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Drive west out of Washington D.C. on Interstate 66 and find your way to State Route 601. Then, after a while on the highway, you’ll reach the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll probably notice a roadside entrance for something you’ve never heard of before: the mysterious Mount Weather. But don’t try to drive in; the security guards will likely take a very dim view if you do. That’s because there’s a clandestine installation here – one with a dark secret.

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In fact, it’s probably best to stay in your car and travel on for another ten minutes to the Horseshoe Curve in Pine Grove for a burger and a beer. And, interestingly, it’s also said that this inn is a favorite haunt of the people who work at Mount Weather.

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However, if you spot a Mount Weather employee, it’s probably best not to ask them what goes on up there. And while you could try to get some information out of one of the Horseshoe Curve staff, you may still be met simply with a polite smile and sealed lips.

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You see, there’s been top-secret work going on at the location since the mid-1950s, and neither the locals nor the people employed at the center are likely to blab to an outsider any time soon. We’ll reveal the secrets of the federal institution at Mount Weather soon enough, but first let’s find out about the history of the place itself.

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Our story starts off simply, as the name Mount Weather is an obvious clue to the site’s former purpose. Back in the late 1890s, the U.S. Weather Bureau – later to become the National Weather Service – bought the site as a research station. In particular, the agency wanted to learn about air at high altitudes, and they intended to send up balloons and kites from the mountain in order to do so.

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For four decades from 1893, the Weather Bureau actually carried out such endeavors at various sites. That said, the Mount Weather station is particularly notable for being the launch spot for the world’s highest-ever kite flight. Back in 1910, a kite managed to climb to more than 23,800 feet in the air from the location.

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These launches weren’t the only activities to take place at Mount Weather in the early 20th century, though. During World War I, you see, the U.S. Army also used the ridge as a place to train its artillery operators. Following the end of the conflict, President Calvin Coolidge is even reported to have considered the site as a potential summertime White House – although nothing ultimately came of that idea.

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Intriguingly, it’s also said that Mount Weather was used during the Great Depression as a sort of labor camp. In 1936, though, the Bureau of Mines took control of the site. And the agency certainly took advantage of the 434 acres of land on which the compound was housed.

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Specifically, Mount Weather became an experimental tunneling facility for the bureau, with workers at the site managing to carve out a passageway some 300 feet underground. This tunnel – with a width of 7 feet and a height of 6 and a half feet – stretched for about a quarter of a mile into the mountain.

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Then, during World War II, the U.S. government found another new use for Mount Weather. The authorities sent around 100 conscientious objectors to the location, with these men subsequently being put to good use as weather analysts. The aim was to improve forecasts, which was obviously useful to the military in wartime. But it seems that some of the people housed at the facility were far from content with their lot.

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D. Ned Linegar was one such individual, and in 1943 he kept a diary that has since been reproduced in part on the Civilian Public Service archival website. Regarding the site, Linegar wrote, “The development of the repair work is slow, organized by rather inefficient caretakers. Hot water was available only last week, [and] no laundry facilities are yet developed. So if cleanliness is next to Godliness, it doesn’t speak well for this unit of religious objectors.”

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Linegar also described the meteorological work that the conscientious objectors had been tasked to do. He wrote, “The plan is to develop world weather maps from the statistics of all countries for the past ten or so years, from which patterns of weather can be discovered and predictions made on the basis of certain combinations.”

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Linegar continued, perhaps optimistically, “Thus, any person using the card file to be developed can predict the weather conditions in any part of the world – even though he is no meteorologist.” Another account of World War II life at Mount Weather – also preserved on the Civilian Public Service website – comes in a report written by one J. N. Weaver.

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Weaver wrote, “The work is confining and somewhat monotonous… There was… some complaint among the men regarding this aspect.” But he nevertheless briskly dismissed the malcontents, adding, “In our opinion, sufficient information was available to each assignee which made the nature of the project work quite obvious. The assignees in this unit were all volunteers, and the project was forced upon no one.”

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It’s not entirely clear how valuable this forecasting work actually was to the war effort. In any case, when the conflict was over, the Mount Weather site reverted to the Bureau of Mines. And the bureau’s personnel recommenced their experimental tunneling work with, it seems, some success.

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A report written in 1953 proclaimed, “From Mount Weather in the last few years has come a mass of technical data on drilling, steels to use in drills and rods, diamond drilling and related subjects.” Yes, it appears that the miners had made a number of breakthroughs when it came to the use of diamond-tipped drill bits – used, ultimately, to help bore through the unforgivingly hard rock of the mountain.

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This report was to be the last public mention of Mount Weather activities for decades. Soon after, you see, the government decided that it had another purpose for the mountain. And this change was linked to a terrifying development elsewhere: the Soviet Union detonating its first atom bomb in 1949.

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Clearly, if the Soviets and the U.S. were going to engage in deadly nuclear warfare, the American government needed to find a way of protecting its key personnel. So, the authorities turned to the unyielding rock of Mount Weather – not least because there had already been a tunnel bored at the site.

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Indeed, what could be more secure than a bunker under a mountain? And Mount Weather seemed to fit the bill perfectly. As the crow – or helicopter – flies, it’s just 48 miles from the seat of government in Washington D.C. Tests of the mountain’s physical qualities proved encouraging, too.

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In particular, the researchers involved in the experiments had been detonating controlled explosions at the landmark in order to get a measure of its strength and resilience. And, naturally, these blasts involved lots of dynamite – some 34 pounds worth of the explosive, in fact. Thankfully for all concerned, the results of these underground detonations indicated that Mount Weather would be an excellent location for a nuclear shelter.

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So, in 1954 the Army Corps of Engineers set to work on what was called Operation High Point. And one report – quoted on the Wired website in 2017 – claimed that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a characteristically pithy order on the subject of the new bunker. The president is said to have told the Mount Weather shelter director, “I expect your people to save our government.”

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Mining engineers from the corps then enlarged the original experimental tunnels, boring out massive amounts of greenstone rock. And, in time, they created a cave big enough to house a rather sizable city inside the mountain. As you may imagine, it was a monumental task that ultimately took the engineers four years to accomplish.

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Something like 21,000 steel bolts – driven up to ten feet into the solid rock – were also used to support the massive roof of the subterranean structure. And even before the shelter was finished, President Eisenhower’s government tried out the new facility in a 1954 evacuation practice drill dubbed Operation Alert.

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In order to complete the mammoth task, though, teams of men blasted and dug their way through the rock on a 24-hour rota. The conditions were unforgiving, too, with the temperature of the mountain’s innards staying at an unfaltering 52 °F. And one man who well remembered the hard graft that went into creating the bunker was Gilbert Fowler.

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Fowler worked at the site for 31 years up until 1969, starting out on the very first experimental tunnel. Originally employed by the Bureau of Mines, he later transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers. And during the construction of the bunker, Fowler was the head of one of the three 40-strong squads working the tough shifts.

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Then, at the age of 80, Fowler reminisced about his experiences in a 2001 interview with Time magazine. “That was some rough, tough, dirty work,” he recalled. “It was amazing the way [the diggers] could drive a straight line through solid rock.” But as Fowler and his men toiled, a complete nuclear bunker was being created.

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And as you’d expect, some of the fixtures and fittings to the bunker are formidable indeed. The entrance to the complex, for example, is protected by a gate that operates in the same manner as a medieval castle’s portcullis. Then, behind that opening, there supposedly lies a 10-foot-tall and 20-foot-wide electronically operated steel door. This feature weighs in at an incredible 34 tons, runs on wheels and takes ten to 15 minutes to open or shut.

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Julius Becton has also spoken about the security measures involved in the creation of the bunker. Becton was the boss of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an organization that managed Mount Weather, and in 2011 he revealed to Time, “The entrance [to the bunker] is such that if [anyone] were to pop a nuke, it would withstand whatever they popped.” Inside the complex, meanwhile, there is practically a functioning underground city.

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So that potential survivors could breathe, the engineers drilled an air shaft from the complex upwards through the mountain’s peak. Pumps circulate this air, while pools of water keep it cool. And other human necessities are naturally catered for, too. There is a sewage plant at the location, for instance, as well as a subterranean reservoir filled with drinking water.

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Power, meanwhile, would be supplied by generators run on diesel. There’s also a medical facility complete with 800 hammocks ready for the personnel who arrive at the site along with a 280-capacity cafeteria. In a seeming attempt to humanize the steel and concrete environment, plastic flowers are said to decorate the tables in the dining space.

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Yes, the Mount Weather complex isn’t without its lighter side, as journalist and author Garret Graff has suggested. Speaking to the New York Post about an above-ground facility at the site, Graff said in 2017, “There’s even a bar, the Balloon Shed Lounge – the name a nod back to the site’s origins as a weather balloon launch station.”

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Furthermore, when President Kennedy came to power in 1960, the bunker was further extended and enhanced. The facility was even given its own police force and fire brigade, with a crematorium added to boot. But in the event of a dire emergency, just who would get to shelter within the bunker?

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Obviously, the U.S. president would be at the top of the list. The New York Post has also speculated that cabinet officials, Supreme Court judges and senior members of Congress may accompany the commander-in-chief, as there’s apparently enough room for up to 2,000 people there. And the nation’s leaders could supposedly keep in touch with whatever remained of the U.S. population via broadcasting facilities in the bunker.

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But it’s not just specific people who will find a place waiting for them at the shelter, which is officially dubbed the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. There will also apparently be room for key texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as well as a selection of works from the National Gallery of Art.

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Thankfully, nuclear war has not yet broken out, meaning the Mount Weather center has never been utilized for its original purpose. And while, over the years, federal authorities have done their best to keep the location under wraps, that level of secrecy became severely compromised following a horrifying accident.

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In December 1974 a Boeing 727 passenger jet was flying through a storm near Mount Weather. Perhaps owing to this poor visibility and pilot confusion, though, tragedy struck, and the plane slammed into the ridge at a speed of roughly 265 miles per hour. Everyone on board – all 92 passengers and crew – lost their lives.

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This catastrophe – which occurred close to the highly secret tunnel complex – naturally attracted the attention of the press and the wider public. Indeed, reporters quickly realized that the crash had happened near a highly sensitive government facility. And an NBC News story came particularly close to the mark when it openly declared that Mount Weather was the site of a nuclear shelter intended for the U.S. president.

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Other exposés followed that largely revealed the purpose of the Mount Weather site; even so, the U.S. government continues to attempt to keep the location under wraps. And the bunker has actually been used at a time of crisis – albeit not one involving nuclear weapons.

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You see, Mount Weather had a part to play on 9/11. During that fateful day in September 2001, helicopter flights quickly took off from Washington en route to the Virginia shelter. Those evacuated there supposedly included senior Congressional politicians and high-ranking government employees.

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And that attack seems to have given the Mount Weather facility a new lease of life. Indeed, reports have suggested that the threat of terrorism has heightened the importance of preparation for civil disturbance. So, with that in mind, Mount Weather could very well be with us for the foreseeable future.

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