SETTING THE STAGE
Let’s travel to the beautiful Allegeny Mountains of West Virginia to a luxury resort near White Sulphur Springs: The Greenbrier Resort. The venue, situated on 11,000 acres, enjoys the accolades of being acclaimed as one of finest, most luxurious resorts in the world.
The area has been a popular destination for visitors since 1778, but the current facility was built in 1913 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. The property now belongs to a local entrepreneur, Jim Justice, and is operated by a subsidiary of Justice’s company, the Greenbrier Hotel Corporation. Patrons of the resort include a long list of the rich and famous, the PGA tour, and twenty-six presidents. The last to stay there during a presidency was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1957, the Greenbrier Hotel broke ground on a new West Virginia wing and massive conference facility to provide unparalleled meeting space for organizations such as the auto companies, the West Virginia Medical Association and others large corporations.
At least, that’s what everyone believed.
PROJECT GREEK ISLAND
Imagine building a 112,544 square foot facility 720 feet underground, under the very noses of the vacationing élite, with only a couple dozen of people knowing what is being built. Pretty tricky, but it was accomplished.
The Greenbrier Bunker, previously titled Project Greek Island, is a once-secret bomb shelter behind four giant reinforced steel doors (made by a company that built bank safes), intended to house the 535 members of the United States Congress plus staff -- a total of 1,000 people -- in the event of a nuclear attack.
No doubt the changing of the name from the original, not-so-original Project X to Project Caspar and, during the 1980s, to Project Greek Island, may have helped to confuse people who might have had questions.
A Relic Of The Cold War
You might say Greenbrier Bunker is a relic of the Cold War, the nearly five decades of political tension between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II.
In the late 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with the Cuban revolution and the real possibility of nuclear war, decided it would be essential to continue the operation of the US Congress in the advent of atomic warfare. It is said Eisenhower himself came up with the idea of the secret bomb shelter for Congress. The president had visited the Greenbrier Resort before. It was close enough to Washington D.C. to evacuate Congress, but far enough not to be destroyed by a direct hit on Washington DC or by fallout. And he was aware that the hotel was planning the addition of a large new wing for the hotel. He decided West Virginia was the ideal location.
Public Press reported that President Eisenhower was holding a summit with the President of Mexico and Prime Minister of Canada, but he was really at the Greenbrier closing the deal for the bunker.
Photo source: https://vandaleer.com/the-bunker-at-the-greenbrier/
The cost at the time was about $14 million, probably well over $100 million today. Fortunately, both projects were completed in October, 1962. Later that month, during the Cuban missile crisis, the facility was put on alert and Congress came within 12 hours of being moved to the location. Other than that, the facility was never activated.
Photo source: allthatsinteresting.com/greenbrier Photo source: www.todayifoundout.com/project-greek-island/
Only two members of Congress knew anything about the project and its purpose. The rest were in the dark, most likely for the best since they would not have been allowed to bring their families with them. Tip O'Neill, as speaker, was briefed on the project and said, “Jesus, you don't think I'm going to run away and leave my wife? That's the craziest thing I ever heard of.”
Home Away From Home
Basically, the shelter is a two story, underground box with 3 foot thick walls. The four entrance doors weigh in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 tons each and can be sealed air tight. Since the members of Congress didn’t even know the place existed, you can imagine how they might have felt entering the door in the photo below.
Photo Source: www.civildefensemuseum.com/
Photo Credit by: Lenox Carruth
One of the four entrances opens into the conference facility which is used by the hotel. Joint-use spaces include an exhibit hall, the meeting room designed for Congress to conduct business, and two smaller auditoriums. The hidden passage into the bunker is market “Danger: High Voltage Keep Out”.
Photo source: allthatsinteresting.com/greenbrier Photo Source: https://frustratedpaulrevere.com Photo Source: abcnews.go.com/top-secret-greenbrier
According to Atomic Heritage Organization, in case of an attack while Congress was housed at the facility, the whole conference center could be closed off. “Congressmen would have first been ushered to the decontamination room, where they would have stripped, showered, and put on uncontaminated clothes. The dormitories consist of 18 rooms, each built to house 60 people in metal bunk beds. There is also a kitchen and a 400-seat dining room, which was at one point decorated with fake windows featuring scenic views. The upper level contains storage space and offices for Congressional leaders.” Being built before computers and electronic information storage, the bunker contains a large amount of space for storing records, as well as a hospital clinic.
Photo source: //frustratedpaulrevere.com Photo Source: onebeardedgolfer.com Photo Source: www.golfdigest.com/dental office
Of course, the facility was kept ready for emergency occupancy for thirty years. There were enough supplies and equipment to house the 1,000 people for 60 days. Over the years, a dozen plus retired military personnel with high security clearances were always stationed at the Greenbrier, where they posed as TV repairmen working for a shell company. About a fifth of their time, they actually did make TV repairs at the resort.
Someone, somewhere, kept track of who was in and out of Congress and made bed assignments. That’s right. For thirty years every bed (all 1,080 of them) had an assigned occupant. Only the people who were supposed to be there, were going to get in.
Photo source: www.npr.org/secret-bunker Photo source: www.coldwarcomms.org/greenbrier Photo source: www.coldwarcomms.org/greenbrier
They rotated the magazines and books in the lounges to keep the reading material fresh, and they kept the pharmacy stocked with the prescription medications of all the members of the House and Senate. The facility had a six-month supply of food, periodically refreshed.” I did learn the food wasn’t wasted. Food close to expiration dates was transported to military bases and used while still within code.
No reference mentioned the cost of maintenance for thirty years. The price tag must have been a whopper and maybe a bigger secret than the existence of the facility.
That question is probably unanswerable. I speculate it was more than a few dozen, but considering the size of the facility, the requirement to keep it ready to use for 30 years, and the relentlessness of the press, it was virtually unknown.
At different points in time, the number of Those-In-The-Know must have varied, but from the beginning there were always hints … things that didn’t seem quite right.
● Randy Wickline, who delivered concrete to the construction site, recalled “Nobody came out and said it was a bomb shelter, but…they weren’t building it to keep the rain off them. I mean a fool would have known.” After all, pouring 50,000 tons of concrete into an abyss is something workers notice.
● After installing 110 urinals in the exhibit hall of the new Convention Center, the contractor asked, Truman Wright, the manager of the Greenbrier resort from 1951-1974, “What in the hell are you going to exhibit?”
● Both Gerald Ford and Hubert Humphrey were frequent guests of the Greenbrier when they served in Congress. They were among the few people in the world who knew about the bunker.
● There was a mysterious crew of TV technicians who worked at the hotel but didn't work for the hotel but a company called Forsyth Associates.
● In 1980, when Ted Kleisner took over as general manager of the Greenbrier Resort. Within a week, he discovered hints of something being out of whack. 1) The resort was spending a fortune on “maintenance” of equipment that it didn’t own; 2) The hotel had ordered thousands of gallons of diesel fuel that it had no need for, and the fuel had disappeared without a trace; 3) Every payday, dozens of paychecks were being mailed out to people whose names did not appear on the employee roster.
His superiors were not concerned when he reported his findings … until he threatened to go to the police. That got action. After signing a pledge of secrecy, he was read into the program by a government official.
● The power room includes a “pathological waste incinerator” designed to cremate bodies.
● People questioned why the small community needed an airport with a 7,000-foot runway capable of handling a commercial jetliner.
Of course, the locals knew about the bunker, but believed mistakenly the facility was to house the President. They kept the secret and were proud to be playing their part in the Cold War.
The bunker’s “cover” was blown in May of 1992 in a story written by Ted Gup and printed in the Washington Post which revealed its existence and location. Gup never revealed the name of the government official who tipped him off.
You can’t hide from the enemy if the enemy knows where you’re hiding. So the facility could no longer serve its purpose. The lease with the hotel was terminated in 1995, and the Greenbrier Resort took over the ownership.
At the time, this story was considered by many as an act of treason. Gup is still characterized on Bunker Tours as the man who “compromised" the Cold War fallout shelter.
Ted Gup - Photo Source: https://twitter.com/ted_gup
Gup felt the US was relying on a facility that could only fail in its purpose. He also countered arguments about its usefulness in relation to terrorism, pointing out that terrorists usually don’t give six hours notice either.
Whether or not the Greenbrier Bunker would have retained some usefulness to the government is a moot point. Instead, the bunker is now a tourist attraction where the public can take tours, while another part is used as a secure data storage facility. It is not longer the “secret” home of Congress.
Doubtless, our government is off making other plans and building other types of facilities for such emergency situations.
The Washington Post, in 2010, revealed that 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area since September 2001. An emergency home for Congress, perhaps?
The dynamics and technology of war have changed since the 1950s – in case you hadn’t noticed, LOL – and the need and strategy for top secret emergency housing and work facilities is quite different. I speculate that such facilities as would meet current needs, do exist. They are secret and that is possibly a necessity. I only hope the planners of these facilities have better foresight than yesteryear.
I did get a kick out of the title of Garrett M. Graff’s book "Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die."
That attitude and policy persists in our government. I wish I’d thought of that title before Mr. Graff did.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die.By Garrett M. Graff