A visit to California’s Doomsday Bunker

As I have previously written about, one of the most interesting ‘forgotten chapters’ in California history was the legislature’s Doomsday Committee of the late 1950s. In addition to expanding the line of succession and allowing for the appointment of “Legislators Pro Tem”, one other interesting option that the committee explored was the possibility of building a bunker from which the remaining elected officials could continue to direct the recovery effort.

1958 Map of Quarry

At some point in 1958, the committee was approached by representatives of the United States Lime Products Co., which offered to sell the state an abandoned limestone quarry near Sonora for use as a “control center, record storage center and alternate operating seat of government”. The committee responded by sending Assemblyman Francis Lindsay (Committee chairman), Major General Ewart G. Plank (California Disaster Office), and two staffers to tour the site in mid-August. In General Plank’s report on the visit, he noted that “the usable floor space amounts to 27,500 square feet… enough to accommodate 690 people”, that the floor appeared to be “smooth and level” and that “the roof of this quarry drips slightly during the rainy season.”

The legislature decided the following year not to purchase the mine, and although it was reopened briefly in the 1970s-80s, the site has now been closed for more than a decade.

A valley near Sonora, CA

In early January, I set out to locate the “No. 2 South Quarry” mentioned in the report. Accompanied by fellow historian Charles Deyoe, we were able to make the drive from Sacramento to Sonora in less than two hours. Less than a mile from downtown Sonora, just south of State Highway 108, is a deep and narrow valley. The hills on either side, 400 feet above the valley floor, provide shelter from the wind from the wind. Standing on the road that runs through the valley, the first thing that you notice is how quiet it is. Except for the occasional sound of trucks passing on the highway, the only sounds you hear are from birds in the trees.

Entry to the mine

The opening of the mine has been cut into an exposed 50 foot tall rock cliff. But instead of a single entrance into the hillside, there appears to be a series of six gaping holes. The first, leading into a large room, has been covered with cinderblocks, with a large metal door hanging ajar.

The next three entrances all connect to a single large chamber. The floor is fairly even, and the ceiling has the appearance of a large dome that has been blasted out of the rock. Against the wall opposite the entrance is a massive pile of debris that, based on the 1958 map, appear to have been placed to prevent deeper entry into the mine.

The flooded lower level

About a hundred feet north of the first four entrances, and down a steep grade are two additional openings. These two entrances have been covered by massive netting that appears to have been installed to keep out inquisitive historians and other wild animals. This lower level of the mine is flooded with two or three feet of crystal clear water. Stalactites have grown in a number of locations where water has seeped through. A tunnel leads off into the darkness and the sound of a steady waterfall can be heard from somewhere out of sight. At some point since 1958, the roof that “drips slightly” has become a cascade.

It was interesting to reflect on just how important this nameless valley could have been. That this could have been the place where the remains of California’s civilian government regrouped and tried to get back on its feet. But as things turned out, the legislature decided to spend civil defense funds on other things. The bunker was never built and the bombs never fell. What could have become an important location in the history of California remained a quiet valley that few people even notice as they zip past on the highway towards Copperopolis or Angels Camp.