West Virginia’s opulent Greenbrier resort has been a playground for princes and politicians since its opening in 1778. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountain town of White Sulphur Springs, the Greenbrier has expanded over the centuries, growing from a series of summer cottages to a palatial hotel surrounded by gardens and golf courses. So, when the resort broke ground on a new wing in late 1958, no one was surprised.

But observant locals soon noticed something odd about the project. The hole dug for the foundation was enormous, and vast amounts of concrete arrived every day on trucks, along with puzzling items: 110 urinals, huge steel doors. Guards were stationed outside.

Within weeks of the groundbreaking, it was clear to many that the new West Virginia Wing held far more than just guest rooms and conference facilities. But locals kept their suspicions private.

A 19th-century depiction of the Greenbrier
A 19th-century depiction of the Greenbrier Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Everyone just agreed to be in on the secret,” says Ann Tate Bell, who grew up nearby.

Thanks to this discretion, nearly 35 years passed before the rest of the country learned the truth: The Greenbrier’s West Virginia Wing sat atop a nuclear bunker buried 720 feet underground. Inside, behind a 25-ton blast door, stood a living and working space equipped to hold every single member of the United States Congress. The hideout boasted more than 1,000 bunk beds, a 400-seat cafeteria, individual auditoriums for both the Senate and the House of Representatives, vast water tanks, and a trash incinerator that could serve as a crematorium.

Government officials chose the resort as the bunker site because of its isolated location, long relationship with the nation’s political elite and proximity to Washington, D.C. (about a four-hour drive away). The Greenbrier was, in the words of the Washington Post, “the ultimate congressional hideaway.”

View of the bunker under construction in January 1960
View of the bunker under construction in January 1960 Courtesy of the Greenbrier

Trish Parker, a lifelong resident of western Greenbrier County, says the bunker was the definition of an open secret. “People wondered about it to their husband, their wife, their brother—but they weren’t going to wonder about it to anyone else,” she says. “They just didn’t talk about it to outsiders.”

It’s hard to imagine such a secret being kept today, but the late 1950s were a very different time. Construction of the bunker—code-named Project Greek Island—began during the Cold War and was completed in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. At this point in the conflict, ordinary Americans viscerally feared the threat of a Soviet attack. People built bomb shelters in their backyards and stockpiled Spam and Geiger counters. Elementary school students practiced “duck and cover” drills. (“What are you supposed to do when you see the flash?” asked Bert the Turtle in a popular civil defense filmstrip. “Duck and cover!” the children shouted, curled up turtle-like under their desks.) World War II, with its “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters, wasn’t long in the rearview mirror.

“People were afraid,” says Trish, who now works part-time at the Greenbrier, giving public tours of the bunker facility. “They didn’t want to know too much.”

Machines in the bunker
The bunker was equipped to house the entirety of Congress. Courtesy of the Greenbrier

In Greenbrier County, this secrecy runs deeper than the Cold War. The Greenbrier was (and still is) by far the biggest employer in the area. Multiple generations of families worked there, often for life. This bred a sense of loyalty—and fear of losing the only good job you could likely get nearby.

“Their father worked there, their grandfather worked there, they worked there, their children were going to work there,” says Trish. “There was the feeling that what was good for the Greenbrier was good for Greenbrier County.”

“It was a family thing,” says Christy Parker (no relation to Trish), whose great-grandmother started working at the Greenbrier as a young widow in the late 1800s. Christy grew up in White Sulphur Springs and became a fourth-generation employee after college, eventually working her way up to conference services manager, organizing massive corporate expos at the resort. “I never went past that magical door,” she says, referring to the blast door that divided the Greenbrier’s public area from the bunker, which was hidden in plain sight behind floral wallpaper.

A diagram of the bunker, which was hidden beneath the resort's West Virginia Wing
A diagram of the bunker, which was hidden beneath the resort's West Virginia Wing Courtesy of the Greenbrier

Peggy Boso, a retired teacher from White Sulphur Springs, used to babysit at the hotel. One night, just after the bunker was revealed in 1992, she babysat a senator’s children. The senator asked her if everyone in town had known the secret.

“I said, basically, ‘Yes, but nobody ever talked about it because it was a way of putting food on the table,’” Boso recalls.

Loyalty and discretion didn’t always keep children from talking, though. Margaret Clay Hambrick, secretary of the Greenbrier Historical Society, grew up in Greenbrier County in the 1950s and 1960s and heard rumors about the bunker at school. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s great for them, but if a nuclear bomb explodes on top of the bunker, all of us here are toast,’” she says.

Installation of a bunker blast door in May 1961
Installation of a bunker blast door in May 1961 Courtesy of the Greenbrier

Local parents were quick to warn their children against loose talk. Bell’s father ran the Greenbrier Valley Airport, a few miles from the resort. The airport was extended when the bunker was built, using dirt dug from the enormous foundation hole. Bell’s father had a government security clearance, which he took very seriously. One day, during construction, Bell’s brother, who was 8 or 9 at the time, was riding bikes with his friends around the building site. They spotted a fancy new elevator being put in, and their eyes widened. One of the construction workers noted their excited faces and offered them an elevator ride. The boys were thrilled.

“At dinner that night, my brother was telling us, and my father was horrified,” Bell recalls. “Finally, he said, ‘This is top secret—you should call your friends in, and I will give them the same lecture I’m giving you. This must never be mentioned.’”

Robert Conte has spent some four decades as the Greenbrier’s official historian, arriving at the resort in 1978. He immediately sensed that something was off about the West Virginia Wing.

“When I got there, reading about it, I remember thinking, ‘Why did it take them three years to build a three-story building?’” he says. “The whole thing seemed odd.”

The Bunker At The Greenbrier

Conte became close friends with Fritz Bugas, manager of Forsythe Associates, the audiovisual company that serviced the resort’s televisions. It was strange, Conte thought, that while all other Greenbrier workers, from electricians to cooks to plumbers, were employees, the Forsythe staff were contractors. He was right to be suspicious: Forsythe was a dummy company, and the workers’ real job was maintaining the bunker over the years.

In early 1992, a Washington Post reporter named Ted Gup stopped by the Greenbrier. Gup had received an anonymous tip about the bunker and was looking for answers.

“One of the most memorable moments of my life was [Gup] coming and putting a tape recorder on my desk and saying, ‘I’m here to talk about what’s under the West Virginia Wing,’” Conte says.

Conte, who still didn’t know the truth himself, gave Gup the official line: Rumors had always circulated about the Greenbrier, but they were just that—rumors.

“Of course, Gup didn’t believe a word I said,” Conte recalls, laughing.

Bunk beds in the Greenbrier bunker
Bunk beds in the Greenbrier bunker Courtesy of the Greenbrier

The Washington Times scooped the Post, publishing a story about the bunker on May 29, 1992. Gup’s exposé appeared two days later in the Post magazine. “The Greenbrier was different in that it relied more on the element of secrecy than on any mountain of rock to shield it from incoming bombs,” Gup wrote. “Yet despite the discretion of the resort staff, the existence of some kind of hidden government installation there was widely known.”

When the truth came out, few people in the area were surprised at the bunker’s existence, Conte says. But they were surprised to discover that it was intended for Congress. Most had believed it was for the president. (John F. Kennedy, for his part, had two bunkers: one on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, near the Kennedy compound, and the other on Peanut Island, close to the president’s vacation home in Palm Beach, Florida.) This had given the Greenbrier convenient cover over the years: Staff could simply deny that the resort was home to a secret presidential facility.

Newspaper articles about the bunker
Newspaper articles about the bunker Courtesy of the Greenbrier

“That was a secret within a secret,” Conte says. “Nobody thought it was for 1,100 people. That was the real jaw-dropper.”

Many locals were angry, even furious, with Gup and the Post.

“It was a point of pride to have it there, to have that little bit of mystery that no one else in the country knew about,” says Trish. “And then when someone who they considered an outsider came in and revealed it, they felt very betrayed.”

In a statement, congressional leadership expressed “regret” at the Post’s decision to publish the piece. “It was always clear that if the secret of the facility’s location were to be compromised, the effectiveness and security of the program would be jeopardized, if not terminated,” the leaders said.

The anonymous tipster who first alerted Gup to the bunker’s existence has never been publicly identified. But Conte understands them to be a person in the federal government, who didn’t like that money was being spent to maintain a nuclear bunker in the post-Cold War era. When the story came out, politicians did indeed come under fire, not only for spending taxpayer dollars on an outmoded bunker but also for the very idea of saving Congress while ordinary citizens were left out in the cold.

Declassified shortly after the exposé, the bunker opened for tours in 1995. The first people to tour it were Greenbrier employees, who received the opportunity as a quiet thank you for their discretion. More than 30 years later, tours of the site—now overseen by the Greenbrier’s owners rather than the government—remain incredibly popular with the public.

When Trish leads tours, one of the most frequently asked questions is whether more remains hidden: a new bunker, a deeper room, something yet unrevealed.

“It would be lovely if there was,” she says, “a little mystery. But there’s not.”

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