By J. Young
I was in school on a sunny Wednesday morning in 1982, when the air raid siren—a desk-sized contraption atop a 50-foot pole blared its shrill song. As I had done countless times before, I put down my dog-eared copy of Lord of the Flies, pushed out my chair and crawled under my desk. I felt a vague fear—the same nuclear angst a lot of kids had back then—coupled with the boredom you’d expect from any 12 year old in a drill, be it fire or Hellfire.
That’s my personal history with the Cold War. As a whole, though, America’s is somewhat more complex. I got to see an odd little slice of it when I toured Project Greek Island, the now declassified congressional fallout bunker underneath The Greenbrier resort. The bunker became common knowledge in 1992 after the Washington Post published an article about its existence. After a three-year decommissioning project, the Department of Defense handed control of it over to The Greenbrier.
I can bore you with statistics, like square footage and where they put all the poop, but you can learn that on Wikipedia. Instead, I’d like to share some of my own observations and musings, post tour…
1. The Greenbrier wasn’t just one of President Eisenhower’s favorite retreats. It was also located upwind of any potential Washington, DC nuclear strike and, with decent roads, within driving distance of the Capitol. Congresspeople could get there before Soviet bombers could be over American soil. Obviously, it’s no coincidence that Ike spearheaded construction of the bunker amid his push for a national interstate highway system. In fact, for some time the only complete section of I-64 in West Virginia was between the airport at Lewisburg (which, lo and behold, was built to accommodate even the largest of planes) and White Sulfur Springs, where The Greenbrier sits.
2. For The Greenbrier bunker to be an effective shelter for Congress, its very existence had to be kept secret. The people who guarded that secret were devious—hiding their charge virtually in plain sight. The bunker’s staff doubled as legitimate Greenbrier employees. Even their own families had no real idea why they had been uprooted and moved to West Virginia. Since The Greenbrier technically owned the bunker, it wasn’t on any official books. The federal government hid payments for the facility inside the already large payments it was making to the C&O Railroad, which conveniently also owned The Greenbrier. During construction, the official story was that the underground levels were to become conference space. To maintain the lie, The Greenbrier actually hosted trade shows and expos within the bunker. With careful camouflage of the enormous blast doors behind fake walls and the guts of the facility buried deep behind doors festooned with “High Voltage” signs, visitors were clueless. People held business meetings in what would have become the shadow House and Senate chambers should Breshnev ever get punchy after one too many vodka shots—and they never even knew it.
3. As you approach the entrance to the bunker, you step into a horribly decorated foyer designed specifically to make you want to move through quickly. That’s part of the camouflage—those in the know didn’t want anybody else examining the fake walls too closely. The only thing of interest in the room is a large painting depicting the fall of Rome. Heh. See what they did there?
4. Informed as I am solely by bunkers I’ve seen on TV and in movies, I expected to walk through a giant blast door and into room after room of opulence where Congresspeople sip cognac and smoke cigars while the rest of us burn in a nuclear wind. What I saw instead was a giant blast door and room after room of shockingly spartan quarters and meeting rooms. Imagine living in an RV with nine other people, and everything inside it is battleship gray. Ugh, right? Now imagine that times 100… except the RV doesn’t stop and you can’t roll down a window for 60 days. Oh, and everybody you know who isn’t in the RV is dead.
5. Given that this is not the only declassified government fallout bunker in existence, I have to wonder how many more of them there are. Where does Congress go in the biggest of emergencies now (since they’re not coming to The Greenbrier anymore)? Where do Supreme Court justices go? The President? Katy, our tour guide has a notion that there may be more, as yet still classified, facilities—all around 250 miles from DC, all upwind and all away from major population centers.
On the ride back to Adventures On the Gorge, I thought about that a lot. I asked myself, “Self… if you had to hide a bunker where would you put it?” Let’s consider what we know. First, the previous classified bunker was hidden rather well in plain sight. That M.O. worked quite well for three decades. Second, it took the DoD three years to clear all of its stuff out of the bunker, but the really big things, like generators, water tanks and diesel tanks—essentially some of the infrastructure for, um, a bunker, are still there. And here’s the kicker: right now, much of the bunker is still closed to the public, ostensibly because an obscure arm of CSX, called CSX Intellectual Property leases it from The Greenbrier as a high-security data storage facility. In other words, just as when the bunker was still classified, the public is routinely invited in… but not all the way in.
The answer washed over me like a decontamination shower. The new Congressional bunker must surely be in the one place nobody would ever look for it: right under the old Congressional bunker and—still—right under our noses. (This is fun!)
Long after the Berlin Wall (and that old air-raid siren behind my school) came down, I walked out of Project Greek Island and wondered: if the bombs had fallen, would Senators and Representatives have been the lucky ones, with concrete and steel over their heads? Or would it have been me with naught but a classroom desk? I mean, can you imagine more than 500 men and women and their aides—who disapprove of each other only slightly less than you disapprove of them—locked together in a concrete labyrinth for 60 days?
Lord of the Flies, indeed.
Do I recommend The Greenbrier bunker tour? Heck, yes, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated with odd tidbits and dark corners of history. You can find out more about bunker tours at that link a couple sentences back, or just call 855-225-6739 to book a reservation. The cost is $30 for adults or $15 for kids aged 10-17.
Author’s note: I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, and I don’t really believe that there’s a classified Congressional bunker under the declassified Congressional bunker. I’m certain it’s really located underneath the Summit Bechtel Scout Reserve in Mt. Hope.