The Greenbrier Bunker: Cold War Shelter for V.I.P.s (part 2 of 2)

Posted by | March 18, 2011

Please welcome guest author Ed Wetschler, executive editor of 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

(continued from yesterday…)

We hiked through that endless, featureless tunnel through the mountain to a back entrance that could accommodate large vehicles. Retracing our steps, we eased into a claustrophobic, blue-tiled decontamination center, where personal belongings of arriving Congressmen – clothes, wallets, weddings rings – would have been confiscated and burned. Next, the lawmakers, having been exposed to radioactive fallout, would have been required to shower vigorously and then wear uniforms.

Multi-ton, blast-resistant doors that were once hidden behind movable walls.

Multi-ton, blast-resistant doors that were once hidden behind movable walls.

Our tour group visited some of the 18 bunk-bed dormitories – quite a comedown for these VIPs – as well as the House and Senate meeting rooms, replete with broadcasting facilities so the public would know that the government was functioning. The medical clinic seemed strangely silent, as if still waiting for its first patient. Three 14,000-gallon diesel tanks, three 25,000-gallon water tanks, and a full-blown underground power plant surprised us with their sheer size.

And then there was the oven: It looks somewhat like a wood-fired pizza oven, but it was intended not for pizza, but for disposing of any lawmakers who might inconvenience the underground refuge by dying. The planners had thought of everything.

The bunker's blue-tiled decontamination center.

The bunker's blue-tiled decontamination center.

Back in 1958 the construction workers signed affidavits swearing them to secrecy, and as a local told me, the system worked. “Beyond the affidavit, they were proud that the government had picked West Virginia for a secret project, so they were not about to ruin that,” she said. “And many of them weren’t especially eager to talk to outsiders anyway.”

Nevertheless, occasionally rumors circulated that this was a government shelter, so The Greenbrier management had to pooh-pooh such “crazy” ideas for decades.

During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Greenbrier guests did notice a lot of Forsythe & Associates employees going in and out of doors in the back of the exhibition space. But why not? Forsythe, management explained, serviced the resort’s audio-visual facilities.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

The bunker's full-blown underground power plant.

The bunker's full-blown underground power plant.

Forsythe was actually a dummy corporation consisting of technicians who maintained the food and water supplies and the electrical (etc.) systems of the bunker. Its real role – and the truth about the bunker itself – was finally exposed in 1992 by a Washington Post reporter named Ted Gup.

Once the public knew what and where the bunker was, of course, it was no longer a safe wartime shelter for Congress. The Greenbrier continued to rent out the exhibition hall, and it found a tenant for some of the backrooms – a transportation conglomerate that uses this deep-in-the-mountain facility to protect its electronic records from cellphone signals and other “noise.” Or so I’m told. But instead of mysterious Forsythe employees filing in and out, there are now tour groups led by The Greenbrier’s official historian, Dr. Robert S. Conte.

The bunker's crematory oven.

The bunker's crematory oven.

So the bunker’s mission has been aborted, yet questions arise: Surely the government built a shelter, somewhere, for the president and his aides, and probably one for the Supreme Court as well. Where? In this post-Cold War era, are those shelters still kept in a state of preparedness? Has the government built a new bunker somewhere for Congress? And when can we take a tour?

Also, one old question remains: Who would have gotten to hide in the bunker at The Greenbrier – and who wouldn’t? The answer is apparent when you walk through those dormitories and the communal showers. Each of the nation’s 535 Congressmen could bring one staff member, but their families would have stayed behind. Imagine yourself in that position, if you can, saying goodbye to your children, for whom unimaginable horrors might be in store, before you were relocated to an uncomfortable but safe shelter. Imagine yourself as a Congressman’s wife saying goodbye, or as a child.

The bunker tour will make you mull over things like that — make you contemplate the Cold War and the fears of those times. It may also make you wonder, in these post-Iron Curtain times, if we are more or less afraid than we were in those dark days.

To learn more about The Greenbrier and Congress’ bunker, click here.

One Response

  • Vandalia says:

    A few things:

    First, most people in town claimed that they actually knew pretty much what was taking place. Now, of course, they say that after it was revealed, so it is difficult to know if that is just revisionist history.

    Second, the bunker was built on what was the site of the town’s Catholic Church. To obtain the property, the government through intermediaries agreed to build a new Church that is now on the other side of the main road. If you have ever been inside it, they must have used the same contractors as the bunker, because it and the rectory both look like they could easily withstand a nuclear blast.

    Third, going back to number one, local residents say there were some very weird things about the “renovation” of the bunker to make it suitable for public tours…That is all I will say…

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