by Robert Collins
In the best-selling 1962 spy thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, the Joint
Chiefs of Staff plot to overthrow the U.S. president.
conspiracy centers on a place called Mount Thunder, a secret
subterranean command post where government leaders would go in the
event of a nuclear attack.
On December 1, 1974, a TWA Boeing 727 jet
crashed into a fog-shrouded mountain in northern Virginia and
burned, killing all ninety-two persons aboard. Near the wreckage was
a fenced government reserve identified as
Mount Weather is a real place; eighty-five acres located
forty-five miles west of Washington and 1,725 feet above sea level,
near the town of Bluemont, Virginia. In the event of all-out war,
an elite of civilian and military leaders are to be taken to Mount
Weather’s cavernous underground shelter to become the nucleus of a
postwar American society. The government has a secret list of those
persons it plans to save.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) runs
Mount Weather (click image right). When it has to talk about the place, which is
rare, it calls it the "special facility." Its more common name comes
from a weather station that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had
maintained on the mountain.
The authors of
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, Fletcher
Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, were Washington
journalists who learned a lot about the then-quite-secret post. Few
readers of Knebel and Bailey’s fiction could have imagined how close
to the truth it was.
The novel gives detailed highway directions from Washington:
..the Chrysler wheeled onto Route
50, heading away from Washington....
In the jungle of neon lights and
access roads at Seven Corners, Corwin saw Scott bear right onto
Route 7, the main road to Leesburg. The two cars moved slowly
through Falls Church before the traffic began to thin out and
At the fork west of Leesburg, Scott bore right on Route 9,
heading toward Charles Town.... They began to climb toward the
Blue Ridge, the eastern rim of the Shenandoah Valley....
West of Hillboro, where the road crossed the Blue Ridge before
dropping into the valley.... Scott turned left. Corwin followed
him onto a black macadam road that ran straight along the spine
of the ridge.
..Because of his White House job, Corwin knew something about
this road that few other Americans did. Virginia 120 appeared to
be nothing more than a better-than-average Blue Ridge byway, but
it ran past Mount Thunder, where an underground installation
provided one of the several bases from which the President could
run the nation in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington.
Knebel and Bailey
disguised the directions slightly. You continue on Route 7 west of
Leesburg, turning left on Route 601 just west of Bluemont. It’s
Virginia Route 601 that runs right up to the gates of Mount Weather.
Residents have long known there is something funny about that road;
it is always the first road cleared after a snowstorm.
At one point, the government asked the local paper not to print any
articles about the facility. But it is all but impossible to keep
such a place secret. The Appalachian Trail runs right by Mount
Weather, and hikers can get close enough to see signs and flashing
One sign reads:
"All persons and vehicles entering
hereon are liable to search. Photographing, making notes,
drawings, maps or graphic representations of this area or its
activities are prohibited."
In the late 1960s an unidentified
"hippie" is supposed to have stumbled upon the facility and sketched
it from a tree. His drawing turned up in the QUICKSILVER TIMES, an
underground newspaper in Washington.
Residents also tell of the time a hunt club chased a fox onto the
site and triggered an alarm. The club had to go to the main
get the dogs back.
After the TWA crash, a spokesman "politely declined to comment on
what Mt. Weather was used for, how many people work there, or how
long it has been in its current use," the WASHINGTON POST reported.
The POST published a picture of the facility, citing far-fetched
speculation that Mount Weather’s radio antennas may have interfered
with the jet’s radar and caused the disaster.
You don’t get into Mount Weather without an invitation. The entrance
is said to be like the door to a bank vault, only thicker, set into
a mountain made out of the toughest granite in the East. It is
guarded around the clock.
Mount Weather got more unsolicited publicity in 1975. Senator
John Tunney (D-Calif.) charged that Mount Weather held dossiers on
100,000 or more Americans. A sophisticated computer system gives the
installation access to detailed information on the lives of
virtually every American citizen, Tunney claimed.
personnel stonewalled question after question in two Senate
"I don’t understand what they’re
trying to hide out there," Douglas Lea, staff director of the
Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, said. "Mount
Weather is just closed up to us." Tunney complained that Mount
Weather was "out of control."
Mount Weather has been owned by the
government since 1903, when the site was purchased by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. Calvin Coolidge talked about building a
summer White House there. In World War I it was an artillery range,
and during the Depression it was a workfarm for hobos. Mount Weather
as an alternate capital seems to have been the idea of Millard F.
Caldwell, former governor of Florida.
There is a fallout shelter under the East Wing of the White House.
No one believes it offers any real protection from a nuclear attack
on Washington, however. FEMA has elaborate plans for getting the
president and other key officials out of Washington should there be
a nuclear attack.
In that event, the president is supposed to board a Boeing 747
National Emergency Airborne Command Post ("Kneecap"). That is
presumed to be safer than any point on the ground. The president’s
plane can be refueled in the air from other planes and may be able
to stay airborne for as long as three days. Then its engine will
conk out for lack of oil. That is where Mount Weather comes in.
Government geologists selected the site because it has some of the
most impregnable rock in the United States. The shelter was started
in the Truman administration, and it took years to tunnel into the
There is a whole chain of shelters for leaders and critical
personnel. The Federal Relocation Arc, a system of ninety-six
shelters for specific U.S. Government agencies, sweeps through North
Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. A
duplicate of the Pentagon is located at a site called Raven Rock in
Maryland. The administrative center of the whole system, and the
place where the top civilians would go, is Mount Weather.
Mount Weather is much more than a fallout shelter; it is a
troglodytic Levittown. In the mid-1970s Richard Pollack, a writer
for PROGRESSIVE magazine, interviewed a number of persons who had
been associated with Mount Weather. According to them, Mount Weather
is an underground city with roads, sidewalks, and a battery-powered
A spring-fed artificial lake gleams in the fluorescent
light. There are office buildings, cafeterias, and hospitals. Large
dormitories are furnished with bunks or "hot cots" -- hammocks
intended to be occupied in three eight-hour shifts. There are
private apartments as well. Mount Weather has its own waterworks,
food storage, and power plant. A "bubble-shaped pod" in the East
Tunnel houses one of the most powerful computers in the world.
The Situation Room, a circular chamber, would be a nerve center in
the time of war. The Mount Weather folks set great store by visual
aids and retain artists and cartographers at all times.
color videophone system is the basic means of communication within
Mount Weather’s subterranean world.
"All important staff meetings
were conducted via color television as far back as 1958, long before
it was generally available to the public," one former staffer
The most surprising of Pollack’s revelations is that Mount Weather
has a working back-up of U.S. Government EVEN NOW. Undisclosed
persons there duplicate the responsibilities of our elected leaders,
making Mount Weather an eerie doppelganger of the United States.
An Office of the Presidency is ensconced in an underground wing
known as the White House. The elected president or survivor closest
in the chain of command would make his way there and take over the
reins. Until then, a staffer appointed by FEMA would be carrying out
duties said to simulate those of the real president.
Installed at Mount Weather are nine federal departments, their very
names ironic in the context:
Miniature versions of the
Selective Service, the Veteran’s Administration, the Federal
Communications Commission, the Post Office, the Civil Service
Commission, the Federal Power Commission, and the Federal Reserve
are there, too.
"High-level government sources,
speaking under the promise of strict anonymity, told me that
each of the federal departments represented at Mount Weather is
headed by a single person on who is conferred Cabinet-level
official," Pollack reported. "Protocol even demands that
subordinates address them as ’Mr. Secretary.’
Each of the Mount
Weather ’Cabinet members’ is apparently appointed by the White
House and serves an indefinite term. Many of the ’secretaries’
have held their positions through several administrations."
What do all these people DO? Twice a
month, Mount Weather stages a war game to train its personnel and
explore various dire scenarios. Once a year they pull out all the
stops and have a super drill in which REAL Cabinet members and White
House staffers fly in from Washington.
General Leslie Bray, director of the Federal Preparedness Agency,
FEMA’s predecessor, told the Senate that Mount Weather has extensive
"military installations, government
facilities, communications, transportation, energy and power,
agriculture, manufacturing, wholesale and retail services,
manpower, financial, medical and educational institutions,
sanitary facilities, population, housing shelter, and
Additional information is kept in
safekeeping at other shelters in the Federal Relocation Arc.
There is a body of opinion that considers Mount Weather obsolete.
Mount Weather is a non-movable target, and a very strategic one if
the relocation works. The "toughest granite in the East" may have
offered some protection in Eisenhower’s time, but multiple strikes
could blast the mountain away. It was reported that the TWA jet
crash knocked out power at Mount Weather for two and a half hours.
What would a bomb do?
The Soviet Union knows exactly
where Mount Weather is -- and almost certainly knew long
before the Western press did
The Soviets tried to buy an
estate near Mount Weather as a "vacation retreat" for
The State Department stopped the
The Survivor List
In 1975 General Bray told the Senate that the Mount Weather survivor
list had sixty-five hundred names on it. Who might be included?
The president, of course, provide he survives his Kneecap command.
The vice-president and Cabinet members are on the list because they
take part in the annual dry runs. Beyond that, little is known and
the few existing accounts conflict.
For instance, what about Congress? General Bray said that his
responsibilities included the executive branch only, not Congress or
the Supreme Court. But in an interview in 1976, Senator Hubert
Humphrey insisted that he had visited the shelter as vice-president
and seen "a nice little chamber, rostrum and all," for postnuclear
sessions of Congress.
Furthermore, Earl Warren is said to have been invited when he was
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Warren refused because he was
not allowed to take his wife. The protocol for ordering persons to
Mount Weather specifies that messages not be left with family
members answering the phone.
The vast majority of the persons on the list are believed to be
ranking bureaucrats from the nine federal agencies with branches at
Mount Weather. Pollack said he heard stories that some construction
workers were on the list "because, the Mount Weather analysts
reasoned, excavation work for mass graves would be needed
immediately in the aftermath of a thermonuclear war." General Bray
admitted that some others such as telephone company technicians are
Each person on the survival list has an ID card with a photo.
THE PERSON DESCRIBED ON THIS CARD
HAS ESSENTIAL EMERGENCY DUTIES WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.
REQUEST FULL ASSISTANCE AND UNRESTRICTED MOVEMENT BE AFFORDED
THE PERSON TO WHOM THIS CARD IS ISSUED.