My fellow columnist Jim Chase wrote a few weeks ago about the air raid sirens that were part of our shared experience growing up in the Crescenta Valley. Jim mentioned in his article that I probably know a little about this subject, and indeed I do! As a matter of fact, we have right here in our valley an abandoned but beautifully preserved piece of Cold War history.
But let me backtrack a little. I think we all know that our country fought a “cold war” with the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The threat of Soviet bombs and missiles was very real to us, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, and the United States was kept in a state of readiness for air attack. Civil Defense bomb shelters were built in city centers, evacuation drills were practiced, and schools taught their students to “duck and cover” during an air raid. I clearly remember the once-a-month test sirens, at 10 a.m., on the last Friday of each month.
Starting during WWII, air raid sirens began to pop up on the tops of utility poles in L.A., and continued to blossom across the landscape of America like doomsday flowers throughout the Cold War. The largest of these, the Chrysler Air Raid Sirens, were installed in Los Angeles County in 1955 – 24 in all. These were big monsters, nearly the size of a car. Powered by a 180-horsepower Chrysler Hemi V8, the siren put out 138 decibels, which today is still the loudest continuous man made sound ever produced and is well above the pain threshold. For comparison, standing next to a jet fighter at takeoff with afterburners on is only about 130 decibels.
The engine that turned the blowers was started remotely by a radio signal from the County Sheriff Central Command. These big engine/blower/horn assemblies would rotate 360 degrees as they sounded, and had a range of 8 to 16 miles depending on conditions. They were typically mounted on top of purpose-built towers, tall buildings, and – in the case of Glendale’s siren – a mountain.
The system was dismantled in the ’80s, and the remaining big sirens have been removed or scavenged. Some of the engines even ended up in bargain-rate hot rods. In Southern California only three or four units remain intact, and we happen to have the finest example right here in CV.
Located in the San Rafael Mountains, specifically on Cerro Negro Peak, one of the monster Chrysler Air Raid Sirens can be viewed up close. To find it, head up Chevy Chase Drive in La Cañada Flintridge, and use your GPS or your Thomas Guide to find Sugarloaf Drive. That road dead-ends into a fire road, and at the top of a very short walk (just a few hundred yards), you’ll find the old siren rusting behind a chain-link fence, surrounded by an impressive array of communications antennas. It’s worth a visit.
If you’re interested in learning more on this subject, there’s an impressive array of websites dedicated to Cold War paraphernalia. Most of the information in this article I pulled from www.victorysiren.com, which has every piece of info you could want on these loudest-ever sirens, including some amazing sound clips. According to the website, there are two restored sirens out there – one owned by the guy who created the website, and the other by a gentleman in Texas who mounted his on a trailer and takes it to air shows for demonstrations. That unit, named Big Red, was originally mounted on a tower in the Hansen Dam recreation area, and was bought by this Texan from the County of Los Angeles. That news brings up some interesting possibilities for our own siren.
I hope a few of you can carve out some time over the holidays to visit this half-century-old cold-war relic, and it’s my secret hope that someone gets inspired to take on a very unusual restoration project.