As we enter the area marked “Danger High Voltage,” our guide instructs us to cover our ears before the utility man secures the 25-ton blast door. Good advice. Even with our hands muffling the sound, a thunderous bang echoes through our bodies.
Twenty-four of us gaze upward and then down a 433-foot (132 meters) long concrete tunnel. Now it’s the silence that’s deafening.
“We have just enteredProject Greek Island, code name for the top secret former Government Relocation Facility during the Cold War,” explains the guide, Paul Rose. “In the event of nuclear war, this would accommodate both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.”
The existence of such a complex doesn’t surprise some of us as much as its location—securely buried 720 feet (219 meters) into the hillside under a portion of the five-star Greenbrier Resort inWhite Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Built between 1958 and 1961, the bunker contains 112,544 square feet (10,455 square meters) of space, surrounded by reinforced concrete ceilings and walls that measure three- to five-feet thick (0.9 to 1.5 meters). Its design would supposedly withstand a nuclear blast 15 to 30 miles away (24 to 48 kilometers).
Walking down the long corridor, Rose points out boxes that once held canned and freeze-dried food. Supplies were kept fresh, and maintenance continued throughout the operation’s 30-year existence.
Laborers were never given the entire nature of their jobs when construction began in 1959. Rumors were squelched, but speculation grew.
President Eisenhower’s second term was nearing its end while the Cold War was at its height, along with the fear of a nuclear attack. An invented Forsythe Company, “a TV repair business and audio/visual consultants” for the Greenbrier, was actually overseeing the bunker’s administration. Civilian federal employees with military communications backgrounds went undercover for the assignment.
Though some of the Forsythe employees did indeed fix televisions for the resort, they principally maintained the facility for a state of constant readiness. Selected Greenbrier personnel, such as management, kitchen staff, mechanics and plumbers, were given security clearance on the project and were sworn to secrecy.
The possibility of a nuclear assault at that time becomes more of a reality to us on the tour as we view two decontamination zones. Anyone exposed to radioactive fallout would have to enter these areas, dispose of their contaminated clothing, shower and be issued new clothes and footwear.
The three-level internal power plant is comprised of massive water and fuel storage tanks Though not in use, the machinery was tested every Wednesday until the facility closed. Necessary, but not easy to think about, was the incinerator where dead bodies could be cremated. With such close quarters, they also considered how some personalities might become unruly. Thus, a caged area could serve as a jail.
“You couldn’t possibly fit all of us in there,” remarked Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah on a visit to the site.
Upon entering the briefing room in the communication department, we are taken aback by a large color photo of the Capitol dome against a blue sky and surrounded by fall foliage. Rose tells us that was to present a feeling of “all’s well” as government officials would broadcast to the nation from here. In another part of the communication section, technological lag is evident.
An oversize mainframe computer from the mid 80s and a telephone switchboard reminiscent of Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine” reminds us how far technology has advanced.
A record storage room would house in its vault congressional records, historical documents such the Declaration of Independence and vital government papers. This area was to be highly restricted.
We make our way to the sleeping area of the bunker. Eighteen dormitories could accommodate 60 persons each.
Far from the brightly colored, Dorothy Draper-decorated rooms of the Greenbrier, the dorm contains unstylish, metal bunk beds and wall lockers. Medical needs would have been well taken care of. A 12-bed sick bay, intensive care unit, operating and dental rooms and lab composed the clinic. The comprehensive pharmacy contained the individual medications prescribed to each official, as well as their hearing aids and eyeglasses.
As if what we were seeing wasn’t phenomenal enough, Rose said he has an even greater surprise for us. For this portion of the tour, Rose shows how the center’s largest room was “hidden in plain sight.” Incorporated into the West Virginia Wing of The Greenbrier, the Exhibit Hall is even to this day used for conferences, shows and recreation by hotel guests and the general public. The refurbished bunker kitchen and cafeteria became The Greenbrier’s famed Culinary Arts Center in 2001.
Two smaller auditoriums connect to this Exhibit Hall. One seats 470, which could hold the 435-member House of Representatives, with the other’s capacity at 130 to accommodate the Senate. On a moment’s notice, the two entrances to this area could be secured by imposing 18- and 30-ton blast doors.
The logistics of bringing Congress to this site 250 miles (402 kilometers) from Washington at the height of urgency would not have been easily accomplished, particularly if their moving there were to be secret and their families left behind. Such an evacuation nearly took place, however, during the Cuban missile crisis. Rose says they were “within one hour” of bringing Congress here.
He feels the underground facility would still be in use had a Washington Post Magazine story not broken on May 31, 1992.
Governmental emergency relocation plans ranked among investigative reporter Ted Gup’s interests. Undoubtedly following the rumor chain, Gup checked into The Greenbrier and requested a small, lesser-desired room. He then began inspecting and questioning.
He showed the managing director a false wall and large steel hinges projecting from it, and Gup then asked him point-blank about the bunker. Denial of its existence didn’t stop Gup, whose further probing eventually exposed it in his article “The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway.”
As our tour of the facility ends, I find myself giving a second look at the maintenance person changing a light bulb and the maid vacuuming the carpet. A strange feeling comes over me. I can’t help but wonder where today’s bunkers are located.
If You Go
Tours of the bunker are held on a regular basis at The Greenbrier. Registered guests may sign up at the concierge desk, and public tours (offered Wednesdays and Sundays) are coordinated at the bunker office (304-536-7810). Cost is $27 for adults; $10 for children 10-18. Children under 10 are not permitted.
The Greenbrier is located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (24986) at 300 West Main Street. Phone: 800-624-6070 or 304-536-1110.