Please welcome guest author Ed Wetschler, executive editor of Tripatini.com. This piece appeared on the Tripatini site on March 15, 2011. Wetschler is the Northeast Chapter chair of the Society of American Travel Writers. He has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, and frommers.com.
If the Soviet Union had attacked Washington, D.C., any time between 1962 and 1992 – if the Cold War had turned into a hot war – every member of the U.S. Congress would have been whisked to the bunker at The Greenbrier resort in Sulphur Springs, WV.
This secret nuclear fallout shelter, as envisioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, would have protected Congress so it could function during a nuclear war. I recently took a tour of the bunker, now approaching its fiftieth anniversary, and it made my hair stand on end.
I was a boy in the 1950s, a witness to frightening times. In first grade we were drilled on hiding under our little wooden desks in case of nuclear war, an exercise that even we children knew was useless. The radioactive fallout would be out there, waiting for us, and it would probably reach noncombatants, too, from Chile to Sweden to India.
Newspapers and movies reminded everyone that life would never be the same after a nuclear war – assuming life could survive at all. Moreover, the odds of nuclear war breaking out were so good, if “good” is the word, that Americans were digging fallout shelters in their backyards.
With that much buzz about fallout shelters, how did the government keep this huge (the artist’s rendering, above, reveals but a tiny fraction of the underground space), publicly funded bunker secret for more than three decades? Who would have gotten to hide in the bunker at the Greenbrier – and who wouldn’t? How would the country even know what wartime laws this underground Congress was passing? And, uh, how much do The Greenbrier’s bunker tours cost?
I’ll answer the last question – $30 for adults, $15 for anyone under 18 – and the U.S. government answered the others. The historic resort already had a relationship with Washington insiders, who had played golf on its championship courses and taken the waters at the spa.
Moreover, members of Congress could get there pretty easily. Not only did The Greenbrier have an airstrip, but its owner was the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, which stopped at nearby White Sulphur Springs, WV. The government would be able to hide bills for the bunker in the huge military contracts it had with the railroad. Now all they had to do was build a 112,500-square-foot underground living and working facility at a busy luxury resort without anyone noticing.
The solution was for The Greenbrier to construct a new wing at the same time as the bunker was being built beneath it, so to observers, the excavation just looked like a deep foundation. This new “West Virginia” wing featured an exhibition hall; walking with the tour group down a windowless corridor from the hotel’s central building to the hall, you don’t realize that part of this hall extends deep into a hill. You actually take an elevator up to the exhibition hall, and yes, this convention hall was part of the bunker. So part of the bunker was not just open to an unsuspecting public, but able to generate income.
Of course, the bunker also had features that the public never saw, and I’m not just talking about the surveillance room. Our group stared at multi-ton, blast-resistant doors that were once hidden behind movable walls. I wondered if I could swing one on its massive hinges, but as Robert S. Conte, the Greenbrier’s resident historian explains, “We used to let folks swing the doors—the great big one at the end of the real long tunnel—and the big reaction came when the door slammed against the concrete making a very loud BANG that reverberated down the tunnel. However, we discovered that this was cracking the concrete, so now the door is held stationary.”
Too bad, but not the end of the world. Because once we really got inside the bunker, things got even more interesting — and scary.
To learn more about The Greenbrier and Congress’ bunker, click here.