'The Bunker' at The Greenbrier: A secret for 30 years

Courtesy of The Greenbrier
An architect's rendering of the bunker that exists underneath The Greenbrier's clubhouse.
July 28, 2010
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- The history of The Greenbrier has always been inextricably linked with Sam Snead.

You can't walk far around this sprawling resort without seeing a photo of the sweet-swinging Virginian who began playing out of The Greenbrier in 1935 and won a record 82 PGA TOUR events in four different decades.

But there is another part of The Greenbrier's legacy that remained buried -- literally -- for 30 years. Today, it's known as "The Bunker" but the official name was the U.S. Government Relocation facility, also dubbed "Project Greek Island" when it was built from 1958-1961.

That was during the height of the Cold War, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the leaders of Congress wanted a safe place where the U.S. government could continue to function in the event of a national emergency. Eisenhower's affection for the resort, where he recuperated during World War II and was a frequent visitor, coupled with its secluded location in the Allegheny Mountains and relative proximity to Washington, D.C., made The Greenbrier a perfect fit.

So the top-secret, two-story facility was built 720 feet in the hillside under the West Virginia Wing of The Greenbrier. When it was finished, there was room for 1,100 people -- all the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as key staff -- with a self-sustaining infrastructure and enough provisions for up to 60 days.

The bunker was maintained, fully functional, for the next 30 years until a May, 1992 story in the Washington Post revealed its existence. Since the facility had been compromised, it was no longer useful to the government and the lease with The Greenbrier ended three years later.

The article was written by Ted Gup, who never revealed the name of the government official who had tipped him off. He wasn't spot-on in every regard but he had a lot of details correct -- even contacting the Ohio company that made the three 25-ton steel and concrete blast doors that secured the facility.

Gup eventually came to The Greenbrier and registered as a guest, searching for further information from the resort's employees as well as the townspeople -- many of whom had worked on the construction and mistakenly thought they were building a bomb shelter for the President.

bunkerdoor.jpg

Had that bomb hit Washington, D.C., though, the President and Vice President would have been taken to other locations. But the 535 members of Congress and their aides would have been quietly brought to The Greenbrier and secreted away in the bunker. No family members would be allowed, and none of the elected officials would have been allowed to decline the "invitation."

The bunker consisted of 153 rooms -- many of which were actually hidden in plain sight at The Greenbrier. The exhibition hall, for example, used by so many conventions over the years would have been turned into offices for the government officials. The walls were between 3-5 feet thick, constructed of reinforced concrete, and the facility covered 112,544 square feet. Another 20-60 feet of dirt separated the top of the bunker from the floor of the West Virginia Wing.

Once the congressmen and senators got to the facility, they would have been taken to the decontamination area. There they would have stripped and been given new clothes and toiletries -- all the same issue. Their clothes and any personal effects would be burned in an incinerator to avoid infection.

The government officials would sleep in bunk beds in one of 18 different dormitories, each housing 60 people who shared wall lockers. The communal lounges had TVs and couches, some even had exercise equipment, and the décor was occasionally updated during the three decades the bunker remained operational.

The top Democrat and top Republican in each branch of Congress got their own suites, though, with twin beds and a bathtub. And regardless of party affiliation, the all-important "refugees" had use of a clinic, intensive care unit, medical and dental operating rooms, lab and pharmacy continually stocked with the latest medications.

To maintain communication with their constituents, who presumably would need reassurance during the time of crisis, the facility featured a TV production room as well as multiple radio booths. The infrastructure also included three 25,000-gallon water storage tanks and a purification system, as well as a trio of 14,000-gallon diesel fuel tanks.

All was maintained on the ready for 30 years -- thanks, in part, to the Forsyth Associates, a group of government employees who blended seamlessly into The Greenbrier landscape, thought to be TV and telephone repairmen. The kitchen was even kept fully-stocked, first with C-rations and later with MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) that were replenished before the expiration date, with the old meals headed to other military installations to eliminate waste.

Once Gup wrote his article, though, and the location was known, the bunker became useless. It's used as a data storage facility now, but the public can take a 90-minute tour of the bunker and learn about its place in history.