Greenbrier bunker hidden piece of history

Every night when New Orleans Saints players lay their practice-weary heads down in their rooms at The Greenbrier resort, they’re drifting off to sleep on top of one of the biggest secrets of the Cold War.

In its day it was known as Project X, Project Casper and finally Project Greek Island. Today it is simply known as The Bunker, an emergency relocation facility built by the federal government at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions to house members of Congress and their staff in the event of a national emergency like a nuclear attack.

The plan went something like this: If a major crisis seemed imminent, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate would be brought here, probably by train, to ride out the emergency in the radioactive fallout-proof shelter. The shelter could have housed 1,600 people and was complete with a power plant, medical facilities, a 60-day supply of food and a TV studio from which congressional leaders could have broadcast messages to the country that the continuity of government was being maintained.

“You can go to other summer training camps, but you won’t find another one with a bunker,” said Linda Walls, manager of bunker tours for The Greenbrier.

The reasons the resort was selected for such a far-fetched project were three fold:

One, it had easy access to the railroad. An Amtrak station sits just across U.S. 60 from the main entrance to the resort.

Two, it was just five hours drive from Washington, close enough for a major evacuation but far enough away from the capital to likely escape fallout if there was a nuclear attack.

And three, the federal government had a long-standing relationship with the resort. Just after Pearl Harbor, The Greenbrier housed German, Japanese and Italian diplomats before they could be exchanged for American diplomats held in those countries. In 1942, it was converted into a military hospital for the duration of World War II called Ashford General Hospital, where then Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself visited injured troops.

From 1958-61, workers toiled under the cover story of a major addition to the hotel called the West Virginia wing. Secrecy was imperative according to Walls, because the bunker was not designed to survive a direct nuclear bomb hit.

Walls said for years residents knew there was something secret hidden beneath The Greenbrier’s Dorothy Draper-designed floral print wallpaper and croquet lawns. They thought it was something designed for the president, though Walls said in the event of a national emergency the president and vice president would have been sheltered elsewhere.

Though fitted with 3- to 5-foot thick concrete walls and buried beneath 20 feet of soil under the West Virginia wing of the hotel, the bunker depended on subterfuge to maintain its secret existence. One of its three huge vault doors led directly to one of the hotel’s public areas — hidden behind a moving wall and garish wallpaper intended to keep guests from wanting to examine the area for too long. Next to the door still stands a print depicting the fall of the Roman Empire.

Inside, part of the bunker was always open to the public. There was a large “exhibit hall” used for conventions and what were purported to be two large theatre-style meeting rooms, the Governor’s Hall and Mountaineer Room.

In reality, the exhibit hall was designed to be converted into 24 offices for Congressional leaders and their staff. Governor’s Hall holds enough seats for the 435-member House of Representatives, while the Mountaineer Room could hold the 100 members of the Senate.

The rest of the facility, even one of the huge vault entrances at the end of a 430-foot service tunnel, were closed off, ominous “Danger High Voltage” signs intended to scare away the curious.

“It was hidden in plain sight,” Walls said.

The bunker may have preserved the federal government but Walls makes no pretense about the fact it wouldn’t have been a pleasant existence for those inside. During a tour of the bunker, Walls pulls the vault door off the service tunnel entrance shut with an unnerving slam.

“Can you imagine if you had been brought to an unknown place for an unknown amount of time?” Walls asked. “It would have been horrible.”

The only time the bunker came close to being used was shortly after it became fully operational.

During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the facility was put on high alert. Walls said an evacuation of Congress to The Greenbrier was within hours of being put into motion.

Despite rumors of its existence, the facility continued to operate in relative secrecy for 30 years.

The only activity was conducted by a small group of government operatives working for a company called Forsythe Associates — the name even sounds like something from a spy novel. Their cover story was that they were to maintain the resort’s televisions and cable service, but their main job was to keep the bunker stocked and constantly update its high-tech communications equipment.

On May 31, 1992, an investigative article in The Washington Post entitled “The Last Resort” exposed the existence of the bunker. The very next day the facility began to be phased out, with the contract between the federal government and The Greenbrier finally expiring in July 1995.

Bunker tours began that December. Each day, groups of visitors thread their way through the warren of meeting rooms, decontamination chamber and past museum displays of Cold War era sleeping bunks and documents designed to help the government survive a doomsday scenario.