One of the main things Lee wanted to do when he visited West Virginia was take a tour of The Greenbrier. Surprisingly, I had never heard of it and I say surprisingly because my Dad has gone several times and other people I know as well. It has a golf course that is on the PGA Tour and is a VERY nice resort. None of that was why Lee was interested though. It turns out that for many years Greenbrier was a secret radiation fallout shelter for the US government and he wanted to tour those facilities. At $39 per adult the tickets were not cheap but I was interested enough to go along and I was glad I did.
We arrived about an hour early on a foggy morning which gave us plenty of time to take pictures of the hotel.
Call me crazy but the way I judge how fancy a place is by its bathrooms. So as soon as I could I went into one and it did not disappoint!
We kept wandering and there were so many rooms and little seating areas. We didn’t even get pictures of them all.
Truly this place kind of reminded me of a Las Vegas casino with all kinds of services available on property. It has a casino, movie theater, shops,and multiple restaurants.
All of that was really neat but we were there for the tour. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures but at the end we did get a few post cards that I took pictures of. We learned later there is a huge data center in part of the bunker and for security reasons they won’t allow pictures to be taken. When I learned this I realized I may not have heard of Greenbrier, but I had heard of the data center. Side note, the data center make the owner (the governor of Virginia) more money than the resort itself. Smart!
I didn’t mind the pictures as much as my inability to take notes during the tour. Normally I jot things down, but I am relying on my 54 year old memory so if I get anything wrong I apologize in advance. Here’s my attempt to tell you the story of how it all came to be.
During the Cold War President Eisenhower understood the need for a fallout shelter that the legislative branch of the government could evacuate to in case of a nuclear attack. If that seems odd, keep in mind that at the time nuclear bombs had to be delivered by planes, and the hills and valleys of West Virginia would make it difficult for a direct hit strike and the terrain and winds would help clear the fallout.
Also President Eisenhower loved the resort and was friends with the original owners. The idea that was proposed under amazing secrecy was that a new “West Virginiaa” wing would be built, and underneath the wing the bunker would be constructed. There were rumors, of course, but the contractors were threatened with treason if they spoke about anything. It was a different time, and it worked.
At this point I am going to let Lee take over. He found some pictures online taken by a nonprofit prior to the ban going into affect so I will let him try and recreate the tour. I absolutely recommend going though. Our tour guide was excellent and although the group at 20 people was a little large I felt it was well worth the $39 per person. So here’s Lee.
Initially known as “Project X” and then “Caspar” and finally “Project Greek Isle”, the Greenbrier bunker was part of the US Government’s Cold War era continuity plan which included ships (now decomissioned) and aircraft; Air Force One, Nightwatch and Looking Glass. (As an interesting side note, Looking Glass was so called because of it’s ability to “mirror” the Strategic Air Command’s underground command and control at Offutt AFB outside of Omaha. Beginning in 1961, for 37 years, one of eleven Air Force Boeing EC-35 (modified C-135 Stratolifter) Looking Glass aircraft was airborne 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In 1998 the US Navy took over Looking Glass. On a more personal note, I got to take a peek through a hole in a wall while recently visiting the Strategic Air Command museum outside Omaha this past July, and saw one of these undergoing restoration. I hope to one day be able to see it when it’s finished and on display.)
Greek Isle was only for the legislative branch of the government. Other branches and parts of the continuity plan were covered by other facilities, such as Raven Rock (Defense Dept.), Mount Weather, and Cheyenne Mountain.
Construction of The Greenbrier facility began in 1957 and took about four years, finishing up within days of the Cuban missile crisis. One of the methods they used to conceal what they were doing was cut-and-cover, where material removed from the hill to create the bunker was then moved to another location at the property and used to expand the gold course and as fill material to extend the local airfield runway. The bunker is not designed to withstand a direct hit, but with walls of two foot thick reinforced concrete a missile hit as close as thirty miles away would not damage it.
One of my favorite parts about this entire thing is that it was designed to be partially hidden in plain sight. The largest main room, which if needed by Congress would be set up as a massive office full of cubicles, was used at all other times as a convention/exhibit hall. Hundreds of thousands of people over decades passed through the main entrance, never knowing that the wall next to the opening concealed a 20 ton blast door. The door was so perfectly balanced on its hinges, that it requires only 50 pounds of force to open and close. A single person can easily do it.
Beyond the “public” space, was the secret stuff. It’s not terribly exciting, really, it was just a fallout shelter, so it contained all the things that would be needed to house people for six months if the bunker was sealed up.
In addition to the door pictured above, there are three other 20″ thick blast doors, two of which large enough for vehicles to pass through, all weighing twenty tons or more. In addition to the “hidden in plain sight” door inside the hotel, another of the doors was hidden behind a large door with “Danger High Voltage” signage warning people away.
Once the doors were closed and sealed there was 72 hours worth of air inside the bunker, but fresh air could be vented in from the outside and filtered using stacks hidden around the property and protected by more “high voltage” warning signs.
In the event of an attack, Congressmen would have been taken to a decontamination room where they would have stripped, showered, and put on uncontaminated clothes.
They would have been shown to one of 18 dorm rooms, each designed to house 60 people in individual bunks. For thirty years, every bunk was assigned to a specific person, even though almost none of them ever saw them. Each of them would also have had part of a locker and a single lockable private drawer under their bunk. Interesting note there were so few women in congress at the time that the co-ed nature of the bunkhouses wasn’t an issue. – Trace
There were also day room or “living room” spaces scattered throughout.
There was also a kitchen and 400 seat cafeteria, which had fake windows with fake scenic views. That kitchen is now used as a culinary training center. Among other supplies, the bunker was provided with enough food for 1,000 people to last 60 days. How this was done was pretty brilliant. The hotel just always had this food on hand, and used it in their restaurants, replacing as needed. Government employees also had to constantly update their plans based on who the current members of Congress were.
Of course, once that resort food was gone, there was nothing but rations for a looong time.
There are also two auditoriums, one for the House, and one for the Senate.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the bunker is the vast television, radio, and communications facilities. In the event of an attack, congressmen would have been expected to give speeches broadcast to whatever was left of the American population. The TV conference room even includes a backdrop of the Capital Building, giving the illusion of normalcy. Sadly nothing of that is left but the giant murals.
There’s a nice little museum area that shows some of the equipment and facilities that were part of the original installation.
The facility could also provide medical and dental care for the residents.
Of course, a facility like this requires infrastructure. Six generators and associated equipment, water purification systems, 75,000 gallons of water storage.
Including three 14,000 diesel tanks.
And to get rid of their garbage a incinerator. It would also double as a crematorium if someone died.
And of course, the best part of all this for me is that while the facility was never used once in thirty years, it had to always be ready for use. Constant maintenance, updating of equipment and technology, and preparedness drills required an onsite staff. They needed to be there, but they needed their true purposed to be a secret.
In order to solve this problem, Forsythe Associates was created. It was a dummy corporation that consisted of top secret government employees who pretended to be part of a contract company the Greenbrier had hired to provide AV support for the hotel’s 1000 televisions, and other technology. I’m sure they also provided AV support for the trade shows and conventions, as their office was just off the exhibit hall, along with a concealed entrance that gave them access to the rest of the bunker through a closet in their office.
Even after the technology changed and missiles delivered nuclear bombs, the facility was maintained with significant expense to the tax payer. Finally in 1992 a Washington Post story revealed the secret, and it was immediately decommissioned and shut down. Now some of the area is being used as a data center and the rest is open for tours. It truly was very interesting and although the cost was on the higher side I do highly recommend it.
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