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Beautiful Atomic Tunnel brochure.

(State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/18026. Photo by Tom Baskett. Posted by Kent E. Donahue on Florida Memory. Reprinted with permission of Kent E. Donahue.)

When I was a teenager, none of my friends in Florida had a bomb shelter, and neither did we.  I only knew about them from doomsday movies I watched on weekend late-night TV, and  I was unaware that only a few miles south of our house in what is now Port Orange, Florida, were the remains of an above-ground nuclear fallout shelter with tunnels–atomic tunnels–the vestiges of a U.S. 1 roadside attraction.

The Atomic Tunnel was a stucco labyrinth of 3-foot wide walkways within tunnels (joined to make a large circle), and it thrived during the years of nuclear fears that gave birth to 1950’s films about nuclear-mutated giant ants in the movie Them! and the movies named for other giants–Tarantula and Godzilla, each created by the horrors of nuclear radiation. The Atomic Tunnel, though, featured a real, live creature–a walking catfish!  But my family had arrived a year too late. . .

Last year Kent Donahue took us on our own little roadside tour of the Atomic Tunnel during one of his informative and entertaining monthly history lectures of  Port Orange and surrounding areas. Kent Donahue, Port Orange’s Public Information Officer and Grants Manager, spends his evenings in research which, among other accomplishments, has produced his book on the history of the ski show of Gardner’s Seafood Restaurant, built in Port Orange on the edge of the Halifax River–once the site of a restaurant water ski show with stars who later performed in the internationally famous Cypress Gardens ski shows.

Donahue told us that W. R. Johnston, who lived two properties north of the Atomic Tunnel attraction, took two years to build the doughnut-shaped ring of tunnels that also had 5 round rooms like pods where larger displays would surprise kids of families who stopped along the two-laned highway between 1951 and 1959 to see creatures that were not even at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum where everything was dead or mounted.  The Atomic Tunnel had macaws flying loose through the tunnel-ways, and the pod-rooms were crowded with exotic orchids and other tropical plants and cactuses and an aquatic room–just what you might see in a 1950’s horror movie, but here everything was in color, and nearly everything was alive–especially the catfish that would actually walk from one water hole to another! Amazing! Colossal! Definitely like nothing you’d ever see anywhere else!

I guess to keep kids from being frightened the walking fish was dubbed the “Happy Walking Catfish.”  Truth is, there really was a catfish; and it really did “walk.” At least it moved up out of a hole of water onto a small sand ridge and down into another hole of water. Visitors must have wondered if it was an atomic mutation. There couldn’t be another explanation.

This “Home of the ‘Happy’ Walking Catfish” was 7 miles south of Daytona Beach, and according to vintageroadside.com, it had a “panorama featuring the quarters of 16th-century monks living in Turkey,” but when I was 12 that wouldn’t have been worth a glance, but tropical birds  and an aquarium would have drawn me the way it pulled people to pause in their roadtrip. And what I wouldn’t have given to see the man-eating piranhas! A happy catfish that can walk is nothing to a piranha!

“Beautiful Atomic Tunnel” is how it was promoted, according to lostparks.com., which describes it as having a “long, white concrete. . .meandering tube, studded with 824 ‘port holes’ (variously shaped small windows)” for the “exotic orchids”–no doubt, to please the moms. But the guys could gawk at a monkey and marvel at the Southeast Asian “walking” catfish which could use its pectoral fins to maneuver its way six inches or so from one water tank to another. No wonder that it was billed as “Florida’s Biggest Little Attraction”!

(Click here to see photos of the Atomic Tunnel outside and inside.)

Donahue has a 1950’s magazine article titled “Tunnel of Fantasy” that says the Tunnel (in its later rendition) still had a cacti room, and an orchid room, a marine room, and an aviary displaying “Java rice birds, diamond dove, button quail, parakeets, 12 kinds of finch, African love birds, conures [New World parrot], macaws, parrots, and others.” According to the article, the marine room was the highlight of the Tunnel with the walking fish, kissing fish, and man-eating fish.

In its final mutation, the Atomic Tunnel became known as Tropicolor Fantasy, The Tunnel Beautiful, and I imagine husbands galore drove right on by then, saying “Nah, Honey, we don’t have time to stop.” Lostparks.com tries to ruin everything for me by saying that the nuclear fallout shelter was all a ploy–that the stuccoed walls were just a thin shell and that the windows would have made the tunnel “the very last place you would have wanted to be in the event of an actual Russian attack.” I’m sure that if I’d seen it when I was 12 with its meandering narrow tunneled passageways, that’s the place I pleadingly would have wanted to be.  When you’re 10, a cardboard box is enough. When you’re 12, thin walls and a good imagination can keep out the radiation, and there might be giant ants and tarantulas in the very next pod-like room.

At Donahue’s presentation a North Carolina woman in the audience said that she had worked as a tour guide at the Atomic Tunnel when she was 16 and that her father had helped build it and even added a round room to their own house which was across narrow U.S. 1.  I enjoyed hearing her comments about the actual construction history, but I prefer Donahue’s mention of it as having been “an above-ground bomb shelter.”

Thanks to Kent Donahue, the memories of some of the last survivors of those atomic tunnels were not lost.  He even interviewed the mastermind of the Atomic Tunnel, W. R. Johnston, and Donahue has also preserved the illustrator’s comic rendition of Happy, the walking catfish by adding it to the Florida Memory Internet database of manuscripts, war records, and historic images. He also uncovered that the Atomic Tunnel’s toucan–always ready for your camera–was appropriately named Jimmy Durante.

Apparently, others have a different view. It must be that the writer of roadsideamerica.com never saw Tarantula or Godzilla because he writes, “Happy [the atomic walking catfish] was not some freak mutation, and the Tunnel was not some dark, subterranean fallout shelter.” Little does that writer know.

Instead, the roadside america.com blogger says, “It was a whitewashed concrete tube, impressively long and entirely aboveground, with a crushed coral walking path down its center. The Tunnel was riddled with hundreds of small, odd-shaped windows that allowed in just the right amount of light and shade for Johnston’s tropical orchids, which lined both sides of the path.” He notes that Johnston’s purpose was to sell plants, but if I’d known that when I was 12, I might have said, “Nah, we don’t have time to stop.”

The  most eye-catching Atomic Tunnel postcard shows the narrow walkway within the Tunnel and an attractive woman in white short shorts of the 1950’s and matching white high-heeled sandals, admiring the orchids.  And in 2008 Jeff and Kelly of Vintage Roadside located this woman in her hometown of Daytona Beach, speaking with the 87-year-old former model named Joy for 90 minutes on the phone. Joy’s striking pose in the Atomic Tunnel was reprinted as the cover of the Sunday supplement of many Florida newspapers in May 1955, and Vintage Roadside also writes, “She remembers the Tunnel as being quite beautiful, with gorgeous birds and tropical fish, and how wonderful all of the orchids were. When asked about the red sweater she wore, she remarked that red always makes her happy.” They add (with a smiley emoticon) that the photo shows a “very tight” sweater. We locals will also be very interested to know that her first modeling job was for a brochure for Ellinor Village Country Club on the beachside along A-1-A just to the north of Granada Avenue in Ormond Beach, and Vintage Roadside reports that she has remained active in the Daytona Beach Red Cross Volunteer Lifeguard reunions.

(Click here to see the postcard of Joy, our local model, in the Atomic Tunnel.)

In a comment on their Vintage Roadtrip blog, Jeff and Kelly say that the Atomic Tunnel had “fashion shows and flamingos being walked on leashes.”

Jeff and Kelly treat the memory of the Atomic Tunnel with respect, saying it “must have been hard to pass by,”  and they say “W. R. Johnston was an entrepreneur with vision.”

The memory of the Atomic Tunnel lives on.  Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist Mark Lane revived it in his 24 July 2009 piece, and we can take heart in the Tunnel’s preservation in memory by knowing that on the Vintage Road blog a commenter says he owns a 36-inch by 36-inch Atomic Tunnel sign: “‘Home of Happy the Walking Fish'” which he found while “cleaning out” a bar in Clermont, Florida.

Vintage Roadside has discovered three brochures and three different postcards of the Atomic Tunnel and its later iterations; and today you can even buy a T-shirt of the Atomic Tunnel from Vintage Roadside.

Donahue has documented that the Atomic Tunnel was renamed the Beautiful Atomic Tunnel and then was transformed into the Tunnel of Fantasy before finally becoming the Tricolor Fantasy Tunnel, The Tunnel Beautiful.

By 1960, according to the Roadside America blogger, the Atomic Tunnel was bulldozed–no doubt a fitting climax for a Dr. Strangelove movie sequel. But say it ain’t so, Kent, that the photos you found of Happy the Southeast Asian Walking Catfish reveal that it had to be nudged. So it ain’t so.

Donahue believes he’s tracked down the Atomic Tunnel site–a trailer park along the west side of U.S. 1 in what was Harbor Oaks (which was annexed into Port Orange in 1998). So this is where the Atomic Tunnel provided the last protection for those of us who still live in memories of nuclear monsters; and that same historic site is elbow-to-elbow with today’s biker bar The Last Resort where in 1991 Aileen Wuornos the serial killer resorted to avoid fallout herself.

Before the Atomic Tunnel site became a trailer park just north of where U.S. 1 is joined by Nova Road, the property was indeed bulldozed, but we know that the building and its tunnels were spared–at least for one last commercial temptation to tourists. By 1961, as Kent Donahue said, it was home to Shell Land, where motorists had an opportunity to stop to buy exotic sea shells and products for sea shell hobbyists. Renaming the Tunnel as The Grotto, according to a 14 May 1961 Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal article, the new owner “filled it with jungle and tropical plant life, two valuable shell collections, and live and mounted marine life.” No more red sweater bombshells, and it would no longer protect you from nuclear radiation either.

Blogger Rick Kilby has packed his blog posting with images of the Atomic Tunnel, and he calls the Atomic Tunnel attraction “one of the wackiest,” callously referring to it as a “tourist trap.” He does, however, respectfully note that the monkey at the Atomic Tunnel was named Smokey, and the macaw was named Mac, but he seems unimpressed by the man-eating piranha and the dancing mice.  Jeff and Kelly of the Vintage Roadside blog, on the other hand, quote the “tourist temptations” from their Atomic Tunnel memorabilia: “‘Man eating piranha imported directly to the Atomic Tunnel from the Amazon. . .reduce a human being to a skeleton in 3 seconds!'” and “‘Plants used by witch doctors for rituals'” and “An orchid room where you could meet a beautiful orchid queen.'” Now that’s the kind of carnival barker language that would have pulled me into the Tunnel!

(Click here to see the Orchid Room of the Atomic Tunnel.)

I hope you’ll click to leave a comment about any historical experience you recall about Volusia’s Atomic Tunnel. (You are invited to attend Kent Donahue’s next free lecture on the history of “The Three Dunlawton Bridges,” Friday, December 13, at 1:00 p.m. at the Port Orange Adult Activity Center Annex, directly on the Halifax River at 3738 Halifax Drive, Port Orange.)