The Greenbrier, situated on the eastern edge of Greenbrier County in West Virginia, traces its origins to the late 18th century and the health-restoring use of the mineral water from the White Sulphur Spring. The area remained remote, however, until made accessible in the 1820s by the James River & Kanawha Turnpike. In the ensuing antebellum years the resort’s reputation was firmly established as the summer gathering place of wealthy and influential southerners. Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and many other political figures frequented White Sulphur. Closed during the Civil War, the resort’s survival was ensured by the 1869 arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. Its status as a southern mecca was incalculably enhanced by Robert E. Lee’s visits after the war.
In 1910, the C&O purchased the resort and developed it into a major destination along its main line, building the central section of today’s hotel and adding the first golf course. Both projects were completed in 1913, and the resort became a year-round operation. The name ‘‘Greenbrier’’ (after the county, river, and plant) became the preferred name over the 19th century’s ‘‘White Sulphur Springs.’’ The resort prospered in the 1920s both as a society rendezvous and as a meeting place for business owners and executives in the coal, rail, steel, insurance, banking, chemical, and automobile industries, as well as for members of the medical and legal professions.
In the early months of World War II, the U.S. State Department leased the Greenbrier and used it to intern Japanese, German, and Italian diplomats and their dependents who had been stranded in Washington. After seven months these ‘‘enemy alien diplomats’’ were exchanged for American diplomats interned overseas. In September 1942, the U.S. Army took over the resort, renamed it Ashford General Hospital, converted the hotel into a 2000-bed hospital, and used the recreational facilities for rehabilitation. The hospital specialized in vascular and neurosurgery; in four years 24,148 soldiers were admitted. General Eisenhower vacationed at the resort hospital upon returning from Europe in 1945.
After an extensive post-war refurbishing by New York decorator Dorothy Draper, the Greenbrier reopened in April 1948. In the 1950s, the resort was known as one of the favorite haunts of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and as the home of golfing great Sam Snead. The U.S. government approached the C&O in 1956 with a proposal to build an ‘‘emergency relocation center’’ at the Greenbrier for the reassembly of Congress in case of nuclear war. Construction of the 112,000-square-foot underground facility was concealed by the simultaneous addition of a new hotel wing; both were complete by mid-1962. For 30 years the resort was one telephone call away from transformation into the site of the legislative branch of the federal government. A Washington Post article in May 1992 exposing the classified operation led to the closing of the government facility.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the historic resort experienced a decline in patronage. Subsequent financial hardship led the resort to seek bankruptcy protection. In 2009, the CSX Corporation (successor to the C&O Railway Company) sold the resort to West Virginia businessman James Justice. Justice immediately began an effort to increase patronage by securing a license for a casino open to guests only, by innovative marketing and pricing campaigns and by attracting a PGA golf tournament to be known as “The Greenbrier Classic.”
The Greenbrier was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Robert S. Conte
Last Revised on January 25, 2013
Conte, Robert S. The History of The Greenbrier. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1998.
Cite This Article
Conte, Robert S. "The Greenbrier." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 25 January 2013. Web. 23 January 2017.