10. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center
Imagine a place where our descendants, thousands of years into the future (if the human race endures), can still find data and evidence of the “way we were” in the form of some of our earliest films. That place spans several hundred thousand square feet under Mount Pony in Culpeper, Virginia. Here, the Library of Congress maintains climate-controlled storage for more than 6 million film and TV recordings, manuscripts and screenplays, and audio broadcasts. Many of its restored films predate World War I and include Georges Melies’ haunting A Trip to the Moon (1902) and rare footage of gunslinger Buffalo Bill. In its original incarnation, the facility was built in 1969 by the U.S. Federal Reserve as a top-secret bunker intended to shelter more than 500 VIPs following a nuclear war. The bunker held billions of dollars in currency, mostly in $2 bills (remember those?) to inject into the post-nuclear strike U.S. economy. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s marked the end of this use, as control of such secret currency stashes was transitioned to regional banks.
9. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
While a proposed nuclear waste site on the border of Nevada and California at the Yucca Mountain ridgeline has been contested for years by environmentalists and residents, what many people may not realize is such a waste storage site already exists in New Mexico. Since 1999, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located about 30 minutes east of Carlsbad by car, has taken in more than 10,500 shipments of hazardous and transuranic radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons. To put this in perspective, the amount of waste that’s been transported here in the past 13 years could fit inside of 26 large swimming pools. Once on site, the waste is stored about a half-mile underground in salt caverns. Interestingly, a team of linguists, sci-fi writers, anthropologists and scientists has collaborated to come up with a system to “warn” future generations about the radioactive dangers of the site. Remember, this waste will remain hazardous for thousands of years, by which time the English language might have disappeared, so the warning system would include pillars and a room with visual and audio warnings in six official United Nations languages — English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic, as well as the Navajo language native to the region. Pictograms may include, naturally, the most iconic of images — Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
8. National Helium Reserve
Don’t think a helium shortage is a big deal? Think again. The gas has far more significant implications than kids’ birthday parties. Helium is used in everything from manufacturing and welding to MRI machines, with some doomsayers speculating patient access to these machines may be limited if a severe shortage develops. While the gas is common on earth, the problem is the very nature of helium; much of it bleeds into space. Enter the National Helium Reserve, created by the U.S. government in 1925. The U.S. supplies roughly three-quarters of the world’s helium, and much of that comes from the National Helium Reserve, located at a storage site amid the rich natural gas fields near Amarillo, Texas (helium is a byproduct of natural gas production). The facility has been in the news in recent years, thanks to the federal government’s controversial 1996 decision to sell off the helium supply. The thinking was new sources of helium would be available by the time the gas was sold off to the private sector in 2015. That hasn’t happened yet. In turn, dire predictions are leading corporations such as GE to build up their own helium reserves.
7. Building 470
While it sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, the U.S. actually did once maintain an “Anthrax Tower,” where bacteria was made to potentially unleash deadly diseases upon the country’s enemies. Known more officially as “Building 470,” the seven-story structure sat on the grounds of Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. From its construction in 1953 until its closure in the late 1960s, Building 470 produced bacteria behind three harrowing diseases: anthrax, tularemia (a kind of plague also known as rabbit fever) and brucellosis (also known as Crimean fever). Most people had no idea the nondescript structure, cleverly disguised as an office building, was home to such horrors. After the federal government ended its biological weapons research there, it was actually intended for use as an officer tower, but because of its layout and general deterioration, the building was demolished in 2003.
6. Iron Mountain, Pennsylvania
When the media first reported in 2001 that Bill Gates was hauling his personal collection of historic photos, priceless paintings and digital material from New York City to a former limestone mine about an hour’s drive northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, people took notice. The storage site, which is built more than 200 feet underground, opened in 1954. It’s now known as Iron Mountain, after its current owner, the information management company Iron Mountain Inc. In addition to a data center that harnesses the natural cooling qualities of the limestone, priceless collections are stored in below-zero temperature tunnels carved under the mountain.
5. Greenbrier Bunker
For three decades a secret mini-city existed beneath the posh Greenbrier hotel near White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. In 1992, a Washington Post story blew the lid off one of the best-kept government secrets to emerge out of the Cold War era. Now, tourists can actually visit this site once intended as an emergency shelter for members of Congress. The resort also hosts spy-themed parties onsite — a far cry from its original purpose of assuring our government would function following a dire disaster.
4. Hangar 18
This facility at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Daytona, Ohio, is related in UFO lore to its much more famous brethren, Area 51. UFO researchers believe that, on the July night in 1947 when a strange disc-shaped object crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, its out-of-this-world contents were hurriedly secreted away by special plane to Hangar 18 at Wright Field. Those “contents,” believers contend, include 14 to 16 dead aliens (and one living being who later died), as well as entire sections of the unidentified craft and strange, lightweight “metals” that, when bent, would not crumple but rather spring back into shape. According to UFO lore, the hangar stores not only dead aliens and alien technologies from the famed 1947 crash, but wreckage from many other crashes. You may laugh these stories off as little more than wild conspiracy theories, but there is no denying that the same month of the Roswell crash, the U.S. launched a UFO investigation that would eventually become the famous “Project Blue Book.” Rather eerily,The New Yorker, in 1988, published an interview in which Sen. Barry Goldwater said he asked his friend, Gen. Curtis LeMay, former head of the Strategic Air Command, if there was any truth about the hangar and its contents. He also asked for access to the site. Apparently that was a bit much for the general to handle as, in the senator’s words, LeMay proclaimed: “Not only can’t you get into it but don’t you ever mention it to me again.” Quite a reaction for a site the Air Force contends is only protecting trade secrets related to new aviation technology.
3. Strategic Petroleum Reserve
You’ve probably heard of this reserve that was built in response to the oil crisis of the early 1970s. But what do you really know about the SPR? The reserve is carved into salt caverns lining the Texas and Louisiana coasts. A well is first drilled into the salt formations. A controlled amount of fresh water is then added, dissolving the salt. What’s left behind is a massive space some 2,000 to 4,000 feet below ground, with enough space to contain anywhere from 6 to 35 million barrels of petroleum. Its strategic location along the Gulf Coast also enables easy transportation to refineries and terminals across the country. Removing the oil is as simple as pumping freshwater into a cavern, which then displaces the oil and brings it to the surface for removal. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve has a maximum capacity of 727 million barrels, the equivalent of about a three-month supply to offset the 8.72 million barrels of oil the U.S. imports each day. The supply would actually last about twice that long, as the maximum amount that can be withdrawn in a day is about 4 million barrels.
2. Mount Weather
Built in the late 1950s, Mount Weather in Virginia remained a secret until 1974, when TWA Flight 514 crashed near the government facility. Aside from being an impenetrable hideaway for government VIPs in times of chaos and crises, this former weather station-turned-emergency operations center located in the Blue Ridge Mountains has been likened to an “underground city.” Media reports citing those close to Mount Weather have noted office buildings, private apartments, dorms, cafes and hospitals, as well as roads, sidewalks, a spring-fed lake and a power plant — even a battery-powered subway to shuttle the residents of this city of the underworld across the more than 600,000-square-foot complex. The sprawling retreat made news again following 9/11, when residents close to Mount Weather reported a procession of limos bearing D.C. and government licenses, presumably carrying high-ranking members of Congress to the center in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon.
1. Raven Rock Mountain Complex (Site R)
This site on Pennsylvania’s Raven Rock Mountain — a short six-mile-trip from Camp David — is yet another throwback to the Cold War era. However, this site is probably the most secret of the facilities listed here. What we know is this “backup Pentagon” has operated since 1953. It’s been reported that one of the broad objectives of the facility is to protect other such underground bunkers — like the ones on this list — and to counter “enemy underground facilities.” In 2008, Wired.com got its hands on a conference agenda it wasn’t supposed to see. Apparently, someone within the complex had inadvertently “invited” media to the event (they were later quickly “de-friended” from said event and somewhere deep inside the mountain, someone was probably getting fired). With the conference agenda still in hand, Wired.com reported hot-button topics included biological attacks and pandemics. The government workers inside this command center backup are not allowed to carry any personal cell phones or other devices, but have at their disposal plenty of government communications technologies — an array of antennas and dishes to go along with the six stories of underground offices, a subterranean water reservoir and other amenities. The military complex has been used at least once in a “state of emergency”, as then-Vice President Dick Cheney was spirited away to this location following 9/11.
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