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On Porter Road, Those Bunkers Made History

During 2002 (at top), this was part of what could be seen of the bunkers above ground …

On Porter Road, Those Bunkers Made History

… and here’s some of what was hidden deeper below

SANATOGA PA – A cavernous concrete bunker formerly owned by AT&T, which sits buried beneath mounds of earth on Porter Road, was publicly reintroduced Thursday (Feb. 23, 2017) as a possible site to house a medical marijuana growing and processing operation in Lower Pottsgrove. Although now choked by weeds and overgrown with brush, the property also holds a storied past as a monument of Cold War-era technology, documented by former company employees and others.

“The underground facility at Pottstown represents AT&T’s earliest efforts to build a nationwide telecommunications network which could survive a nuclear attack,” their narrative begins. “It is a product of political, military and technological influences.”

A more than 1,400-word story of the Porter Road bunkers and their role in the AT&T “long-lines” network remains available on the Internet as a communal labor of love. It is part of an index titled “The Microwave Radio and Coaxial Cable Networks of the Bell System,” last updated almost four years ago (April 2013) by Albert LaFrance of Falls Church VA, a contributor to and curator of AT&T and Cold War communication systems history.

Accompanying the article are dozens of full color photos that show what the inside of the bunkers looked like during 2002 and 2003, when several long-lines workers last toured the structure. Some of them illustrate this story.

Related (to the township Board of Commissioners’ vote Thursday regarding the Porter Road site):

The Soviet Union, The Bomb, And Fear

The writers note that AT&T, earlier known as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, was “a major provider of telecommunications services to the federal government.” When the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, and subsequently improved its bombers and missile systems, the United States grew fearful of a nuclear attack, they wrote. The company “had to react to these developments.”

“The speed with which a Soviet attack could take place, and the need to quickly coordinate a complex military and civilian response, demanded a fast, flexible and reliable communications network,” the authors state. “And that network would be required to function even after a nuclear attack; that is, it had to be ‘hardened’.”

AT&T at the time relied on two available technologies for broadband communications: microwave radio and coaxial cable. They initially were created as revenue producers and cost-savers. The company planned to gain income by selling network television broadcasters on delivering their shows to millions of homes, and would cut expenses by moving “hundreds of simultaneous telephone calls” on a single microwave channel, the story explains.

From Extra Income To Emergency Survival

On Porter Road, Those Bunkers Made History

An emergency exit floor plan for Porter Road Building “B,” built in 1966

Making money took a back seat to surviving a holocaust.

Coaxial cables seemed the best choice to survive an attack, company engineers concluded, because “the earth offers substantial protection from the effects of a nuclear detonation.” A long-distance network also needed more than just cables; it demanded stable power supplies, multiple circuits, failure detection equipment, automatic switches, signal amplifiers, and links to other locations. Some of the machinery was massive, some delicate, and it all required protection.

That’s what it received when, in 1960, the Pottstown “main station” was built on Porter Road.

The site’s main structures were “two adjacent reinforced-concrete underground buildings, connected by several short passageways,” the authors report. They even include a main floor diagram for one building (at right); a second was constructed in 1966. About three feet of earth, and the station’s asphalt parking lot and adjacent garage, covered them above. With their installation, the Porter Road site joined a chain of communication stations in “a transcontinental route stretching from New York to California.”

On Porter Road, Those Bunkers Made History

One of the amenities for workers: a kitchen and lounge area

Each underground building consisted of a single level with an 18-foot-high ceiling. That allowed them to “accommodate tall bays of equipment and their overhead cables,” according to the writers. Creature-comforts existed too. A portion of space along one end of each building contained a mezzanine with a kitchen and lounge area, restrooms, and other support facilities.

Extra Features Made Bunkers Habitable

Engineers might only guess what human horrors a nuclear war would bring, but they could readily grasp what would be needed to ensure the Porter Road site functioned properly and sheltered its inhabitants. So the writers say the buildings also featured:

  • 25-foot-deep concrete hoist shafts to move personnel and equipment to and from the surface;
  • A heavy motor-operated steel blast door that locked to protect the facility even when people were entering or exiting;
  • Walk-through decontamination showers, to help wash away radioactive fallout contamination;
  • A ventilation system that maintained positive air pressure inside and “used special air filters to remove fallout particles;”
  • Inertia slab flooring that was supported by springs, as well as spring-mounted electrical and mechanical equipment;
  • Emergency power generated by a 550,000-watt diesel generator; and
  • A nuclear-detonation detector atop a concrete column next to an emergency-exit stair shaft.
On Porter Road, Those Bunkers Made History

Spring-mounted heavy equipment, intended to endure the shaking of a blast

The bunkers are empty now, its owner told commissioners Thursday. Most of the equipment is gone. Much of the debris shown in these photos is cleared away.

The energy and spirit of the people who worked there, however, surely remains.

Photos from Long-Lines.net, and ColdWarComms.org

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