The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, has been a luxury haven for diplomats, presidents, and foreign dignitaries since 1778. That legacy of wealth and prestige made the resort the ideal candidate to house members of Congress in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower felt it prudent to prepare the American government in case the worst should happen. So from 1957 to 1962, the US government made secret renovations to the Greenbrier resort, turning the hotel into a secret nuclear bunker for US lawmakers.
Now offering tours for around $40, the Greenbrier bunker was once among the best-kept secrets of the Cold War.
During a 1953 address to the United Nations, Eisenhower underscored the risks of atomic warfare.
“The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension, at least in comparative terms, of the extent of this development, of the utmost significance to every one of us,” Eisenhower said.
The bunker at the Greenbrier is far enough away from Washington to escape the effects of radioactive fallout from a targeted strike on the nation’s capital. However, the resort is close enough to Washington to make it a realistic evacuation-site option on short notice. The Greenbrier also had a history with Eisenhower, who received medical treatment at the facility when it operated as a hospital during World War II.
There were several operational names for the secret nuclear bunker, including Project Greek Island, Project X, and Project Caspar. It was also nicknamed the “Graceland of Cold War Tourism” by Bill Geerhart, editor of a website that curates information on various Cold War history locations across the US.
The Greenbrier’s $14 million renovation project included the construction of “a tiny jail with two boxes of straitjackets in case congressmen went bonkers,” according to Dissent, a political news magazine.
At the bunker complex, officials stocked a six-month supply of food and a pharmacy with several bottles of antidepressants. The goods were kept up to date by a handful of undercover government workers who operated under the code name “Forsythe Associates.”
According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “The two largest [doors], known as GH 1 and GH 3 and weighing 28 and 20 tons respectively, require 50 pounds of force to open.” The spacious 112,544-square-foot bunker was built 720 feet underground and included concrete walls more than 3 feet in thickness. Its largest area, intended to host sessions of Congress, was named the “Exhibit Hall” as part of a cover story fed to hotel employees.
After sealing the exterior doors in the wake of a nuclear attack, the bunker’s occupants would have 72 hours of breathable air before the intake system kicked in. After that initial three-day window, the air system would filter outside air of radiation and other contaminants. Safely tucked away in their underground lair, the ensconced lawmakers could manage government affairs using a suite of advanced communications equipment.
According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the bunker complex included state-of-the-art TV and radio broadcast capabilities.
“In the event of an attack, congressmen would have been expected to give speeches broadcast to whatever was left of the American population,” according to the foundation. To give the illusion of normalcy, there was even a backdrop of the US Capitol building set up in the TV conference room.
For 30 years, the classified bunker remained ready for use in the event of nuclear war. The bunker was decommissioned in 1992 after Washington Post reporter Ted Gup publicly revealed its existence. However, by that time, civilian workers at the resort had long suspected the site’s true purpose.
“You could pretty well look and see the way they was setting it up there that they wasn’t building it to keep the rain off of them. I mean a fool would have known,” construction worker Randy Wickline told Gup in an interview.
The Greenbrier resort now operates exclusively as a luxury hotel. For his part, Gup argued that the bunker was already obsolete by 1992, so his disclosure of the site’s true purpose was not harmful to US national security, he said.
In the event of a nuclear war or some other cataclysmic event, America’s current continuity-of-government plan comprises 102 pages of phased evacuations and responses for essential personnel at the White House and other government institutions.
As seen during the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots, the need for evacuation procedures can arise with little advance notice. In such instances, Secret Service agents are responsible for rapidly shepherding US government officials to their designated evacuation points.