The D.C. Underground Atlas

 
 
 

Underground passageways are a recurring plot device in fictional stories set around Washington. Something about tunnels and the government appeals to the sense of curiosity in a way that surpasses bridges, highways, or any other category of infrastructure. Talk of tunnels can be found throughout the history of Washington, going back to the War of 1812, when British redcoats torched the White House and Dolly Madison was rumored to have escaped through a secret passage leading to the Octagon House. In more recent years, Nicholas Cage and Dan Brown further muddied the waters by prominently featuring make-believe tunnels as plot points in their fictional thrillers.

But who has time for fictional tunnels when the real world has so many fascinating underground spaces to offer? As many people who work in downtown D.C. can tell you, the federal government’s taste in architecture and engineering really does have a special proclivity for tunnels of all shapes and sizes. Contributing factors include the city’s unique building height limit, swampy weather, and the security concerns of recent decades. As a result Washington sits atop an interconnected matrix of transportation, utility, and pedestrian tunnels extending three dimensionally beneath city streets.

Residents navigate the tubes like human submarines, and rely on their services for basic needs like drinking water and central heat. Given their importance to daily life in the nation's capital, it's surprising to find that the full picture of Washington's various tunnels remains unpainted. This project aims to complete that picture.

Tunnels in Washington run the gamut: from mundane to idiosyncratic, from heavily trafficked to the little known. Some tunnels are cavernous. WMATA's standard issue 600-foot long Metro station could easily fit the Washington Monument laid down on its side, and anyone with a SmarTrip card is allowed to walk in. Others are claustrophobic, with searing temperatures, and the stench of human waste. Access to the General Service Administration's steam tunnels, for example, is limited to a small gang of maintenance men and law enforcement officers. Just because many of the city’s tunnels are closed to the public doesn’t mean that you can’t read about the amazing underground engineering and architectural systems that were paid for with our tax dollars.

The following atlas attempts to map Washington's underground tubing in several parts. The cartographic side of this project is drawn from open source utility maps and other government documents. The human dimension is colored in with the invaluable D.C. Library newspaper archive, and the reporters who covered tunnel construction in real time just as they do today with Metro maintenance. Many of these sources were compiled by hand and had not yet been digitized or indexed by search engines. Every effort has been made to include footnotes linking to the digitized primary source material so that other won't have to hike out to the National Archives in College Park to access them.  In order to limit the scope of the project, "tunnels" are defined as fully walkable passageways - no sewer pipes, culverts, or crawlspaces. All the tunnels depicted can accommodate standing adults, assuming that they have proper access credentials.

You can explore the subparts below in any order, but might want to start with the maps for a higher level overview.

 
 
 
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Part I: Transportation

For more than a century, Washington transit planners have separated out different classes of motor vehicles into their own dedicated transportation tunnels. 

 
 
 
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Part II: Liquids

Parts of Washington's water and sewage tunnel networks have been in use since before the Civil War.

 
 
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Part III: Utilities

Coming soon.

 
 
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Part IV: Pedestrians

Coming soon.

 
 
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Part V: Capitol Hill

Coming soon.


 

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