The Secret Bunker Congress Never Used

March 20, 2011

NPR Staff

The north entrance to The Greenbrier gives no clues to a secret bunker for Congress.
Guy Raz
Behind this 25-ton safety vault door lies a WalMart-sized concrete bunker.
Construction of the bunker, 1960.
The TV and studio briefing room prepared for Congress in the Bunker at The Greenbrier.
Guy Raz.
Emergency deconatamination showers for radiation in the bunker.
Guy Raz
In the Greenbrier's public exhibition hall, a not-so-secret entrance leads to the bunker.
Beds line the dormitory for members of Congress.
The cover of Life magazine, 1962.
Rations stock the long entrance to the bunker.

For 30 years, it was kept secret. Hidden in West Virginia's Greenbrier Resort was a massive bomb shelter stocked with supplies for members of Congress in case of an emergency.

In a groundbreaking series of reports in 2010, Washington Post reporters Bill Arkin and Dana Priest revealed that 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area since September 2001.

Before that building boom, however, another secret bunker lay in wait for the apocalypse, behind a giant reinforced steel door.

The Greenbrier Resort And Bunker

Welcome to the Capitol Hill, the Day After — except this isn't Washington. It's a giant concrete box nestled into a hillside in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.

The story of how it was kept secret for 30 years and how it even got here is stranger than any conspiracy theory. For one thing, it was built as an addition to one of America's most famous luxury resorts.

The Greenbrier Resort in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the most celebrated of the historic watering places at which much of the history of fashionable Southern society has revolved since the country was young.

Bankers, industrialists and government advisers all hobnobbed at one of the country's most exclusive resorts right next door to a post-apocalyptic bunker to guard America's lawmakers — a place to go after a nuclear attack. To Bob Conte, official historian for the Greenbrier, that all sounded like crazy talk. When he arrived in 1978, locals in White Sulphur Springs started badgering him with questions.

"'Why is there a 7,000 foot landing strip for a town of 3,000 people?' Well, that's so the government could fly their people in here in case of war and go to the bunker that's under the Greenbrier," he says. Mostly, he said there was no such thing.

A Secret Home For The House And Senate

Thing is, Conte didn't really know anything about it. He knew every square inch of the Greenbrier's property. He had access to all the records and documents and historic photographs of presidents and kings and prime ministers drinking mint juleps on the veranda.

But only a handful of people in America knew that just a few yards from Conte's own office was a reinforced bunker that would house all 535 members of the House and Senate in the event of nuclear Armageddon.

Behind 3-foot-thick concrete walls is a space about the size of a WalMart — 100,000 square feet. The air-intake system is so intricate — it was meant to filter out radiation — that it creates a vacuum-like effect when you walk in. Wind howls around you and sucks all the doors shut.

In the sleeping quarters for those members of Congress who survived the initial blast are row of metal bunkbeds.

"All they had for private items that you could lock up were a small drawer, right underneath the beds, you could put your personal items in here," Conte says. "Then you had one locker. So that was the extent of what you would have while you were here. And for 30 years, every one of these 1,100 beds was assigned to somebody."

To understand why and even how this bunker was built — right under the noses of America's vacationing aristocrats — you have to go back to the mid-1950s, when a whole industry built around the construction of fall-out shelters started to take off.

Built In An Atomic Age

In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower started to worry about how to maintain law and order in America in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

"I feel impelled to speak today in a language that, in a sense, is new — one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use," he said. "That new language is the language of atomic warfare."

Eisenhower decided the Greenbrier would be a perfect cover for a Congressional bunker. In 1958, government workers broke ground on what they called "Project Greek Island."

It was just about four hours drive from Washington. Hotel workers and guests were told that the giant hole in the ground would house a new conference facility. In fact, it would — or at least a part of it would.

"In the 30 years, thousands of people walked in and out of a secret bunker not knowing they were in a secret bunker — which was part of the original design," Conte says in a large room of the bunker used as an "exhibit hall."

"You would have the West Virginia Medical Association meeting here, and a lot of car companies have met here over the years," he says.

Down another corridor is a room that was to be the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. "There were microphones," Conte says. "You can see the little metal attachments there on the back of the seats. They would attach microphones there because they would have recorded all sessions of Congress. There was a big communications center in here."

Some Strange Clues

There were a few weird coincidences that Conte noticed before the bunker's existence was exposed by the Washington Post in 1992. For one, there were many, many, MANY bathrooms. And most of them were for men.

Another thing was that both Gerald Ford and Hubert Humphrey were frequent guests of the Greenbrier when they served in Congress. Conte found out later that they would have been among the few people in the world who knew about the bunker.

Finally, there was a mysterious crew of TV technicians who worked at the hotel but didn't work for the hotel. The company they worked for was called Forsyth Associates. As it turned out, Forsyth Associates was a cover — these were secret government employees who had to keep the bunker in a constant state of operational readiness.

"For that 30 years, you had to make sure all the filters were changed, all the pharmaceuticals were up-to-date, and all the food was ready to go," Conte says. That would be a six-month supply of food, periodically refreshed.

The Secret Moves On, But Not The Bunker

Today, part of the bunker is a tourist attraction. Another part is used as a secure data storage facility. Had it not been exposed in 1992, there's a good chance this would still be the secret home of the U.S. Congress.

But now that secret home is somewhere else. And, like the last one, just a handful of people know where it is. As mentioned earlier, Washington Post reporter Bill Arkin is one of them, and he's not saying.

"If you're a normal member of Congress, my guess is that you know nothing. You really know nothing," he says.

One postscript to the story before we leave the bunker: There's a former software engineer named Larry Hall who plans to turn a decommissioned missile base in Kansas into luxury survival condos.

After the recent earthquake in Japan — and the nuclear reactor crisis — he's been getting a lot more inquiries. Hall says his bunker will even protect you from radiation. But it'll cost you. Prices start at $900,000. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.