DISCUSSED: Falconry Academies, Trompe l’Oeil Wallpaper, The Graceland of Atomic Tourism, Mad Men, President Kennedy, Herman Kahn, Gassy Naval Officers, Tom Cruise, A Half a Ton of Pineapple Sour Balls


The Greenbrier is a luxury resort in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia that has been popular for centuries with the southern noblesse; in its earliest incarnation, it dates back to 1778, and its lineage and bearing call certain antebellum associations to mind. (In 1858, on the cusp of the Civil War, a building was raised on the property that was commonly known as the Old White Hotel.) Today, it remains in the resort pantheon. It’s won nearly every conceivable award, from the AAA Five Diamond to the Mobil Four-Star. (It lost its fifth star in 2000, and has since spent tens of millions trying to get it back.)

But I hadn’t driven six hours and three hundred miles to check out the hotel’s falconry academy, gun club, or any of its three eighteen-hole golf courses. Since 1995, the Greenbrier has held a more dubious distinction, as a must-see site on the nuclear-tourism circuit. For more than thirty years, from the pinnacle of the cold war era in 1962 until a Washington Post magazine exposé in 1992, there was a top-secret, two-story, 112,000-square-foot fallout shelter beneath the Greenbrier’s West Virginia Wing, intended to house the entire U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear attack on the capital, known variously as Project X, Project Casper, Project Congo, Project Greek Island, and, simply, the bunker.

A stone-faced guard directed me to a parking spot around back. Stepping into the rain, I realized my tour was about to start, and I didn’t know exactly from where, so I headed down a brick path and stooped into a Lilliputian building filled with tiny furnishings and clothes (called, appropriately, the Doll House) to ask for directions. Then I made my way to the concierge desk to check in, where I was very surprised to be directed, with some solemnity, to surrender any cell phones or cameras for the duration of the tour. Soon a van pulled up outside, and I climbed in with the eighteen other tourers (one urbane young couple and an assortment of older, track-suited others).

After a short drive, we disembarked and went into the bunker through one of its four blast-door-protected entrances: one walk-in, two vehicular, and one I’ll return to later. This blast door weighed a hefty 25 tons; its hinges were 1,500 pounds each. Our guide, Mia, was a Greenbrier native daughter who’d been leading people through the bunker for ten years—her cabled sweater was embroidered BUNKER TOUR GUIDE—and she’d started working at the hotel well before that. As she took us down the long hallway to the decontamination showers, we were greeted with a frowsy, industrial smell and an utter paucity of aesthetic delights. The government, Mia said, had told the bunker architects: “We want no amenities.” It’s not strictly true that they would have had no amenities; if the Congress had actually been entombed for the requisite sixty days, there were lounges where they could have read books or played chess, Scrabble, or bingo. On the second floor, there were two VIP suites for leadership. Their freeze-dried meals would have included chicken à la king. There was also apparently no shortage of prescription meds in the infirmary.

But this shadow world beneath one of the country’s most extravagant hotels bespoke pretty grim postapocalyptic fears. Mia gave us a peek at an incinerator powerful enough to serve as a crematorium, and also told us about the stockpile of weapons the congressmen would have had on hand: twelve-gauge shotguns, .38-caliber pistols, billy clubs. She said she’d asked her former boss why they needed so many weapons to keep the people out. “You know what he said to me? I will never forget it. He said, ‘Well, not just to keep them out, but also to keep them in.’”

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Alena Graedon lives in Brooklyn. She is at work on a novel about Hegel, lexicography and empanadas.

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