- Historic Sites
Mr. Smith Goes Underground
The strangest of all Cold War relics also offers a clue to why we won it
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
The U.S. Congress’s “relocation facility” below the resort’s West Virginia wing had cost $14 million to build. The Chesapeake & Ohio, owner of the Greenbrier, had insisted publicly that the construction activity of the past few years involved the huge new Exhibit Hall that conventioneers had seen that day with their own eyes. Truman Wright, the Greenbrier’s Quaker president, had been able to say, truthfully, that rumors of a bomb shelter’s being dug for the President of the United States were unfounded, since he knew that those 50,000 tons of concrete had been poured for another branch of the government entirely. Still, getting the facility built had required a good deal of fibbing, sometimes to his own employees, and however eager Wright was to do his bit for the Cold War effort, he had never felt quite comfortable with Project X. As he went to sleep on October 22, 1962, he would have been thinking not only about the additional 535 distinguished “guests” who might soon be arriving at his hotel but also about the possibility that a particular Soviet missile, in Europe or in Cuba, was at that hour pointed toward the Greenbrier.
“It was a different time,” the tour guide Mary Murray will say in her reassuring manner, whenever she needs to point out something especially chilling. The “different time” is the worst days of the Cold War, and had gentlemen of the Folding Paper Box Association somehow awakened 37 years after their gathering, to a rainy day and a new world order, they could join Murray here at the starting point of her tour of what’s now simply called the “bunker,” another Greenbrier attraction like horseback riding and tennis.
Marvin Weikle, who helped maintain the facility for decades, opens the 25-ton, 18-inch-thick west-entrance blast door, whose DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign for years suggested that nothing more unusual than the hotel’s electrical plant stood behind it. But once Weikle has let the tourists enter, they find themselves standing at the end of a 144-yard-long concrete corridor leading into the 112,544-square-foot former standby capitol of the United States.
Murray asks Weikle to close the blast door quietly and suggests that a young couple cover their little girl’s ears, lest the infant, riding on her father’s shoulders, be startled. Some boxes of freeze-dried food—chicken àla king with no visible expiration date—line a short stretch of the corridor’s walls, samples of the mass quantities once ready to sustain the U.S. Congress for up to 60 days. At the end of the long tunnel, the tour group reaches a gantlet of shower stalls, whose punishing Silkwood-style spigots would have decontaminated only the representatives who arrived after the blast detector on a nearby mountain had signaled that nuclear shooting was already under way. Once through “decon,” the members and their authorized staffers would have received fatigues or coveralls and bunk-bed assignments. The latter were made by seniority: Gladys Childers, another tour guide, used to retype the lists after each election had changed the makeup of the House and Senate.
The communications room still contains the bunker’s original switchboard, which Murray admits looks very Lily Tomlin, before remembering to ask if everyone on the tour remembers Ernestine the phone operator. Over in the cafeteria, the black-and-white linoleum floor inevitably reminds a Greenbrier guest of the large marble one in the hotel’s main lobby. Aboveground the big squares form a stunning, grand geometry over which to glide between huge potted plants, brightly covered settees, and roaring fires. Down here the smaller shapes, crowded beneath the dining room’s blank walls and steely utilitarian furniture, seem unsettling to the eye and mind—just what the consulting psychologist intended. When fully operational, the bunker might house up to 1,100 people, who would have to be fed meals in three shifts; no one wanted them lingering over coffee.
There was food enough to sustain Congress for up to 60 days.
On a bank of wall clocks in the briefing room, the one for eastern standard time hangs directly above another displaying the hour in Moscow. To the right of both stands a giant photo of the Capitol dome amidst a blue sky and autumn leaves, meant to remind legislators —and those aboveground viewers still able to receive a TV signal—of the legislative branch’s continuing legitimacy, not to mention a pre-poisoned seasonal world. Nearby, in the facility’s records room, one notices rope-handled wooden boxes designed to collect whatever documentation might have been generated by these very special sessions of Congress.