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The Raven Rock Mountain Complex: The Pennsylvania Bunker for US Officials

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Underground Pentagon’ or even the more mysterious Site R, the vast underground complex buried near the Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania officially known as the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, has more than a touch of the Cold War about it – or perhaps even the secretive lair of a James Bond villain. 

The days of underground bunkers and secret nuclear sites ready to launch at a moments notice might seem like they are now thankfully behind us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist – and in fact, very much remain in operation. I would like to add before we get going that this is probably one of the most secretive subjects we’ve ever done on Megaprojects. While everybody knows where the RRMC is, available information on it is incredibly scarce. There are no pictures from within the complex and very few have spoken about what it is like inside. So if things seem a little vague at times, this is why. 

The underground complex blasted out of the rock in the early 1950s was designed to accommodate various military and governmental posts in the event of nuclear war or another catastrophic event – part of the Continuity of Government Plan, which I will go into more detail shortly. This is one of three such locations (that we know of at least) with the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado (which we’ve already done a video on here on Megaprojects), the other sites. 

Continuity of Government

Before we get into the construction of the complex, it’s worth starting with the Continuity of Government Plan. These are essentially a set of procedures that have been put in place in the event of a situation that threatens the government, both at a federal and state level. Traditionally it has been associated with nuclear war, but really could be applied to anything – a large meteor hitting earth or a deadly virus for example.   

Before you start thinking that this kind of doomsday thinking is solely an American initiative, I can tell you that almost every nation around the world has such a plan in place. This might not always include an underground bunker capable of withstanding a nuclear blast, but there is always, at the very least, a rough outline of what happens in such an event.

As one-half of the duelling superpowers that slugged it out indirectly during the Cold War, it’s probably no great surprise that the United States has one of the largest, most complex continuity plans. The origins of such a plan came out of the ashes of World War II but have undergone numerous changes since. It now includes a formal line of succession should anything happen to the President as well as a detailed plan of where various governmental and military staff should be taken.  

The one, and only, time this plan has been enacted came immediately after the attacks on 9/11 when Vice-President Dick Cheney was reported to have been whisked away to Pennsylvania and into the Raven Rock Mountain Complex. 

Construction

While the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado was chosen for its distance from both coasts, the site for the RRMC was chosen because of its proximity to Washington D.C. Planning for the site began sometime in 1948, just three years after the end of the largest war the world had ever known. 

Cheyenne Mountain Complex
Cheyenne Mountain Complex by Airman Magazine is licensed under CC-BY-NC

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, the U.S government must have already felt wary of what was to come. The use of the world’s first atomic bombs on civilian populations at the end of the war had shown what kind of devastation could be caused and with the Soviets nearing completion of their own bomb, an uncertain future beckoned. 

For the first time in history, global destruction was being seriously considered. The U.S government decided that a secure underground bunker was needed where it could quickly shift operations in the case of an emergency. The Pentagon had only been completed in 1943, and while it was wholly unfeasible to move everything after such a disaster, at the very least, a fortified command centre was required underground.   

The site at Raven Rock Mountain was identified sometime in 1950 and the following year on 23rd January the federal government used a ‘Declaration of Taking’ – which I guess is the kind way of saying I’m taking your land – to officially seize the 280 acres it required. The initial cost estimate for construction was set at $35 million (roughly $350 million today) with the contract awarded to Parsons Brinkerhoff, a company which had recently completed extensive renovations on the New York City subway. 

Work quickly got underway and by the 3rd February 1950 a road had been constructed to what would eventually become the entrance to the complex and on the 23rd February, 40 workers began blasting into the solid greenstone rock and heading underground. Unfortunately, we don’t know a great deal about the process of construction within the complex- secret nuclear bunkers tend to be a bit like that, but we can piece together the odd story to give you a rough idea. 

Firstly of all, it wasn’t plain sailing. Over the first six months, the building site experienced two deaths, one due to a premature dynamite detonation and another involving an accident with a power-shovel. There was also a 100 person strike in 1952, but it’s not entirely clear why this took place. There are also reports of a guard shelter burning to the ground on the site sometime in early 1953.  

We do know that by 1953, five “chambers” inside had been excavated and three streel buildings had been constructed. The following year, what came to be known as “Little Pentagon” was also completed. The RRMC officially became operational on 30th June 1953, although it would take some time for everything to get up and running.  

The Evolution of the RRMC

One of the buildings inside the complex came to be known as the War Room Annex which was operated by the U.S Air Force (USAF) and officially established in 1956. This became the alternate joint communication centre designed to accommodate the Chief of Staff and key officers, as well as the headquarters of the USAF Advanced. In 1958, it also became one of the 33 NORAD Alert Network Number 1 stations spread across the country which would give an early warning of any potential attack.  

It was in 1961 that the complex moved to a 24-hour, seven day a week operation. The launching of Sputnik four years earlier had led to a steadily increasing fear of nuclear war and the government decided to expand the RRMC. Work on two additional buildings began in 1962 and was completed in 1965.     

In October 1962 the National Military Command Center (NMCC) was opened within the RRMC. This was an alternate to what was already situated within the Pentagon and was only supposed to be a short-term solution. A new Deep Underground Command Center (DUCC) was proposed in January 1962 which would see a new underground center constructed somewhere between the White House and the Pentagon, perhaps as far down as 914 to 1219 meters (3,000 to 4000 ft). 

This idea went up in flames when President Lyndon B Johnson described it as one of the stupidest ideas he had ever known and made it clear he had absolutely no intention in hiding in an expensive hole in the event of an attack. That was the end of the DUCC and it meant that the NMCC remained on Raven Rock Mountain.

During the 1980s a power rehabilitation and enhancement program took place within the complex under the guise of the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This $13.5 million ($36 million today) project included a new tunnel, an underground reservoir and additional underground cooling towers. At the same time new structural bracing, fire detection systems and sprinkler systems were also added inside RRMC.  

The End of the Cold War

All of this had been constructed out of the fear of nuclear disaster during the Cold War, and while we do know of a few examples when the world seemed to tiptoe towards the precipice, it thankfully never happened. But what happens when your mortal enemy disappears almost over-night?

The USSR finally collapsed on 26th December 1991, leaving the USA as the only undisputed superpower – it would seem that democracy had won out over the hated communism. But this did leave the United States in a slightly awkward situation. With so much time, money and man-power had been put into preparations for a possible nuclear strike, the country was suddenly left with a lot of military hardware it didn’t really need, and secretive underground bunkers that may never be used. 

The world appeared to breathe a little easier as the 1990s rolled on.  

Though again information is sketchy here, we believe the RRMC was essentially mothballed at this point to save money. This mainly included a reduction in numbers and the complex reverting to a weekday schedule (meaning it was no-longer 24 hour) but it still very much retained its ability to be used as a back-up command centre.

9/11

This all changed dramatically on 11th September 2001. With confusion mounting over what happened and the extent, George W Bush triggered the Continuation of Government Plan for the first time in the nation’s history.

While the President himself was quickly ushered onto Air Force One, his Vice-President Dick Cheney was transported to the RRMC where he spent the night, along with other officials who had the site in Pennsylvania as their designated location. The following day, with the dust now settling, officials made their way back to Washington D.C to continue the analysis of what exactly had happened. 

Unsurprisingly, the RRMC was rapidly brought out of its mothballed state and a series of expansions and modernisations took place as well as it reverting to its 24 hours mode.    

Inside the RRMC

As I mentioned right at the start of the video, we know very little about what is really inside the RRMC but we have pieces of information. It’s believed that there are now multiple three-story buildings inside that could hold as many as 5,000 people in the event of a major disaster. 

It is essentially its own underground city and comes complete with a fire department, small police department, shops, medical facilities, a fitness centre, a chapel and dining halls which serve four meals a day. There are also two underground reservoirs serving as the water supply, two power plants and of course a bar – because who wants to do the apocalypse without alcohol?

The only map of the RRMC was released by the Department of Defense after a request under the Freedom of Information Act in 1999, and is fairly vague but does give us an idea of where everything is at least. We can see there are three gates into the facility, South, East and West and four doors, A, B, C and D. It also shows that most buildings and facilities are concentrated around a single tunnel, with smaller tunnels coming off it. 

One page oddly headlined “customers”, includes the various sections of the military that have back-up centres within the RRMC, and includes: 

NAVAL OPERATIONS SUPPORT ACTIVITY 

JOINT STAFF SUPPORT CENTER  

AIR FORCE MANPOWER READINESS FLIGHT

NATIONAL MILITARY COMMAND CENTER-SITE R 

AIR FORCE OPERATIONS GROUP 

 AIR FORCE EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER 

DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY 

1111 TH SIGNAL BATTALION 

 DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY 

 OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE

I would like to add quickly that this information is from 1999, so things may well have changed since then. Some have stated that nuclear weapons are also kept within the RRMC, but this has been categorically denied several times. Whether you completely believe that or not is up to you.  

The Secret that isn’t a Secret

Unlike the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, which has hosted visitors and has many photos available online, the RRMC remains an almost complete secret – except that everybody knows exactly what is located within the greenstone rock. It’s a secret, that isn’t really a secret. High barbed wire fencing stretches around the perimeter of the facility, while the specialised Pentagon police force is quick to appear should anybody stray a little too close. 

The existence of the RRMC has led some to question whether this kind of military bunker is really needed anymore and whether the Continuation of Government Plan would even work. The kind of nuclear war that the RRMC had been built for is well past us now. While nuclear weapons in the 50s and 60s were no joke, it was at least feasible that a nuclear strike wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. 

Things have changed considerably now. The speed of which missiles could be distributed around the planet, along with their devastating power, means that it’s difficult to see what would be left in the face of all-out nuclear war. Even if a small group of government officials managed to make it into the RRMC before all hell broke loose, what kind of a nation could they possibly hope to resurrect? Some argue that these bunkers are designed to simply save the lives of those selected few, while everybody else fends for themselves outside – which certainly has a degree of truth to it.  

The threat of nuclear war may be considerably less than in the past, but the events of 2020 have shown us that anything is possible in this world. The Raven Rock Mountain Complex may seem slightly outdated now, but it remains pivotal to the American Continuity of Government Plan. If ever the time comes to rebuild the United States after an unimaginable catastrophe, it may well come from within the craggy greenstone of Raven Rock Mountain.

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