Shrouded within the protective isolation of the gentle mountains of southern West Virginia, a mystery lay hidden, for 35 years. At any rate, it was a mystery for any who would have taken note; but even here was a mystery, as little note was taken. The mystery settled upon the very small town of White Sulfur Springs. So what noteworthy observations may have created a mystery here? Well, for those who posses awareness of such things, there were several. This has always been a rather sparsely populated, rural area, with no particular industry, nor wealth of any note. The single entity of any interest has been the Greenbrier Hotel, and here, as it turns out, was the source of the mystery.
Considering the nature of the area, a shrewd look might cause some confusion. This area has a 7500 foot runway, at what should have been a small local airport, rating little more than a grass strip. There was also the freeway. The Greenbrier area has it's own Interstate highway, which dead ends here, and would seem to have no other purpose than to convey traffic to the Greenbrier. But why would a tiny town, and a resort, rate a highway all to themselves? There is also a rail spur, and railroad station. Then there is the Greenbrier resort itself.
The Greenbrier itself would seem to hold little scope for mystery. It is a classic, gracious resort/hotel, which has been patronized by the American upper class, and discriminating visitors from abroad for well over a hundred years. The resort was founded back in 1788, after The Revolution; but a year before the new nation was chartered. So there was neither a United States, nor a state of West Virginia at the time. This are was considered to be a sort of a wilderness area for the state of Virginia to expand into. Actually, the entire area would seem to be above suspicion, like something out of a Rockwell painting, or perhaps a Currier and Ives scene. There appears to be little possibility for intrigue or deception in such a place.
The mystery deepens upon close examination of the Greenbrier itself, much of it residing behind a steel faceplate with an ominous "Danger High Voltage" sign affixed to a steel casing outside of a secluded section of the building. To the casual observer, this would appear to be part of the ventilation system, or perhaps a power transformer. Still, it is an oddly built facade, with curbs, and a high hinged door that would almost seem to be built to allow for the passage of trucks.
Indeed, the entire west addition to the Greenbrier, which was begun in 1959, and finished in 1962, was a bit odd. In retrospect, many of the workers recall that there were some pretty amazing amounts of concrete used, and that footings were dug deeper than might be considered necessary. There was also something a bit odd, and isolated about the organization of certain sections of the new wing. Though many may have wondered, there was nothing to give any indication of what, if any, special purpose these sections of the new wing might serve. For certain other phases of the construction, however, there was clearly something going on, and there was no disguising it. A select few workers, sworn to secrecy, and required to sign non disclosure agreements, installed vault doors, air and water filtration systems, an extensive phone and alarm system, as well as the broadcast studios, and the secret entrances themselves.
Though the walls are two feet
think, and of reinforced concrete, this is not a bomb shelter, and
could not withstand anything like a nuclear hit. For those who
worked there, and who knew of it's function, this was "The Bunker".
Such a designation brings to mind unfortunate images of Hitler
hiding out in the last days of the Third Reich, with Berlin
collapsing about his ears; but then, the facilities under the west
wing of the Greenbrier were not meant to be used in happy times. In
point of fact, a certain pessimism verging on hysteria filled the
air during it's construction. Were it ever to be used, presumably
Washington, as well as much of the rest of the country, would lay in
radioactive ruins, with as much as a third of the population dead or
In an after the fact interview, the head of Forsythe Associates revealed that He had 12 - 15 people on his staff, with perhaps 70 - 100 members of the 1600 strong hotel staff, sworn to secrecy assisting. The cover story for the Forsythe employees was that their function was to repair maintain, and update the hotel's televisions sets, cable communications, and phone service. This was what they spent about 15% to 20% of their time doing. The rest of their time was spent maintaining the bunker in readiness, and preventing it's discovery. Like something out of a spy novel, the back wall of the closet, of the television repair shop, opened into the bunker. This permitted the Forsythe employees to do their job without having to constantly be using the exhibit hall security door, or the outside entrance to the bunker. The repair shop itself had a triple lock, including a time lock. A photo of the shops is shown at right.
So how do you go about hiding 12,544 feet of space on two floors, in a public facility? Well, mostly, you don't. Some of the largest spaces in the bunker were not hidden at all, and were even used by an unknowing public. The Senate chambers were known as the Mountaineer room, and the larger House chambers were known as the Governors hall. Both were used for presentations, and could be rented out as meeting rooms. During the holidays, movies were shown there for children of the employees. A huge exhibit hall, adjacent to the meeting rooms, with twenty foot ceilings, would have been where the work of government was carried out. This exhibit hall defines the boundary of the bunker, and can be closed off, from the hotel proper, by a steel vault door, hidden behind a wall panel.
Though these large rooms were hidden in plain site, there were other portions of the bunker, who's functions could not be so easily disguised. Foremost among these spaces were the dormitories, the television and radio stations, security areas, and telecom, decontamination areas. There were also 18 dormitories in the bunker, that could each sleep 60 people, in steel framed bunk beds which would be familiar to anyone who had served in the military. Though it would have been impossible to hide the entire bunker, every public facility has certain areas which are off limits. Every hotel has engineering spaces, storage areas, and service areas which are locked and can only be accessed by the people who work them. A visitor to the exhibit hall, or to one of the meeting rooms, heading towards these more secure areas, would have encountered a high security door, presumably opening onto machinery rooms. A hotel employee would simply know that the area was off limits, and that if he wanted to keep his job, to stay out. Behind this door were the smaller, more personal, and more secure areas of the bunkers. In time of war, the big steel vault door to the exhibit hall would have been closed off, sealing the entire bunker off completely.
The legislative branch would have had roughly 60 days of food and water, in this little piece of paradise. There was no room in the original shelter, for family members; but latter on arrangements were made to modify the regular hotel portions of the west wing, to positive overpressure. What this means is that these areas are sealed against the outside, and that filtered air is forced through them, at higher pressure than that outside. This is the same system used in tanks, ships, and in structures that may be subject to nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Though there would not be any blast or radiation protection, inhabitants of these spaces would be breathing uncontaminated air, and would presumably have some access to the food and water of the bunker. These areas would, however, be outside of the steel bunker doors. This area would be set aside for the families of those housed in the bunker, though these family members would not be allowed by security personnel to pass through the vault doors. Up to 1400 people could be housed in these modified spaces, adjacent to the bunker. This provides room for about two and a half dependants per bunker resident, which was about the average family size at the time. Some members would have more and some less; but presumably it would all even out.
The hotel was protected by it's isolation, and by the shield of the surrounding hills. It was about a two hour drive from Washington D.C., perhaps a bit less by rail. In today's environment, this may be too long; but back in the time that it was built, it took two to four hours for an ICBM launch, and even longer for a nuclear bomber to reach it's destination. Today, there might be as little as 30 - 45 minutes warning of a nuclear attack. Still, this might be enough to get away from the impact area, and then survive to reach the bunker latter. So even in the ICBM era, the bunker remained a somewhat viable option.
This was, it turned out, a pretty widely known "Secret". The construction crews, hotel staff, and most of the area residents knew that something having to do with the Cold War was going on here. The existence of the bunker was pretty commonly known here, and it's probable function was fairly easily guessed. Still, even with the all of these people knowing, the secret was never revealed outside of the area, for thirty years. The people of southern West Virginia are, it seems, decent, patriotic, trustworthy, and honorable. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere in the country. The people who run, and work for the washington post have none of these fine qualities.
In 1992, Ted Gup betrayed the secret to the washington post, which cheerfully revealed it to the world. This was nothing new for the post. It had regularly undermined the interests of the country (as it still does) even to the extent of compromising the identities of American intelligence agents, and putting their lives in danger. This was a new low though, even for the post. Here they had revealed the emergency location of the government, making it subject to targeting during war. The government has spent the equivalent of billions of dollars, in today's money, on a facility that was now compromised and useless for it's intended function. In addition to this, the Greenbrier itself would now be out the money that it was regularly being paid, by the government, for use of the facilities. The original article can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/july/25/brier1.htm
With the compromising of the secret of the bunker, the hotel had all of this unused space which was no longer generating income. What was ultimately decided upon, was to take advantage of the secure and hardened nature of the site, to offer secure storage facilities. This generated a pretty fair income. Tour groups, being led through at $30 a head, produces more, so the old bunker appears to still be paying it's way, though no longer through government service. So what about the Congress, in time of emergency? Well, presumably, there has been another spot chosen and readied, in case the worst should happen. The secret of the bunker was revealed in 1992; but the bunker itself was not closed down until 1995, giving the government three years to prepare another place. Construction of the Greenbrier facility took three years, from 1959, until 1962 --- the same amount of time. It makes you wonder.
In 2002, the Bunker was remodeled, and partially converted for other uses. The most significant change was to convert the old dorm rooms into secure record storage, and then lease these secure facilities out to various corporations. This is about as secure a storage facility as can be had, these days. The old cafeteria has been converted into a gourmet center, while the meeting rooms, and exhibition hall remain unchanged. A portion of one of the side rooms has some of the old bunks, and other materials from the pre conversion bunker, and has been turned into a mock up display of what the shelter had once been like.
The tour starts at a community center in White sulfur Springs. Tours are by reservation only, and cost $30. A bus pulls up to the back door, and takes the visitors a few blocks, to the Greenbrier. Visitors are dropped outside the tunnel entrance, while the guide explains some of the history of the place. Unfortunately, cameras are strictly prohibited, though this has not always been the case. For a while, tours were being given to guests only, and photography was allowed. The Bunker was also, at that time, in pretty much its original condition. Today things are a bit different.
The CSX railroad owns the Greenbrier, and it's I.T. subsidiary CSXIP has converted the dorms into secure storage areas for sensitive data. Various large corporations lease out space here. What these means is that photography is no longer allowed, as part of the security arrangement with CSXIP clients, and the dorms may no longer be viewed in their original state. What the hotel has done, is set up some mock up areas, using original bunks and lockers, in a corner of one of the display rooms. Other changes have been made as well, particularly to the old cafeteria. So the place is not exactly as it was, during the Cold War; but is still more than worth seeing. If nothing else, the price of admission gets you into the grounds, and inside of one of the world's great resort hotels.