‘Silent sentinels’: Nelson’s Cold War air raid sirens still relevant today

One of the five mermaids is now kept at the Nelson Museum, others are decommissioned

They have been silent and almost invisible in Nelson for 60 years.

The city’s five air raid sirens were installed in 1963 to warn residents of a nuclear attack or air raid during the Cold War, when it seemed possible or even likely.

The mermaids were strategically placed on top of tall poles around the city. They were decommissioned in the 1990s but have not been dismantled. Four of these are still standing and the fifth is now in the Nelson Museum as part of the Cold War Bunker.

“It’s quite interesting from a historical point of view,” says museum archivist Jean-Philippe Stienne. “They are relics of the Cold War, silent sentinels watching over the city. »

The fact that Nelson’s sirens still exist is very unusual, he says, because hundreds of similar sirens in many cities across the country were taken down long ago.

The sirens are located at the following locations: on the northwest corner of Eighth Street and Kokanee Avenue; the north side of Douglas Road (near the east end of Chatham Street); the east side of South Pine Street (between Selby and Trevor Streets); west of Stanley Street, on the south side of the alley between Silica and Victoria Streets; and the northeast corner of Falls and Delbruck streets.

One of Nelson’s decommissioned air raid sirens. Photo: Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery

The recently installed siren at the museum was taken down because its mast began to fail and it was considered a security threat.

“Now it’s great because we can see the mermaid up close,” says Stienne. “Usually you would look at this mermaid far away in the sky, but now you can see her up close. »

The sirens were tested regularly until the 1980s, and there were times when they went off by accident, he said. But in the latter stages of the Cold War, people didn’t seem to notice the tests.

“We have files in the archives that record these events. They were disappointed by the lack of reaction from part of the population to the sounding of the sirens. They didn’t answer it. »

An exhibit in the Nelson Museum’s Cold War bunker features an article from the Nelson Daily News and a photo of one of Nelson’s air raid sirens. Photo: Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery

The placement of one of the mermaids in the Cold War bunker is entirely appropriate, according to Stienne, because they complement the history preserved there.

Fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union began in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the Canadian government built secret underground bunkers in about 50 cities across the country. Nelson’s was built beneath the Gray Building, the current location of the post office next to the museum.

“The main purpose of these bunkers was to protect the continuity of government during a nuclear attack and to restore order afterwards,” explains Stienne.

At the time, there was a list, which has not survived, of 70 community leaders and technical experts from Nelson who were to leave their families and shelter in the bunker, reemerging after the attack and re-establishing local government and the government. functioning of society.

Nelson’s underground bunker remained untouched for decades until it opened as a permanent exhibit at the museum in 2020.


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