a long morning of pseudo-spelunking and ogling at pseudo-animals and cave people statuary, it’s best to get yourself to Craters of the Moon. Craters of the Moon has lots and lots of lava. And although there’s nothing particularly nuclear about it, that we know of anyway, it is well worth the visit. As noted in one of the “museums” this national monument was the subject of a bill to turn the place into a national park. I don’t really know what the difference is, but I imagine it is something like minor league vs. major league baseball. Anyway, you can get your NPS passport stamped here! With a real NPS stamp, Poverty Point.

There are also caves to explore (way better ones), trails to hike and all sorts of trouble to get into. I have to say, unlike a lot of the properties in the national parks system, this is one of the places where you can really get lost and/or injured. You could easily take a wrong turn, trip and fall and be trapped in Beauty Cave, Princess Edahow style. Plus, you can take unbelievably amazing photos. You could even, I suppose, recreate the lunar landing and Instagram the whole thing for your friends. Take that Kennedy.

Plan on spending the night at Craters of the Moon if you can. I mean, you are tired at this point, and the stars are more twinkly and lovely than a Disney movie. I promise. Plus, you can pretend you’re camping on the moon! There are only primitive camping spots available, so go ahead and blow-up that air mattress now and leave it in the back of the Jeep, because you will think that a radiated were-creature from one of the “museums” has frankensteined itself to life and is trying to get into your tent in the middle of the night. Trust me on this one.

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1 What’s a breeder reactor, you ask? A breeder reactor is a reactor that creates more fuel than it consumes, which is kind of the whole purpose of a power plant, I would think. Oh, and it’s what The Radioactive Boy Scout was building in his mom’s backyard when the EPA turned his mom’s shed into a Superfund site.

2 The alphabet soup is getting a bit think, I realize. Just know that we’re talking about the site in Idaho that has been around since the late forties, where all sorts of nuclear testing is performed, and you should be fine.

3 Interestingly, the red hard candy most likely contained the red dye that was pulled from the market several years ago because it is a carcinogen. If the radiation didn’t get you, the candy would.

4 The Princess Edahow story reminds me of James Tiptree Jr.’s, “The Man Who Walked Home.” Tiptee’s story takes place at the fictional Bonneville Laboratories, which is modeled after the Argonne National Laboratory. Tiptee’s story takes place in the same general area and is also centered on someone frozen in time, except instead of a princess literally frozen in time, we have John, who is trapped in a moment of time travel when the nuclear holocaust happens.

5 Now I’m not sure who the “craftsperson” was who created the ice cave people and the dinosaur, but I do know that the ice cave people (the miniature ones) are striking in their resemblance to the warrior dude outside the Fort Boise replica in Parma. I assume someone was given a contract, or maybe it was a WPA deal, to make all of the “indigenous” creature statues for the state. They are all so very, very bad. Like not even funny bad.