Cold War relic a tourist draw

Chicago Tribune

You, too, can visit a formerly secret "undisclosed location" here in the heart of Appalachia, if you have the time and inclination.Its existence was disclosed 14 years ago, but for more than three decades, the bunker -- known variously as Project X, Project Casper and Project Greek Island -- was the secret hideaway of Congress in case of nuclear attack.

It was never used, but although the government came within 12 hours of sending the House and Senate here during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear showdown. That was the only time the bunker went on full alert.

In those days, the U.S. government went to great lengths to deceive locals about this vast complex beneath a well-known resort and spa, the Greenbrier. Since the government shut it down, the bunker has belonged to the hotel and has become a tourist draw, with a $30 entrance fee.

Fear, or the exploration of it, apparently is a moneymaker.

When you enter the facility through a 25-ton blast door, the imagination takes over as to what a real nuclear crisis would be like.

If you were a lawmaker, you would go down a long concrete hall, take off your clothing and go through a high-pressure shower to remove any radiation. Then you would be issued military clothing and shoes.

The bunker is a series of cold, rather antiseptic rooms totaling 112,000 square feet, or more than two football fields. It is 64 feet beneath the hotel. There were fully staffed medical facilities, a communications center, a large cafeteria and 18 dormitories containing metal beds, each with the name of the Congress member who would occupy it. The names were changed when the seats changed.

It also has an oven. Members of Congress or their staffs who died would have been cremated.

Equally fascinating is how the government kept such a secret for so long. According to guide Mia Decker, a local teacher, residents knew there was possibly a secret government facility at the site but didn't press the issue.

"We never asked questions," she said. "It was a different time and a different era."

Fear of nuclear annihilation was rampant in the 1950s and '60s as the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads.

Yet the government was good at artifice. When construction was underway between 1958 and 1961, the hotel explained that it was building a new West Virginia Wing, with an exhibition hall.

The completed hall actually was part of the bunker, though its big doors were disguised so businesses and private groups could hold parties and meetings, never knowing they were inside a secret location.

The government put signs on a huge steel door at another entrance, saying, "Danger: High Voltage," implying that it was a huge electrical facility.

To conceal the identities of engineers and other workers entering the site, the hotel told the public that they were television repairmen. (TVs in those days were less reliable.)

There were other signs, such the fact that the government enlarged an airport at nearby Lewisburg, which had a population of only a few thousand people, so it could handle the largest jets. That should have been a tip-off, Decker said, but somehow the secret endured.

It all happened with the urging of President Eisenhower, a frequent visitor to the Greenbrier, and with the complicity of the Greenbrier's owners, the C&O; Railroad (now CSX).

It was phased out of existence as a bunker, Decker said, when the Washington Post learned of its existence in 1992, thanks to a leak from obviously high government officials.

By that time, the Cold War was over and the cost of keeping the bunker at 100% readiness was hard to justify.

Its shutdown happened before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Decker noted with a bit of wistfulness. At that time, terrorists had targeted the Capitol.

Now there is concern about nuclear proliferation and the possible possession of nuclear weapons by terrorists. There have been reports of other secret bunkers to protect U.S. leaders.

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