3:34 PM EDT, July 25, 2011
The Greenbrier opened in 1913 as luxury resort, but it closed during World War Two to hold prisoners of war. The government called on the Greenbrier again in the late 1950's when it wanted to build a secret fallout shelter for Congress.
It was called Project Greek Island. That secret was kept for 31 years when the Washington Post revealed the Greenbrier's secret on May 31,1992. The Greenbrier Bunker was kept up to date and in a state of constant readiness for the entire 31 years it was a secret.
In the late 1950's public service announcements rang out on the airwaves letting Americans know that "If an enemy attacked, radioactive fallout would follow." Jingles that told children and adults to "duck and cover," were common at the time.
As Americans were braced for nuclear attack the government was building a secret fallout shelter at the Greenbrier Resort deep in the mountains of West Virginia.
The bunker is equipped with three huge steel doors filled with cement. All were hidden, one behind a fake wall in a hotel corridor. While the doors weighed upwards of 30 tons they were designed so that one person could easily pull them shut to quickly secure the bunker.
While it was a secret, parts of the bunker were hidden in plain sight. In fact the public was allowed to use some parts of the bunker during the cold war, including the exhibition hall.
"There were car shows in here. There were pharmaceutical conventions," explained bunker tour manager Linda Walls.
Guests would complain about the large pillars not realizing why they're here, said Walls. "They support five feet of concrete above then there is a layer of dirt," Walls said. Over that: hotel guest rooms in the West Virginia Wing.
Two meetings rooms one for the Senate, and one for the House were also used by guests. The bunker spans more than 111,000 square feet or roughly the size of more than 2 football fields.
Parts not seen by the public included a decontamination chamber, where people would have stripped and showered before being issued bunker clothing and toiletries.
A medical clinic, pharmacy, and laboratory were also in the bunker, along with dormitories with metal bunk beds to house all members of Congress and their staff. "After every election the beds were labeled and assigned," Walls said. Family members would have stayed in the hotel, Walls said. "Remember it was meant to preserve democracy not people."
The bunker also has a fully equipped kitchen with a freezer that was always stocked and a cafeteria equipped to feed eleven hundred people three meals a day.
A state of the art communications center had production studios, and was equipped with email and fax, before Americans knew what those were. One room had murals of the Capitol and the White House hung on the walls and meant to be a backdrop for broadcasts to the American people.
Walls said those murals were not meant to deceive the American public though.
"These background pictures would have been used really to comfort the American population so that our citizens would have know that our democracy was still operating," Walls said.
Now, people walk through the bunker everyday. Tours are held everyday except Christmas. Vic Corrigan who's visiting from Atlanta, said it was amazing. "Just that his whole thing was built and no one knew it," Corrigan said.
The bunker also conjures up images of what could have happened if this facility had even been called into use. It also intrigues many who now wonder what could be. "It makes me think 'Where's the new bunker?' There has to be one somewhere so where is it?" Marie Corrigan said.
There has been a controversy over whether the bunker secret should have been revealed. If it had not, could this bunker still be ready for use today?
It cost $11 million to build in the late 1950's. To build it now would cost $98 million. Some parts of the bunker are still used by the hotel including the exhibition hall, meeting rooms and kitchen. Other parts are rented by business.
The Greenbrier was chosen, many speculate, because it was protected by the mountains and because there was always a large staff there. The hotels close proximity to the railroad and to Washington D.C. were likely also reasons.
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