The Congressional Bunker
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Many Americans don't even want members of Congress employed, let alone designated as the survivors of atomic Armageddon. But that's exactly what would've happened from the 1960s through the 1980s, when West Virginia's Greenbrier Resort sheltered a top secret survival bunker built with covertly allocated tax dollars for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
The secret got out in 1992, the bunker immediately became obsolete, and it opened for public tours in 1995. Like the interstates, it's an Eisenhower-era Cold War project that keeps on giving for 21st century tourists.
Tactfully known as the U.S. Government Relocation Facility, the bunker was cleverly dug into a hillside and under a part of the Greenbrier hotel that was built simultaneously. You actually take an elevator up -- not down -- to the bunker from the hotel lobby. Several of its 153 rooms were used as everyday meeting and exhibit halls. No one could see the five-foot-thick concrete walls in these windowless rooms, or noticed the 18-ton blast door hidden behind a panel in the connecting hallway, ready to slam shut in a crisis.
Another group oblivious to the bunker was Congress itself. Only a handful of congressional leaders knew of it, or of the plan to move every single congressperson into it if nuclear war loomed. "If you want to keep a secret," said Linda Walls, manager of the bunker tours, "the one thing you would not do is tell it to 535 politicians."
The 90-minute bunker tour covers just part of the facility, which is the size of two football fields, one atop the other. There are no guard towers, no scary hatchways. Everything's hidden in plain sight, only a few steps away from the resort's Rhododendron Terrace and Slammin' Sammy's Sports Lounge.
To help defray costs no longer paid by the government, the Greenbrier rents out much of the bunker for data storage. This helps explain its strict "no photos" policy for tourists (even the press is limited in what it can shoot) and has in effect shrunk the bunker to a fraction of what it must have been in its crazy heyday.
Still, what remains is unique. The lone surviving decontamination area resembles a human car wash. The four remaining bunk beds -- there were originally over a thousand -- are Spartan metal clunkers built by prisoners in Pennsylvania. One of the jobs of the "TV repairmen" at the Greenbrier -- the secret group entrusted with the bunker's maintenance -- was to change the nametag on each bunk after every Congressional election. They also had to swap in new magazines every week and clean all of the bunker's 167 toilets. They commuted to work through a hidden door in the wall of the Greenbrier's TV repair shop.
The bunker's broadcast studio has giant photo backdrops of the U.S. Capitol and The White House. The Speaker of the House (#2 in the line of presidential succession) was supposed to stand in front of the Capitol while making reassuring telecasts to whoever might still be alive. He could then step over to The White House if the President and VP had been obliterated (They had their own, separate bunkers).
Much of what was once widely scattered has been gathered into an exhibit in one of the bunker's 18 dormitories. There's a display of shotguns and assault rifles (to keep Congress under control during a long nuclear winter?), some Cold War-era monitoring and medical equipment, and a lounge with a big wall photo of an outdoor garden and a TV set to watch telecasts by the Speaker of the House down the hall.
Perhaps the room that best sums up life in the bunker is the cafeteria, its decor designed to give diners a headache if they stayed too long. "Don't sit and chat; eat and get out," explained Lynn Swann, Greenbrier's PR director. "The noise would have been deafening; people would have been quite miserable," added Linda Walls (although not as miserable as the less important people in the Mega Cavern).
"This place was not built for comfort. It was built to preserve democracy."