Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thursday Thirteen #55: Washington DC Underground

One of my favorite Monday night television shows is the History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld, a program that takes you beneath major cities around the world. Season one took us below such cities as Paris, Rome, Bucharest and Budapest. This season has been just as fascinating, with underground tours of Jerusalem, Tokyo, Dublin, Chicago, New York and – this week – Washington, DC. Here are some interesting facts you may not pick up on the regular tour of the city.

1. The sewer system in Washington DC dates back 200 years, when the Tiber Creek was deemed too shallow for canal barges. It was then used as a sewer, spreading garbage and disease throughout the city. In 1871, the course of the Tiber was altered. For health reasons, the river was lined and covered with brickwork measuring 3-ft high, 5-ft thick, and with a 30-ft span.

2. Since 9/11, security around DC is so tight that even the manhole covers and other entrances to the sewers are closely guarded. The film crew was only allowed access late at night "for safety reasons," and their guide allowed to take them so far. The tunnels that now snake through the city are over 1000 miles long, and workers must gain permission from DC police, the FBI and Homeland Security before any routine maintenance can be done.

3. The tunnels are thoroughly swept by security teams months in advance of any major event such as a presidential inauguration or visit by foreign dignitary (or, as is the case this week, the pope). Lasers also protect some sections, and a recent law prohibits access to maps of tunnels and infrastructure.

4. To demonstrate how much has changed in so short a time, President Truman used to walk around Washington, DC alone during his presidency (1945–1953). Not more than 30 years later, near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan had a tunnel built connecting the Oval Office to the residential wing of the White House for emergency evacuation.

5. 250 miles outside DC in White Sulphur Springs, WV sits The Greenbrier Resort. Originally built in 1778, it served as a hospital during WWII. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the US government funded construction of the west wing and built a secret bomb shelter 64 feet below the hotel. Few members of the hotel staff knew about it, and subcontractors who worked on and maintained the bunker posed as television repairmen. This would house the entire US legislature in case of nuclear attack for up to two months. Though the Legislature knew there was an emergency plan, they knew no specifics, and would have been told where to go only if necessary.

6. The shelter is accessed by a 30 ton door (60,000 lbs) composed of steel and concrete, and could be closed by one person. This shelter was for government officials and aides only; families were sent to a less secure shelter beneath the main hotel basement. During the event of a nuclear attack, members would first be ferried through decontamination units where they would strip, shower, and receive military clothing. There was a furnace inside the unit to destroy biohazardous material (such as contaminated clothing) and any corpses.

7. Inside the shelter’s 5-ft thick concrete walls (and this is where it truly becomes impressive) are 18 dormitories, a cafeteria, pharmacy stocked with antidepressants (and yes, they made a point of emphasizing that!), infirmary, offices, and makeshift assembly chambers for both the House and Senate.

8. There is also a power facility independent of the main power grid, consisting of three 14,000 gallon diesel fuel tanks and three 25,000 gallon water tanks, and there was a 60-day supply of food.

9. There were other shelters in Virginia for the Supreme Court, and in Pennsylvania for the Joint Chief of Staffs. The latest in communications equipment linked these shelters to each other and the president’s secret bunker. A television studio and briefing room were also included, from which they could broadcast to the American people, complete with life-sized backdrops of the White House, Capitol, and other DC landmarks to “reassure” the public that everything was under control and the government still functioning.

10. The Greenbrier shelter was maintained for 30 years, until a 1992 Washington Post story leaked its location. The government decommissioned the bunker immediately after. It is still maintained by The Greenbrier Resort, which offers guided tours. It is also now used as a data storage facility for the private sector.

11. The conditions inside the bunker were harsher than any military boot camp with cramped conditions and little privacy but, as Linda Walls of The Greenbrier said, “This really wasn’t built to preserve individuals; this was built to preserve the democratic form of government.”

12. West Virginia was also integral to both the Union and Confederacy during an earlier conflict, the Civil War. Though “officially” a Union holding, there were Confederate sympathizers who aided the rebel army, and Morgan Cave was key to the success of southern general Robert E. Lee. A natural saltpeter mine, Lee’s army operated a munitions factory deep inside the 70-mile long cave, with Union troops camped directly over their heads. Saltpeter was leeched out of the dirt, and then transported to another section of the cave where it was used in the manufacturing of gun powder.

13. On November 6, 1863, the cave was abandoned when troops were called to the Battle of Droop Mountain. The Confederacy suffered 400 casualties that day and were pushed back into Virginia. They never returned to Morgan Cave. Wooden hoppers and other mining implements still remain where rebel troops left them.

If you would like to watch this episode yourself, History Channel will re-air this segment at the following times this month:

Thursday, April 24 – 9pm CT/10pm ET
Friday, April 25 – 1am CT / 2am ET
Saturday, April 26 – 2pm CT / 3pm ET

You can also click here for more upcoming episodes in the series. Next week they’ll be in Moscow, and New Orleans the week after. Just don’t blame me if you become addicted!

Links to other Thursday Thirteens:

Robin Rotham * Adelle Laudan * Alice Audrey
RG Alexander * Kathleen Oxley * Kaige
Gina Ardito * Debora Dennis * Gwen Mitchell
Darla * Shelley Munro * Ms Menozzi
Paige Tyler * Rhonda Stapleton * Nina Pierce
Jennifer McKenzie * Chloe Devlin
Tempest Knight * Dana Belfry * Kathleen Oxley

(leave your link in comments, I’ll add you here!)

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!


Gina Ardito said...

I LOVE that show. It's so amazing. Terrific list!

Adelle said...

Fascinating. I better tell my hunny about this! Thanks! Happy T13!

Darla said...

Oh, how fascinating! If we had shows like that, I might actually watch TV! :)

Debora said...

I've never watched that show - I might have to start. Thanks for the interesting post. :)

Alice Audrey said...

The sewars are guarded? What a world we live in.

Paige Tyler said...

Very cool! My hubby loves the History Channel!


My TT is at

Kaige said...

Neat, we'll have to check out the show. We were just complaining how reality tv seemed to have taken over our dvr. It's still reality, but definitely more intersting and educational too! Thanks, Heather!

Robin L. Rotham said...

Wow, I'm going to have to watch that! I'm surprised we haven't seen it -- Mr. Robin loves The History Channel.

R.G. ALEXANDER said...

I LOVE that show!!!

Heather said...

Gina~ isn't it a great show?

Adelle~ Definitely! I think it's a show that appeals to more than just history buffs.

Darla~ LOL...there does seem a lack of quality or more interesting programs these days.

Debora~ Definitely check it out!

Alice~ Yes, the sewers are guarded. The altered course of the Tiber Creek flows under the Capitol and other givernment buildings, plus these tunnels wind all over DC, so anyone with sabotage on their mind could wreak quite a bit of havoc.

Heather said...

Paige~ There are some programs on History I could do without, but then there is this series and the one on the universe that are totally fascinating.

Kaige~ Definitely more interesting and educational than the traditional "reality" fair!

Robin~ *Gasp* You and Mr. Robin haven't watched it?!

RG~ Ah, I love finding fellow addicts! *g*

Heather said...

I know this week's post was a bit long, so thank you to all those who read through it - I promise something shorter for next week! *g*

Tempest Knight said...

Oh wow! This is fascinating! Love it!

Heather said...

Thanks Tempest!

Dana Belfry said...

I've never even heard of this show! (I don't watch that much TV) but this is totally FASCINATING! Thanks!

Chloe Devlin said...

Absolutely fascinating. I'm going to start watching that show.


Shelley Munro said...

Wow, this was interesting. The documentaries would grab my attention. I love watching stuff like that.

Heather said...

Dana and Chloe~ Ahh...two more converts. I feel my persuasive power growing! Seriously, it is indeed a fascinating program. *G*

Heather said...

Hey Shelley! If you like documentaries, you would probably like this one. Plus the host isn't too bad either. *g*

Kathleen Oxley said...

Wow - sounds very interesting! Happy TT, Heather!

Rhonda Stapleton said...

OMG that was SO interesting...thank you for sharing! I love nerdy shows! YAY!