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Debunking the Bunker

Debunking the Bunker

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Published by Bill Geerhart
Fantastic article by the Greenbrier historian, Dr. Robert Conte, about the years before the Greenbrier bunker became public and the drama that occurred when the story broke. Used with the permission of Goldenseal magazine (http://www.wvculture.org/goldenseal/).
Fantastic article by the Greenbrier historian, Dr. Robert Conte, about the years before the Greenbrier bunker became public and the drama that occurred when the story broke. Used with the permission of Goldenseal magazine (http://www.wvculture.org/goldenseal/).

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Published by: Bill Geerhart on Nov 20, 2012
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01/06/2013

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Goldenseal 25
Debunk ingthe Bunker
I
 
first heard rumors about a bun-ker right after moving to WestVirginia in 1977 but before Iworked at The Greenbrier. A youngwoman said to me, “Do you knowwhy there is such a large airport inLewisburg?” I did not. “Because,”she answered, “there is a bombshelter underneath The Greenbrier,and in case of war high-rankinggovernment officials will fly intothe Lewisburg airport.”A year or so later, after I washired as the resort’s historian, Iapproached Luther Way, the chief engineer for The Greenbrier, andasked him about this bunker story,calculating that if such a thing re-ally existed surely he must knowabout it. Luther Way was a finegentleman, greatly respected, andhe simply dismissed my questionas “that silly old rumor.” He saidthat a new West Virginia Wing was built in the early 1960’s at the heightof the Cold War when many falloutshelters were being constructed,and people simply jumped to erro-neous conclusions. They knew thatthe government had been involvedat The Greenbrier during World WarII, that President Eisenhower andother high-level government offi-cials had visited the resort, that thehotel includes a large PresidentialSuite, and they put all this infor-mation together and speculatedthat there must be a bomb shelterat The Greenbrier. “We have never been able to successfully put thatrumor to rest,” he said.I believed Mr. Way because hewas clearly a man of integrity. It didseem pretty outlandish that therewould be a secret bunker amidstthe lavish opulence of The Green- brier. During those early monthsof my employment in 1978, I wasrapidly learning the resort’s incred-ible history. Organizing an archivefor the resort introduced me to the
By Bob Conte
transformation of that fashionable19
th
-century summer watering placeinto a major American destinationresort. Apparently rich and famousguests had always been the norm.Amazingly enough “enemy aliendiplomats” representing Germany, Japan, and Italy were interned in thehotel at the outbreak of the Second
 Author Bob Conte posed for this photograph on May 1, 1980, in front of the Springhouse at TheGreenbrier, about 18 months after he began his job as historian at the resort. Photograph by WadeSpees.
 
26 Winter 2010World War. Even more amazinglythe whole place was later convertedinto a huge Army hospital for theremainder of the war. If that weren’tenough, a famous New York de-signer named Dorothy Draper hadcompletely redecorated the build-ing’s interior after the war, and thenpeople like the Duke and Duchessof Windsor, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby,Ben Hogan, Prime Minister Nehruof India, Prince Rainier and PrincessGrace, and members of the Kennedyfamily were all regular visitors.This was a lot to absorb for ayoung man from California whofound himself working at one of America’s most famous and historicresorts. And now there were storiesof a secret government bunker? Ihad only recently completed gradu-ate school, and with a fresh degreein American Studies, I had workedat a couple of short-term archivesand manuscript collection assign-ments. The Greenbrier was like noother place I had ever seen in mylife, and I was most interested inholding onto this new job.After I had been working approxi-mately two months, a newspaperreporter from the old United Press
Luther Way was The Greenbrier’s chief engineer for more than 20 years, until his retirementin 1979. Although he consistently denied all rumors of the bunker’s existence, he was in factinvolved in the construction and maintenance of the secret facility from the very beginning of theproject.
International (UPI) arrived to do astory on The Greenbrier’s history.She interviewed me for a few hours but called back the next day withan unexpected question. She saidwhen she returned to her of-fice, people wanted to knowif she had asked the historianabout the bunker at The Green- brier. “Is there a secret bunkerthere?” I froze. Rememberingthe recent conversation withLuther Way — and not know-ing exactly what to say — Isimply repeated what he toldme. “There is no bunker atThe Greenbrier. That is onlya silly rumor that has beengoing around for years.”When her article appearedmost of it concerned detailsof the resort’s history but thelast sentence was something tothe effect that “the historiandenies persistent rumors thereis a secret government bombshelter at The Greenbrier.”Shortly thereafter the generalmanager called me into hisoffice, and the public rela-tions director was also there.I, of course, was expectingpraise for generating a nice articleabout The Greenbrier. Instead themanager drew attention to the lastsentence and said that we do notever want the subject of a bunkerat The Greenbrier to come up inthe press, because whenever itdoes “we get calls from all sortsof kooks out there.” The longerhe talked the more agitated he became. Eventually he banged hisfist on the desk with considerableforce and said most emphatically,“THERE IS NO DAMN BUNKERAT THE GREENBRIER!” I got themessage immediately: Under nocircumstances do we ever talk about any bunker. Being somethingof a child of the 1960’s, however, Iinstinctively concluded that any-thing that vehemently denied wasprobably true.A month or so later, I thought thatperhaps I could track down recordsof the architectural firm of Small,Smith & Reeb in Cleveland. Theydid design work at The Greenbrierfrom 1928 to 1962, their last proj-ect being the West Virginia Wing.Someone with the local American
Fritz Bugas was the on-site manager of thecongressional relocation center from 1971 until thefacility ofcially closed in July 1995. Locals knew himas the manager of Forsythe Associates, an audio-visual consulting company. Once the bunker closed hesupervised bunker tours. Photograph by Dan Dry.
 
Goldenseal 27Institute of Architects told me thatthe firm was out of business, but heknew a woman in town who usedto work for them. I called her.Not long into our conversation,she started to tell me how back inthe early 1960’s members of the firmwould come back from The Green- brier with stories that a huge holewas being dug in order to build avery large government bunker. Oh,it was a giant project, she said, andit was all part of building the WestVirginia Wing. I remember feelingquite nervous as she went on. WhenI hung up the phone, I stared intothe distance and thought to myself,“What am I going to do with thisinformation?” She had told methings I was not supposed to know.A couple of days later, I wassitting in the employee cafeteria.As everyone else left the table, Iwas soon sitting across from Jack Horton, a senior Greenbrier execu-tive. Jack was always one of myfavorite people, and we shared aninterest in history. Once we werealone he said, “Bob, we don’t callCleveland.” I had made a couple of long-distance phone calls withoutusing the toll-free line, so I thoughtthis was a reminder to follow cor-rect telephone procedure.He repeated, “Bob, we don’t callCleveland.” It then dawned on methat he was referring to the callwith the woman who told me the bunker stories. I am sure I blushed,and I started to stammer about howI was just interested in trackingdown architectural drawings fromthe 1920’s. That is, I was just doingpure historical research. (Which, infact, was true). He proceeded to tellme that the woman called the of-fice of the Chessie Railroad (whichowned The Greenbrier at the time)in Cleveland and told people therethat some guy from The Greenbrierhad called her with a lot of funnyquestions about past constructionprojects. I stammered some more.He repeated, “Bob, we don’t callCleveland.” I got the message onemore time: We will all be a lot bet-ter off around here if you just stoppursuing that subject.One day I was walking around thegrounds trying to determine wherecertain 19
th
-century buildings oncestood, and I found myself near afamily cemetery on a remote sec-tion of the property. A road led upto a wide, green wall with a metaldoor and a sign on it, “DangerHigh Voltage.” This wall and doorwere out in the woods not closeto anything. I stood there staringfor a few moments, wondering if this had anything to do with thatsecret bunker I kept hearing about.I remember thinking, “I am not sup-posed to be seeing this.” I simplyturned around, walked away, andtried to forget I ever saw it.Every now and then I would meetpeople who seemed to know some-thing about the bunker. A fellowemployee told me tales how a friendof his was involved in bringing insome communications equipmentduring the West Virginia Wingconstruction. This was not, he said,equipment that a hotel would everuse. The person telling the storyhad been in the U.S. Navy and saidthis was the sort of communica-tions equipment you would see ona battleship.Another man’s father had worked
See for Yoursel
 The historic bunker at The Greenbrier is open to the public forguided tours daily, year-round. The tour takes 90 minutes, andreservations are required. The cost is $30 per adult and $15 forchildren between the ages of 10 and 18. Children under 10 arenot permitted to tour the bunker. Phone (304)536-7810 for reser-vations, times, or additional information, or visit on-line at www.greenbrier.com.Author and historian Bob Conte welcomes personal recollectionsabout the bunker from GOLDENSEAL readers. Those with a story toshare can contact Bob at The Greenbrier, 300 West Main Street, WhiteSulphur Springs, WV 24986; e-mail robert_conte@greenbrier.com.
Part of the display area currently on view during bunker tours is this exhibition of originalsecurity and communications equipment: a telephone switchboard at left and a surveillancemonitoring panel at right. (Note the three maps on the wall showing the locations of alarmsystems.) The weapons in the center were intended for use in case of disturbances.

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