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Return to Virginia Business - February 2003

The Fed’s very own Cold War bunker

by Robert Burke

Related Story:
- The Richmond Fed

During the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were on a constant footing for nuclear combat, the Richmond Fed had its very own underground bunker.

If the Big One were to come, workers at the Richmond Fed might have time to say good-bye to their families and race to a spot near Culpeper 70 miles away. There, burrowed deep in a hillside, was a three-story 140,000-square-foot steel and concrete-lined shelter. It contained offices and communications systems, with room for 540 people and a 30-day supply of food and water.

Shielded from nuclear bomb blasts and radiation, the Fed workers were to husband a big horde of cash — several billion in currency would be fed later into what was left of the U.S. economy. In peacetime the shelter was where Fed officials maintained the seven giant mainframe computers that handled millions of electronic fund transfers for all the Fed’s 12 regional districts. Known as the “Culpeper Switch,” it also backed up the data of all banks east of the Mississippi River.

The war scenario changed in 1992 after the Soviet Union fell apart. Twenty-three years after opening the bunker, Fed officials decided they no longer needed it. Computer operations were scattered to three sites and the regional banks were allowed to set up their own, secret currency storage sites. The 41-acre bunker property went on the market, and was bought in 1998 for the Library of Congress, which plans to open a National Audio-Visual Conservation Center there in 2005. The self-contained, low humidity environment of the bunker is apparently perfect for storing old movies and records.

Today the Culpeper bunker has faded into history. Many of the 100 or so employees who worked there retired when it closed instead of transferring to Richmond. Terrorism is the main threat in the post-Sept. 11 environment, and the Fed’s operations are still a target, making Fed officials tight-lipped about how they would handle an attack today. “That type of shelter is just not needed,” says Richmond Fed spokeswoman Lisa Oliva. “It really speaks to the history and paranoia of that era.”

Return to Virginia Business - February 2003


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