October 23, 2015

Inside the forgotten Mount Dora Catacombs, the nation's largest subterranean bomb shelter

One of the biggest secrets in Central Florida is just 6 feet below an orange grove on the outskirts of Mount Dora, Florida.

In 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at hand, and with the overhanging fear of an impending Soviet missile strike, school children practiced ducking under their desks, air raid sirens filled the air and families in Central Florida built homemade bomb shelters.

Inspired by the 1959 novel Alas, Babylon, 100 members of 25 wealthy families in Mount Dora, Florida, pooled their resources and secretly built what is said to be the largest privately-owned bomb shelter in the nation, a massive subterranean structure that is now referred to as the Mount Dora Catacombs.

From the 1991 Orlando Sentinel article, "A Cocoon As Big As Fear That Built It":

The fortress has 5,000 square feet of living space, not including storage areas. It was built to house 25 families. Each was assigned a private room large enough to accommodate four people. There was enough food and fuel to allow 100 people to live for more than half a year without ever having to poke their heads out of the ground.

The families - including those of the town's mayor, the superintendent of schools, a local bank president, several doctors and a minister - planned to hunker down in relative comfort while a nuclear firestorm consumed those left above.

Then, when the smoke from World War III cleared and the radiation levels fell, they planned to emerge from their cocoon and start rebuilding civilization.

Dubbed the ''Catacombs,'' the cavernous fallout shelter is the size of a small motel, with 1-foot-thick walls of steel and concrete.

Buried six feet beneath an orange grove, the complex has a 40-foot-by-20-foot recreation room, a medical clinic, a kitchen, bathrooms, a sewage system and an air-conditioning and filtering system.

The families maintained their own arsenal of .357 Magnum weapons - including 10,000 rounds of ammunition - to keep out uninvited neighbors.

Obviously, the shelter was never needed and after political tensions cooled, the upkeep became unnecessary and overtly expensive. As time went on, the property changed hands multiple times, the utilities (particularly the dehumidifier) were shut off, and the Catacombs were eventually sealed shut.

In 2006, writer Bill Sievert and photographer Richard Stayton were given exclusive access to explore the Catacombs for a Pulse Magazine article titled "Gimme Shelter." You can read an excerpt of it here.

Stayton recently shared his experience with Orlando Weekly. "We were sworn to secrecy to where it was," said Stayton. "When we got there, the guy shut the door and we were alone. I was photographing in complete darkness, all I had was a flashlight."

What you see here is a gallery of  Stayton's photographs and his thoughts about that particular afternoon. Stayton's captions are in quotations. Enjoy.

Scroll down to view images

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"When I turned the corner, and remember all I had was a flashlight, I saw someone standing there. My heart just stopped. It turned out to be these dresses. "
"When I turned the corner, and remember all I had was a flashlight, I saw someone standing there. My heart just stopped. It turned out to be these dresses. "
A family at the main entrance to the Catacombs.
A family at the main entrance to the Catacombs.
"This was the main door to the shelter, it's made out of  2,000 pounds of steal. When I was down there, I was imagining what it would be like if that door fell. "
"This was the main door to the shelter, it's made out of 2,000 pounds of steal. When I was down there, I was imagining what it would be like if that door fell. "
"The floor was completely soaked. Walking around down there, it wasn't spooky in the sense that it was haunted, it was spooky in the sense that it was like witnessing a reverse disaster."
"The floor was completely soaked. Walking around down there, it wasn't spooky in the sense that it was haunted, it was spooky in the sense that it was like witnessing a reverse disaster."
"This is the main room. They would have cooked and eaten and congregated here. The whole place was mostly just hallways and small rooms to either side."
"This is the main room. They would have cooked and eaten and congregated here. The whole place was mostly just hallways and small rooms to either side."
An overhead view of the Catacombs' layout.
An overhead view of the Catacombs' layout.
"This is looking the other direction from the main room. Those doors led to people's rooms. There were no beds there, they were removed over time."
"This is looking the other direction from the main room. Those doors led to people's rooms. There were no beds there, they were removed over time."
"The seed room. You can actually see on the cans the names of the companies and what seeds they were. You can also the massive cockroaches."
"The seed room. You can actually see on the cans the names of the companies and what seeds they were. You can also the massive cockroaches."
"This is just an old lamp. But you can see how bad it's deteriorated. It also amazing that the paint on the walls survived all this time. I remember thinking that the sea green walls was an odd color choice for the apocalypse. "
"This is just an old lamp. But you can see how bad it's deteriorated. It also amazing that the paint on the walls survived all this time. I remember thinking that the sea green walls was an odd color choice for the apocalypse. "
"There were puzzles, books and children's toys. "
"There were puzzles, books and children's toys. "
"I remember thinking how creepy this moldy doll house was."
"I remember thinking how creepy this moldy doll house was."