In the best-selling 1962 spy thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, the
Joint Chiefs of Staff plot to overthrow the U.S. president. Their
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.
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. 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 speed
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
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 lights. 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
gate to 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. Mount Weather
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 mountain.
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 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 subway. 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.
A futuristic 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 bragged.
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
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: Agriculture, Commerce,
Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development,
Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, and the Treasury.
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
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 files on "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 stockpiles." 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 embassy employees. 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
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
Each person on the survival list has an ID card with a photo.
The card reads: 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.