A Slice of My Life: Paradise and Doomsday on Mt. Weather

In 1945 I traveled with my family from Ohio to Mt. Weather, Virginia, a place so peaceful and beautiful that it hardly seemed real. I had become the heroine in my own personal adventure, living in a cabin like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little houses; living on a mountain like Heidi with her grandfather.

As an adult I discovered that the paradise of Mt. Weather now hides a secret even more serious than those mysteries unraveled by my other favorite literary characters, the Bobbsey twins.

The Summer of 1945 at Mt. Weather

Shenandoah

View of the Shenandoah Valley near where we spent the summer.

That summer the air was clear and the views from our modernized cabin stretched for miles.  I had just turned six years old and my little brother, Billy was only six months. World War II was winding down and the official peace treaty with Japan would be signed in September.

That summer, my father, Paul Kaser, worked for the U. S. Weather Bureau, the operators of Mt. Weather since the early 1800s.

Despite what the later news articles say, the Bureau of Mines did not control  Mt. Weather starting in the late 1930s. They might have coexisted with the Weather Bureau, but everyone my father had contact with that summer belonged to the Weather Bureau. They were busily sending up balloons into the atmosphere, not digging an underground city.

One of the men he had worked for in New Philadelphia six years before held a position at Mt. Weather, and invited him to come work for the summer.  A cabin was available on the property of a Dr. Tappan, who had a young daughter just about my age.  My father blissfully describes our home for the summer to his friend, Delmar (Red) Alderman, an old friend from Killbuck, Ohio.

Paul Kaser

Alderman Hardware back room. Paul on the right, and owner of the store, Delmar “Red” Alderman on the left.

Father starts the letter off with a bit of understatement–sneaking up on the spectacular view.

The view is not spectacular just pretty countryside miles and miles of it streached [stretched] out like a panorama. We can see Winchester about 25 miles. Our front yard looks out on the Shenandoah valley on the other side of the mountain is Bull Run valley and beyond are Bull Run Mountains. The air is so fresh you never get tired. The big thing is the peacefulness. No noise except of our own making. The cabin is a thing of beauty. The man who owns it has spent $3000 on it and has managed to keep it looking rustic. It is nicely furnished and has all modern convenience. Hot & cold water, electric refrigeration and modern kitchen except that cooking is done on a wood range or on an electric hot plate.

Although I was just six, the cabin and its surroundings made a lasting impression on me. Unfortuately, my parents did not take a lot of photos of that idyllic summer, but I have snapshots in my mind of the walks through the woods, visiting in the big house with Cummie Tappan and my fascination with the fact that the Tappans had a colored cook. (That’s how we would have described her then.)  I never had known anyone but Mommys to do the cooking!!

When we needed to buy something we went to the nearest “big” town, Berryville VA.

Berryville Main Street looking west

Sometimes Mother and I, pushing my baby brother in his buggy, would walk all the way to the Mt. Weather complex where we  visited Aileen Corwin, the wife of the man my father worked for. The Corwins also had a son my age to join me in exploring the woods.  I remember that Mrs. Corwin once  killed a rattlesnake with a broom when  it had invaded her porch. Fortunately, no snakes visited us, but each evening, mother checked me over carefully for ticks.

The Corwins lived in a simple wooden house near the edge of the complex. Beyond their house were a few two and three story wooden buildings that housed offices and “Government Building,”  a kind of dormitory for workers. We could walk anywhere in the simple complex and visit my Father at work. As I recall, roads were narrow and unpaved.

In his letter to  Delmar Alderman, my father describes how to get to the cabin.

Come to Winchester VA. You can come east on Route 40 or 50 or you can take the Penn. TurnPike and drop down to Winchester then take VA. State Route 7 and come to Berryville VA. (You can inquire there) follow 7 to the top of the ridge (10 miles or so) there you will find a cross road with a lot of signs reading Mt. Weather, Appalachian Trail and a lot of peoples names. Turn south on a gravel road and follow uphilll about a mile and a half till you come to a mail Box marked Dr. Tapppen. That’s the place. Come in and take off your things.

He also tempts his friend to visit by telling him that he can visit the Skyline Drive and Washington D. C., each only about two hours away from the cabin.  (We had gone to Washington D.C. to visit with my father’s nieces, Phyllis and Evelyn Kaser, who worked during the war in government jobs.)

I can remember walking along the sparsely traveled road with my mother, enjoying the wildflowers, learning the names of trees, and picking wild strawberries. Amazingly, although the Mt. Weather complex has changed drastically,  the area around Mt. Weather seems no different than it was 60 years ago. The Google Map street view of Route 601(the cross road off Rt. 7 that my father referred to in his letter) along the ridge of the mountain look so familiar to me, that I feel like Google must have an image of my mother and me walking along, looking for wild strawberries growing in front of the low stone walls.

But when my journey on Google Maps closes in on the Mt. Weather facility, I can’t “drive” right in. A sign declares FEMA Mt. Weather Emergency Operations Center, and a gate and guardhouse end the Google Maps journey.

Mt. Weather

The Mt. Weather Complex today.

What a surprise it was to see a Time Magazine article about Mt. Weather 45 years later. Digging into the mountain, government agencies had created a hideaway for important officials in case of atomic bomb attack. In 2011, Time magazine’s blog ran a condensation of that article from December 9, 1991, that you can read here. Although the road leading to the top of the mountain may look the same, the pastoral innocence of the Mt. Weather complex itself existed no more. The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) designation is a cover for the real mission of the place.

The title of the article, DOOMSDAY HIDEAWAY, describes a very different place than the one where my father worked and my family visited during the summer of 1945.

News items and Wikipedia have a gap in their timetables of the way that Mt. Weather morphed from a Weather Station into a secret underground hideout for high government officials in case of nuclear attack. The history the reporters dug up skips over the immediate post-war period when we saw Mt. Weather.

A more recent report, from NBC, (June 2015) indicates that the facility is no longer used as a hideout for government officials, but instead an “alternate” center of operations for Homeland Security. At any rate, the real work of the government there remains top secret.

The news sources say that in the late 1930s the Bureau of Mines started some excavations, and by 1959 the Bureau had completed an underground shelter in Pre Cambrian basalt.  Ironically, my father’s description of the place emphasizes “peacefulness” and a decade after he wrote that letter, the emphasis was on preparedness for war and disaster.

I am so glad that we had that short respite on the mountain at a moment in history when we were enjoying the prospect of long-awaited peace in the world and the peacefulness of the beautiful Virginia mountains.

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