Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Charleston, The Greenbrier Resort, and a Secret Cold War Bunker for Congress

For our anniversary this year, my partner Laura and I decided to visit the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Steeped in history, the place dates back to 1788 and has provided luxury accommodations to everyone from vacationers to visiting heads of state to celebrities and sitting American Presidents. Laura had been there a few times before and loves the place. When she first suggested going there, I was excited. Admittedly, a lot of that anticipation stemmed from a History Channel special I had seen when I was home sick from grade school (back when the channel wasn't all pawn shop shows and wannabe Game of Thrones dramas).

You see, The Greenbrier Resort once housed a government secret, one built towards the start of the Cold War, a place to continue the functions of our elected officials should an atomic exchange with the Soviets ever come to fruition.

A secret bunker.

- Charleston, West Virginia.

But first, to get there, we had to pass through Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city. We stopped to check out the West Virginia Capitol Building on our way in. The building’s dome is unique in that it features a 23-karat gold leaf decoration, a symbol that can been seen from vistas throughout the city’s core.

Since we visited during a holiday break, there were no official tours, but the security guard manning the metal detector told us we were free to look around and take whatever photographs we’d like. It’s an impressive and beautiful structure of a state that’s often overlooked.

- Inside the West Virginia Capitol Building's dome.

Despite the classical appearance, the process of designing the building didn’t begin until 1921, with construction starting in 1924, followed by an opening in 1932. Charleston became West Virginia’s permanent capital in 1885 after both it and the city of Wheeling had taken turns as the seat of state government. West Virginia itself had become the 35th state in 1863, admitted to the Union after the counties within its territory had disagreed with Virginia’s plan to secede and join the Confederacy at the onset of the American Civil War. Depending on who’s version you read, West Virginia is said to be the only state to secede from the Confederate States of America. However, the CSA was seen as a collection of states in “open rebellion,” never officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States of America or other world powers before its forces surrendered.

- The West Virginia Capitol Building reflected in nearby windows with the American flag.

With the Confederacy’s defeat and the Southern states undergoing reconstruction, West Virginia continued developing as a state rife with natural resources. It can tend to get lost in the shuffle these days, but it’s an interesting and unique place with mountainous landscapes and a diverse group of cities.

We stopped at a local restaurant for dinner, enjoyed some local beer, and grabbed local coffee in the morning, wishing we had more time and better weather to see more of the city. As we left, we passed by the Capitol Building once more, which at the time of this writing hosts the offices of Governor Jim Justice. Justice is a West Virginia native and one of the state’s few billionaires, having made his fortune in the coal industry. He’s unique in that he initially identified as a Republican, switched to the Democrats for his gubernatorial run, and then switched back to the Republican Party while hosting President Trump (who has often promised to restore the state's declining coal industry, although that’s a lot harder than it sounds). Justice also happens to own the Greenbrier Resort.

The resort is a beautiful complex, sitting on 11,000 acres in the Allegheny Mountains. With our friend Kevin, we ate excellent food, drank good beer, lost money in the casino, and celebrated the New Year. I’m just as comfortable sleeping in a Motel 6 or my car, but there’s something to be said about the level of service and quality at a place like this. To top things off, a lot of the charm is genuine and derived from history, something the resort takes seriously and promotes with a full time historian and restoration staff on hand.

People initially flocked to the area to visit the spring of sulphur water found in what’s now the center of the resort’s grounds, developed by a prominent Baltimore family who hosted President Van Buren as an early guest. The resort’s iconic White Hotel was constructed in 1858 and was almost lost as Union and Confederate forces contested the territory during the Civil War.

Following the conclusion of the conflict, the hotel reopened and the addition of railroad service made it even more accessible to customers coming from both the North and South alike. Robert E. Lee and a handful of other former Confederate leaders authored the “White Sulphur Manifesto” here, advocating for reconciliation between societies divided by war. A cursory glance at the resort’s guest book today reflects its diverse audience as you’ll see the names of cities from all over the United States and world.

By 1910, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway took ownership of the property. Over the years, their expansion plans were ambitious and reflective of the wealth and influence railroad companies once held. By World War Two, the United States Government purchased the resort from the C and O, using it to intern diplomats and officers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. When the prisoners were moved out, the US Army utilized the grounds as a hospital until 1946 when the government sold the property back to the railroad.

- The Greenbrier is a popular stop on Amtrak's Cardinal Line with its own dedicated station (left). A railroad moniker found on one of the Amtrak signs (right).

The railroad embarked on even more expansion and improvements, hiring famed interior designer Dorothy Draper to oversee the redevelopment of the property. Draper’s influence is still felt today as the complex boasts her trademark style. In the years that followed, socialites, celebrities, and visiting dignitaries came to the resort. Located 4-5 hours from Washington D.C., it was also popular with American Presidents and Vice Presidents, particularly President Eisenhower.

In one of the many ornate rooms, we met our guide Frank. He welcomed our tour group by asking us to hand over our phones and cameras. I knew the policy beforehand, but was still somewhat annoyed. Not having the ability to take photographs of the tour had kept me from coming here years earlier, when I almost booked an Amtrak trip. The reasoning for censorship would soon become clear, though. We were led towards the resort’s “West Virginia Wing,” our guide pointing out how the resort's once-secret bunker was beneath the hill that we could see out the windows.

- The Greenbrier's West Virginia Wing sits in the hillside, above the once classified Congressional bunker.

Getting closer, the interior decoration stays the same, but the architecture changes a bit. What could easily be explained as a change in tastes and materials over time actually identifies where the underground portion of the resort begins.

I had seen the blast door when we arrived the day before, but now were walking past it and into not just an exhibition hall, but into the halls of Congress. At least, what would have been the halls of Congress in anticipation of a third world war.

- A bunker blast door exposed due to its decoy wall being pulled back.

Following victory in World War II and his election to President, former Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Administration began to consider all of the aspects of atomic warfare as the Cold War began. One of their priorities was putting contingencies into place to keep elected leadership functioning in the event of a nuclear exchange. The President is said to have reached out to Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad President Walter J. Touhy about building a bunker beneath his company’s resort property. A new expansion of the hotel dubbed “The West Virginia Wing” would provide cover for the secret construction. The US Government was a frequent freight client of the C and O who received some $14 Million rather than the hotel itself while a vague letter from Congressional leadership introduced the Legislative Branch’s architect to hotel management. There’s a few documented cases of a nearby paper and some local residents having suspicions, most of them thinking a bunker was being constructed for the President, but widespread and common knowledge of the project never came to light.

Construction began in 1959 with the bunker being carved into a picturesque hillside next to the existing hotel grounds. The facility boasted 18 dormitories, a 12-bed hospital, a power plant complete with multiple diesel generators, potable water tanks, an incinerator, and a fully functioning tv studio as well as radio communication facilities. AT and T, who would eventually be a frequent provider of secretive US military communications, routed calls to and from the bunker through the hotel’s switchboard. More than 55,000 tons of concrete were used to create support columns and walls that were several feet thick. Blast doors were installed and subsequently hidden behind fake walls. The access points to allow supply trucks doubled as ramps for vehicles offering logistical support for the hotel and its new trade show facility, which was constructed above the bunker and still underground. Above all of that, the hotel built a multi-floor, 88 room expansion.

When all construction was completed in the Spring of 1962, the guests in their rooms and the trade show attendees had no idea what was hidden below them as well as in plain sight. Two auxiliary rooms off of the main trade hall offered ample meeting space, but had actually been built specifically to seat both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

- The Greenbrier's exhibition hall. The only area of the bunker facility you can photograph.

Our tour took us through the exhibit hall, which is still in use and updated with modern equipment. It's also the only part of the tour you can photograph. Through a door, we were issued into what was once the auxiliary meeting place of the United States Senate, but it’s not as grand as the chambers I visited on a school trip when I was 14. It’s utilitarian, built for purpose with basic creature comforts. An American flag hangs on the stage behind an ornate wooden podium and tables. They’re the only things remotely resembling the actual Senate Chambers other than the number of seats. This kind of furniture would’ve only been wheeled out if the bunker was activated, the seats and desks looking no different than a college classroom from the early 60’s.

Our tour continues to the dormitories, where for years, each bed was already pre-assigned to active members of Congress. We walk into the former television studio, where backdrops of the White House and Capitol dome could be overlaid with different filters to reflect the season and offer a subliminal, calming effect to television viewers. Viewers who’d be catching the broadcast and fearing the nuclear fallout. In one of the hallways, it’s revealed why we can’t take photographs or see every room: much of the space is leased out for private and secure data storage.

In the cafeteria, still in use for the resort’s chef training program, it’s revealed that the checker pattern on the floor is intentionally made to be unpleasant. In the event of full occupancy, people would have to eat in shifts and our elected leaders would’ve been encouraged to not linger. In the depths of the building we encounter the three water tanks, each one capable of holding 25,000 gallons in a room next to the massive diesel generators. These systems and all bunker logistics were regularly maintained for years by Federal employees who posed as the resort’s audio/visual technicians under the guise of a front company. At one of the entry points, an open blast door reveals a long pathway through the underground and out of the hillside. Here, a 60 day supply of food for all of Congress and select support staff would’ve been stored along the walls. The selection evolved from military rations to modern MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and was eventually combined with fresh food that could be rotated up to the resort’s kitchens as replenishment supplies were brought in.

I wondered to myself and Frank said it out loud: was this long hallway the best place to store the food? The passageway would’ve also served as an intake point, with bunker invitees potentially covered in radioactive fallout walking right past the food. If a nuclear war was in progress and Congressional evacuees were exposed to radiation, was it really smart for them to all be marching past the food supply on their way in?

At the end of the tunnel, they’d surrender their tainted clothes for incineration, be ushered naked through a decontamination shower, and then receive military fatigues and boots as well as toiletries. At this point, Frank reiterated that the bunker was built merely as a fallout shelter and not necessarily a hardened location. The mountainous terrain outside and facilities below ground would make it defensible to conventional aerial attack, but it most likely couldn’t sustain a direct atomic blast.

Our group is allowed to walk through the decontamination shower and Frank encourages us to envision what it would’ve been like. You’ve just seen the horrors of nuclear tactics up close, a third world war has begun, and you’re stripped down in a sterile room, one of the few lucky enough to have shelter as you begin the process of trying to lead in a new world. Walking through the shower is a dramatic shift on an otherwise fun and curious tour, you realize how ominous things were and the kind of realistic planning that had to be put in place. Stepping by the incinerator is just as lurching, especially when Frank points out that not only could it destroy trash and disposed clothing, but human bodies as well should anyone have perished below ground.

The tour ends on a more upbeat note when you return to the main resort, back amongst its various luxuries and at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation is far lower. The world you step back into is still complex and still politically tumultuous, though. The United States’ relationship with Russia is still challenging, a story evolving to this day, and the leadership of Vladimir Putin often longs for the perceived glory of the Soviets. But Stalin’s Eastern Bloc empire is gone. Although Putin’s Russia still boasts a sizable nuclear arsenal and he may wish to command like Kruschev once did, nuclear conflict seems unlikely. There’s always the threat of North Korea and terrorism, but this bunker won’t be used to guard against those. It’s a tourist attraction now, a beautifully preserved relic of a dangerous and incredible time in our nation’s past, a highlight of Cold War legends.

- Declassified CIA document showing the estimated range of Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba. Image via AllWorldWars.com.

Frank is kind enough to hang out with us for a bit while I ask a bunch of followup questions. We talk about several things such as how the bunker was almost activated during the Cuban Missile Crisis, not even a year after it was completed. Had it been used and Congress temporarily relocated here, the facility would’ve no longer been confidential or useful to the Government after the incident. We also talk about how the advancement of nuclear weapons far outpaced the bunker’s design and construction. It was designed during a time when nuclear ordinance was not only a lower yield of destruction, but would’ve been delivered via Soviet bomber aircraft coming over the polar ice caps. Members of Congress would’ve likely had hours of warning and time to make the 4-5 hour trip from the Capitol to the bunker (which was also accessible via train and a local airfield). By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though, Soviet missiles 90 miles off our nation’s coast could reach targets as far north as Cincinnati in minutes rather than hours (American missiles in Europe and Turkey were just as quick). Although the crisis was resolved and and the bunker never activated, evolving missile technology continued to hamper the facility’s effectiveness. Intercontinental ballistic missiles as a means to deliver ordinance had been researched by the Nazis in World War Two, their studies fueling the efforts of the victorious Americans and Soviets who perfected rocket propelled warheads. By the mid 60’s, silo based missiles could reach their targets in as quickly as thirty minutes. Submarine based missiles made the travel time even quicker and harder to detect. Not only could The Greenbrier Bunker not withstand a direct atomic, hydrogen, or nuclear bomb strike (as it was mainly a fallout shelter), but the idea of Congress converging on the site quickly enough during an imminent attack was no longer plausible. Nevertheless, the bunker was kept secret in the event that the Legislative Branch needed to be relocated amongst mounting tensions and rising threats.

Part of the tour’s story is why it’s able to exist, how a government secret was declassified. In 1992, Ted Gup of The Washington Post Magazine exposed the existence of Project Greek Island, the once classified name of the bunker’s construction. Gup, now a Journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston, went on to write several more stories as well as books on government secrecy. The internet is rife with comments from anonymous users calling Gup an unpatriotic traitor, but Gup’s revelations posed serious questions about oversight, costs, and whether or not the bunker was even feasible for use with the way weaponry advanced. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that as military tactics changed, so did the Government’s plans for continuance regardless of The Greenbrier bunker being an asset. There’s likely many locations and contingency plans in place across the country. Gup never revealed the source who tipped him off to the facility’s existence, but one of the places he visited in his research was Hamilton, Ohio, then home to the now defunct Mosler Safe Company. The records for construction of the massive blast doors was still on file.

The US Government immediately decommissioned the bunker following the 1992 story and turned the space over to The Greenbrier. Tours are now offered to resort guests while space is leased to the aforementioned data storage operation. While taking your own photographs isn't allowed, $5 in one of the gift shops will get you some interesting postcards:

- Postcard Caption: "A 25-ton blast door protected the west tunnel entrance of the emergency relocation facility for Congress located at The Greenbrier."

- Postcard Caption: "Original bunk beds in one of eighteen dormitories in the former emergency relocation facility for Congress located at The Greenbrier."

- Postcard Caption: "Formerly classified artist's rendering of the relationship of the underground bunker to the West Virginia Wing of The Greenbrier."

- Postcard Caption: "Formerly classified construction photograph of the bunker (1960). This section of the bunker was utilized as the Exhibit Hall of The Greenbrier."

One of the things Frank and I speculated on before we parted ways was if the Soviets knew of the bunker's existence. While ironically, the Soviet ambassador under Nikita Khrushchev had spent a night at the resort back in 1959, no official record of the Soviets being aware of the bunker or the Americans being aware of their knowledge has come to light. Frank had heard a story of visiting dignitaries boasting about having previous knowledge of the place “the whole time” in the wake of the 1992 expose, but no one knows for certain.

Thankfully, the Soviets knowledge, the strength of the bunker's walls, or the results of mutual nuclear exchange between super powers ever had to be tested.

- Postcard Caption: "Mexican President Cortines, President Eisenhower, and Canadian Prime Minister St. Laurent pictured at The Greenbrier for the North American Summit Conference Meeting, March 26, 1956. Under the cover of this meeting, U.S. government officials reached an agreement to proceed with the emergency relocation facility for Congress."


  1. Lol... Hate the reality TV style history shows too.

    I ran into the no photos directive at Monticello. I was not happy to find out that they invited Google to come in and do a "Street View" of the interior only a few weeks later

    1. It's astounding to me how bad the History Channel has become. That's awesome to hear about the street view. Wonder why Monticello doesn't allow the cameras?

  2. I really enjoy your sightseeing adventures!!! Keep 'em coming! :)