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Hidden in Plain Sight
The Greenbrier’s Bunker

By Bob Conte

Bunker
This 25-ton blast door protected the vehicular entrance used to bring supplies into the top-secret congressional bunker beneath The Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs.
This became the iconic photograph used in scores of newspapers and magazines to depict the impressive steel-and-concrete construction of the bunker. Photograph by Dan Dry.

In the darkest days of the Cold War, federal officials pondered the consequences of a devastating attack upon Washington, D.C. In the nuclear era such an attack would destroy the leadership of the government and thereby destroy the government’s ability to respond to the crisis. In the face of this danger, an ambitious program was devised that entailed the construction of emergency relocation centers — bunkers — where government leaders might reassemble in a secure location and continue to function. Underground shelters were installed at Mount Weather, Virginia; Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania; Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado; and elsewhere, each with a separate purpose.

The bunker at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs was intended for the emergency relocation of the U.S. Congress. There were several reasons why government leaders turned to The Greenbrier for assistance in this project. For one, a relationship already existed between the government and The Greenbrier, forged during World War II when the resort served two special purposes. For seven months immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the hotel was leased by the U.S. State Department as an internment center for enemy alien diplomats. German, Japanese, and Italian diplomatic personnel and their families were housed there while negotiations continued to exchange these foreign diplomats for American diplomats stranded overseas. Once the diplomats departed, in July 1942, the U.S. Army purchased the entire resort property and converted The Greenbrier into a 2,000-bed hospital. For the next four years, Ashford General Hospital — the resort’s new wartime name — admitted nearly 25,000 wounded soldiers, who recuperated on the grounds and utilized the sports facilities as part of the hospital’s mission as a rehabilitation center. [See “The West Virginia WWII Home Front: Ashford General Hospital: The Greenbrier Goes to War,” by Louis Keefer; Fall 1993.]

Ten years after the end of the war, when the government searched for a partner to serve as the location for the top-secret congressional bunker, The Greenbrier offered an attractive option because of this successful earlier relationship.

In addition, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway line connected White Sulphur Springs directly to the center of Washington, D.C. Since the plan called for moving about 1,000 individuals 240 miles, this railroad connection was an important consideration. It also was beneficial that this same railroad, the C&O, owned The Greenbrier, helping to coordinate transportation should the need arise. In the 1950’s there was also a small airport on the resort property located one mile from the hotel, which offered the option of air travel, too.

The first official contact between the government and The Greenbrier occurred in March 1956, shortly after President Eisenhower hosted a small but well-publicized conference at the resort.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.