A Different Kind of Bunker at The Greenbrier

By James A. Frank

Let’s get the inevitable joke out of the way: The biggest bunker in the world is at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The joke is that the bunker—all 112,000 square feet of it—isn’t on any of the resort’s golf courses. In fact, it isn’t on anything. It’s under, as in underground, and it isn’t filled with sand but with beds and couches, a kitchen and infirmary, even an auditorium and television studio, enough room to accommodate 1,100 people. (That’s 275 foursomes if you’re still thinking it has something to do with golf. Which it doesn’t.)

It’s that other kind of bunker, a hole in the ground designed for safety and protection, built during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear war hung over the country. If an attack came, the 535 members of Congress and their aides (but not their families and not the President and Vice President, who would hole up elsewhere) would leave Washington, D.C., by train and reconvene in a two-story cement box buried in a hillside under the hotel. From there the work of government—whatever work there was with Armageddon raging above—could continue.

Bunker DoorThe Bunker (officially called The U.S. Government Relocation Facility) was constructed in top secret between 1958 and 1961. No one knew about it other than Greenbrier management, government planners, and some construction personnel: The story was that the resort was adding a new wing, and for more than 30 years, few people were the wiser.

The lid was blown off in 1992 when journalist Ted Gup, working on a tip, booked a room at the resort and started asking questions. That spring, he wrote an article for the Washington Post revealing that The Bunker still existed and was still ready if needed. Once exposed, The Bunker ceased to have a purpose. The government stopped maintaining it and it became the resort’s responsibility. So now it’s open for daily tours, a slightly creepy look back at an era thankfully past.

The tour—worth taking, especially if you are old enough to remember black-and-white TV, the Military Industrial Complex, and drills in which you cowered under your school desk—takes about 90 minutes and costs $30 per adult (about $4 in 1960 money). It goes through many of the rooms that our Senators, Representatives, and their staff would have lived and worked in, beginning with the massive, 25-ton steel-and-concrete doors, nearly two feet thick, that would have sealed out the world.

Many of the rooms have been turned into exhibits, the walls lined with photographs and memorabilia. Some of the secret papers ordering the construction are on display, signed, in an act of bi-partisanship we might find hard to believe today, by the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of Congress. There are bunk beds and lockers, lounges with TVs (what would they have watched? Leave It To Bereaver?), medical facilities, a small auditorium where the chambers could meet, and whatever 1950s minds could come up with to ensure normality 60 feet down.

One of the more interesting rooms is the communication center, which featured a television studio. It makes sense that the country’s leaders would need to be visible to whomever was left up top. But it’s a bit odd to see the large photo of the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, meant to be a comforting backdrop when representatives addressed their constituents.

Of course, there is a cafeteria, stocked with rations and other ready-to-eat meals. Today, retrofitted with modern appliances, the kitchen is used for cooking lessons.

No fried-egg-in-a-bunker jokes, please.