“I hope you’re ready for a relaxing vacation,” our tour guide said with a grin as he swiped his badge, unlocking a heavy door. “Welcome to the Greek Islands!”
As the door swung open, we weren’t facing a week of rest and relaxation on the shores of some sun soaked beach. Instead, we were staring down a long, sterile corridor once built exclusively to protect and maintain governmental continuity during the Cold War. 5,000 miles from Santorini and Mykanos, we were starting a tour of the famous bunker at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.We’ve visited the Greenbrier twice now, both times to take the 90 minute-long bunker tour that provides a first-hand look at one of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history. Just under four hours away from Washington, DC, it’s a similar ride from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Virginia Beach, and Charlotte, making it an easy weekend trip and a realistic daytrip from several major American cities. The Greenbrier is a massive five-star resort with world-class golf courses (it hosts an annual PGA Tour event), and it’s a popular destination in itself. Although a few nights in the lap of luxury is appealing, it’s the hotel’s surprising role in history that draws us in.
Our tour of the Greenbrier’s bunker began with a bit of a walk through the hotel, through bustling crowds that dissipated as we reached elevators that took us into its West Virginia wing. This is also where present day begins to fade into Cold War-era America. In the late 1950s, with growing concern that a nuclear war might be eminent, the U.S. government identified White Sulphur Springs as a solid contender to house a bunker for congress. The idea was that an attack on Washington would necessitate a safe place to relocate congress, including all 435 representatives and 100 senators, so government would not shut down during a time when we would desperately need leadership. Between 1959 and 1962, the bunker was built underground at the same time a well-publicized addition to the Greenbrier was built in the form of the West Virginia wing—effectively hiding the bunker in plain sight. The construction received the code name Project Greek Island to ensure its secrecy wasn’t compromised—hence our guide’s somewhat unconventional welcome.
While the bunker was in service, visitors to the Greenbrier would almost certainly miss it. One of the four entrances to the bunker is located where our tour got underway, in a large exhibition hall. Today, you can plainly see the huge, heavy blast door that would have closed to contain congress once they arrived by train from DC, but during the three decades that the bunker was active the door was hidden behind a screen that made it look like it was part of the wall.The Greenbrier bunker tour wove us through a carefully planned web of rooms designed to keep congress safe and productive for as long as necessary. While the bunker was never used during the entire time it was active, we did have a chance to walk through what the intake process would have looked like. Because of the assumption that the bunker would house people coming from a potential nuclear holocaust, it was technically a fallout shelter. The first stop for anyone coming in from the outside would have been the decontamination showers. Congress would have been required to remove and surrender their clothing, shower, and submit to an inspection to ensure they were completely free from radioactive matter. During that process, their clothing would have been immediately sent to the incinerator to be burned. Members of congress would then have been issued two new sets of clothing, a pair of shoes, and some personal items.
Life inside of the bunker looked like it would have been bearable but unpleasant. In the dormitory, rows of bunk beds lined the walls, providing sensible accommodations for every member of congress as well as one aide or staff member per elected official. Health facilities stocked with medicine boasted the latest technology. Meals were served in a cafeteria, which to me was one of the more fascinating spaces; because it wasn’t large enough to seat everyone at once, the floors featured a black and white checkerboard tile that was supposed to be slightly disorienting, hopefully discouraging people from sitting too long at tables in order to have a steady rotation of people coming and going during meal times.The meeting spaces were also interesting. Two conference rooms, side by side, were just large enough for both houses of congress—an auditorium had seats for 435, and a smaller room held 100 chairs. Just down the hall was a media room with two different seasonal prints on the wall representing scenery around Washington, DC; the idea was that a senator or representative could stand in front of one of them and speak to a camera, giving the impression he or she was actually in the nation’s capital.
For thirty years, the bunker sat ready but empty, as workers regularly tested water quality and communications systems. Because its intended inhabitants could arrive at any moment, refrigerators and pantries were constantly stocked with fresh food. Every few days, the food would rotate up to the Greenbrier’s kitchen to make room for a new delivery, thus ensuring nothing was wasted. These processes stayed in place until 1992, when a Washington Post article by Ted Gup threw open the bunker’s doors to the public and revealed the secret location and purpose to the world. Once the article was published, it no longer made sense to keep the bunker operational; it was decommissioned soon after.
History is full of secrets and surprises, and touring the bunker at the Greenbrier places you right inside of a very interesting chapter in American history.
Having taken the tour twice, each experience was unique because each tour was peppered with different stories and accounts of how the bunker came to be and stayed at the ready in case it was needed. If you haven’t heard of the Greenbrier bunker tour—or the Greenbrier Hotel—it’s a terrific trip to make and well worth the drive.
Greenbrier Bunker Tour: Take This Trip
- As of February 2017, tours are $34 for adults and $17 for kids (ages 10-17) excluding taxes. Children under 10 can’t take the tour (it’s a lot of walking and talking, so most kids wouldn’t enjoy it, anyway).
- The tour is very popular with hotel guests and visitors alike, so make reservations in advance! Popular times, especially during warmer months, are likely to sell out!
- Cameras are not allowed on the tour, so be prepared to surrender both cameras and cell phones when you check in for the tour. Your belongings will be locked away and safely monitored, but you won’t leave with any pictures of your experience.
- The Greenbrier is a fully functioning hotel and resort, so take advantage of one of the onsite restaurants for lunch before or after your tour. Away from hotel grounds, your dining options will be a bit more sparse, so plan accordingly.
- The bunker is, at points, thirty feet underground, and it can get a bit chilly. Take a sweater to ensure you stay comfortable.
- Get an early start and add a winery or two to your itinerary! Coming from DC, you’ll pass by some great wineries as you drive on Interstate 81. Consider taking a morning tour of the bunker and spending your afternoon debriefing all your learned over a glass of wine. If you’re looking for recommendations, a few of our favorite Virginia Wineries won’t be too far off your path!
Want to learn more?
Here is a short video with additional footage and stories about this fascinating Cold War-era bunker under the Greenbrier.