Forgotten Cold War chamber is found in Brooklyn Bridge

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When it comes to matters archaeological, New York can't compete with Egypt or Greece for buried temples or hidden tombs. So forgive the city its ripple of excitement this week when a long forgotten chamber deep inside the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge gave up its secret trove of Cold War crackers.

The room, in footings near the Manhattan side of the span, has offered Gotham an unexpected glimpse back to an era when the US was at daggers-drawn with the Soviet Union and propaganda films told Americans to "duck and cover" if the nuclear bomb dropped.

When Joseph Vaccaro, a carpentry supervisor with the city's Department of Transportation, pushed open a door he had found he discovered a room full of supplies meant to sustain citizens in such an event.

In one corner, there were boxes of airtight cans with labels reading: "Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Crackers". There were about 352,000 of the biscuits in all - tasteless, but still edible.

That wasn't all. Littering the vaulted and darkened room were 17.5-gallon metal drums apparently once filled with drinking water. Their labels also revealed their secondary purpose: "Reuse as a commode". Cardboard boxes yielded folded blankets made of paper, marked: "For Use Only After Enemy Attack".

Mr Vaccaro also found medical kits, an intravenous drip and drugs for the treatment of shock.

"This is a treasure of modern history," Iris Weinshall, the Transport Commissioner and Mr Vaccaro's boss, said. "People were worried, they thought we were going to go to nuclear war."

The Cold War echoes are reinforced by dates stamped on some of the items. The crackers were manufactured in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile crisis. Other boxes were dated 1957, when Russia put the Sputnik satellite into orbit.

Through those years, civil defence officials all across the US were under orders to build emergency fallout shelters for use in case nuclear war broke out. However, very few of those shelters still remain today, or if they do, they have been emptied of their contents.

"Most of these have been dismantled, the crackers got mouldy a very long time ago," confirmed John Lewis Gaddis, an expert in Cold War history at Yale University. "It's unusual to find one fully intact; one that is rediscovered, almost in an archaeological sense."

Exactly what these supplies were doing in the foundations of such an important New York landmark no one can say. If it wasn't a fallout shelter itself, presumably the room was considered a safe hiding place at the time. It is conceivable that the stash was put there for a few very important people.

"It's hard to believe that the space was meant to be a fallout shelter, because it is not underground and light and air does get inside it," Kay Sarlin, a spokeswoman for the city, said. "Could it have been a bunker for the mayor? We don't know."

Ms Weinshall, who declared that the crackers were as tasty as "cardboard", shared in the city's surprise. "We find stuff all the time, but what's sort of eerie about this is that this is a bridge that thousands of people go over each day," she said. "They walk over it, cars go over it, and this stuff was just sitting there."

What some might find not only eerie but also unsettling is that Mr Vaccaro found the room during a "routine" engineering inspection. It seemed fair to wonder how thorough these checks are given how long it has taken the bridge to yield its Cold War cache.