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Published: Sunday, 12/13/2009

Reminder of Cold War is beneath luxury resort

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.VA. - The big news at the Greenbrier resort here is casinos. A small gambling hall is in full swing while the big daddy that will cover 68,000 square feet is under construction, headed for an April opening date.

While the larger of the casinos that is underground is a major breakthrough in the tranquil, prestigious hotel and resort nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, the one dug 720 feet under the hotel in 1961 was not marketed or publicized like the new addition.

It was quite the opposite. The Bunker was a secret for 30 years. The elaborate fallout shelter was designed to house members of Congress in the event of a national emergency. Built during the Eisenhower administration because of a fear of attack by Russia, it is a chilly reminder of the Cold War. It is equally comforting to witness the extreme effort the government made to keep democracy intact in the event of an attack and to know how many people kept the secret for the defense of their fellow Americans.

Who would believe that the workers who were responsible for building and updating the underground chambers could keep quiet for three decades? That was the question heard repeatedly from the 50 hotel guests who paid $30 each for a 90-minute tour of the Bunker.

The underground hideaway was opened to the public in 1995. But there is another Bunker secret that remains unsolved and is especially a curiosity to press members. How, when, and where did a Washington Post reporter get wind of the classified government facility hidden below the palatial hotel and burst the bubble in a headline story that spread nationwide? Ted Gup's expose in the Post was published in 1992.

Because 85,000 square feet of the original 112,000 square feet of the Bunker is now used by a database company, we were asked to check cell phones and cameras at the tour registration desk.

The tour begins on a short bus ride to an outdoor entrance through a 25-ton door of steel and concrete designed to withstand a nuclear attack and to prevent radioactive fallout from leaking into the Bunker. The walking tour includes several eye-openers that indicate all precautions were taken to protect the national leaders and to allow them to operate the government in functional rooms that mimic those in the Capitol. Integral to the operation, the communication briefing area was on two levels to accommodate a message processing room, television production room, and audio recording booths. A walk-through of the nuclear decontamination showers is daunting.

Three flights of stairs lead the tour to the massive power plant which has capacity to meet the needs of about 1,100 people for 40 days. The supply included water in three 25,000-gallon storage tanks and 14,000 gallon diesel fuel storage tanks, plus an incinerator for waste.

Viewing areas are furnished with several of the bunk beds and lockers from the original 18 dormitories. The medical clinic included surgery and intensive care units, a pharmacy, and dental equipment.

The dining room where cafeteria-style service was planned for an emergency was large enough for 400 people, and like other Bunker departments was fully stocked with food during the 30 years of secrecy. Here Bunker architects showed a comforting addition. False windows were installed to relieve a sense of entombment. That area is now used as an exhibit hall for Greenbrier conventions.

At the end of the tour a visitor was critical of Mr. Gup, saying "He should have minded his own business."

I was compelled to respond. "He was. It's called freedom of the press."

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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