Washington's Railroad Tunnels

By Elliot Carter | June 24, 2018


Washington’s railroad infrastructure expanded in an ad hoc, unplanned fashion during the 19th Century, with numerous freight and passenger companies vying for a share of the traffic. There were redundant facilities - three competing stations all a short distance from the National Mall - overlapping rights of way, and unnecessary hazards for pedestrians that shared the roadway with thunderous locomotives. One short tunnel passed under Virginia Avenue Southwest since 1870, but surface track made up the remainder of the system.

[Click on the Image Above to Launch the Railroad Story Map]

The railroad’s modern subterranean layout was the brainchild of Senator James McMillan’s 1902 Report to the Senate Parks Committee. A seminal piece of City Beautiful urban planning, McMillan banished heavy rail traffic from the National Mall, and redeveloped that heavily wooded park into a monumental open lawn. Trains were to cross the city in a series of tunnels, sunken pits, and elevated sections. The three passenger stations were labeled for demolition, and plans drawn up for a grand new Union Station on Capitol Hill for the shared use off all the railroad companies. McMillan envisioned facilities “superior to any structure ever erected for railway purposes.”

Interstate Commerce Commission figures show that nationwide, upwards of 40,000 pedestrians a year were hit by trains at the turn of the century, a death toll on par with warfare. The McMillan Plan was equal parts aesthetic, and a matter of public safety; something had to be done to create space between the chaotic streetscape and railroad menace. Construction on the new lines broke ground two years later. The bill of work included extending the existing tunnel beneath Virginia Avenue, and excavation of a long new tunnel running up First Street directly up into Union Station.


First Street was an ambitious location for tunneling. Sandhogs would have to carefully navigate beneath the corner foundations of the Cannon House Office Building, and the Library of Congress book conveyor tunnel that opened to great fanfare just a decade before. All this, while carrying a southern leg of the tunnel through layers of “made ground” - recently deposited landfill with poor load bearing qualities.

“Those who remember this stretch of street as it once stood would hardly recognize it now,” the Washington Post reported in October, 1905. “In one place, directly in front of the Library, the ground has sunk in the form of an immense bow-like depression, the curbing and sidewalks are broken, and lamp posts are standing awry.”

Workers near completion of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel circa 1906. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Public Domain

Workers near completion of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel circa 1906. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Public Domain


Progress on the extended Virginia Avenue Tunnel was proceeding like a breeze - “child’s play” - the Washington Post reported. The Virginia Avenue passage cut through the soil at a maximum depth of just 35 feet, compared to First Street’s challenging 60 foot dive. Despite the challenges, both tunnels were completed by 1906, a credit to the skilled speed of the hundreds of Italian tunnel laborers, and the efficacy of their powerful new steam shovels. Union Station opened its doors to the public 12 months later, and Washington at last had its marble temple of transit.

The McMillan Plan bore fruit on the National Mall and Capitol Hill, but wrought damage in other parts of the city. The elevated and subwayed tracks south of the Mall that separated trains from street traffic also separated the alley dwellings of Southwest from the rest of Washington. Menacing 15 foot stone walls for the El ring the neighborhood, hem in pedestrians, and block sight lines of the nearby memorials.


The next phase in Washington's railroad tunnel history took even further steps to distance trains from pedestrians. Eleven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in November 1942, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was feeling tunnely and eyed the rail spur paralleling BEP Annex loading docks. In a year of Nazi sabotage paranoia, the Bureau wanted to up the security for the facilities that shipped out their freshly printed paper money out across the nation.

The solution was an enclosed loading dock, connected to the Annex by, of course, another tunnel. President Roosevelt covertly toured the facility two months later on his way to a Casablanca diplomatic get together with Winston Churchill. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing's official history notes that the rail tunnel is no longer in use.

A rail spur once led directly through the tunnel doorway at left. Photo: Elliot Carter

A rail spur once led directly through the tunnel doorway at left. Photo: Elliot Carter

Washington’s underground rail infrastructure remained much the same until the 1990's, when a massive concrete deck was built over Maryland Avenue Southwest. Rising over the aging BEP tunnel, the project produced a walkable pedestrian plaza looking down over the train tracks.

The cavernous space under Maryland Avenue isn't a true tunnel, but as a closed access enclosed passage, it does give off strong tunnel vibes. Urban explorers and graffiti artists have flocked to the area, and a 2007 Washington City Paper report described it as "a nationally known spot." A local explorer who photographed the space in 2014 and wrote it up for BrightestYoungThings.com described how "there’s a beautiful silence in this place, not unlike the silence you’d hear in the National Gallery of Art."


Washington's most recent railway tunnel development comes in the form of a third expansion of the old Virginia Avenue Tunnel. The one track, low ceilinged passageway presents regional a bottleneck for the CSX Corporation, which is adding a second parallel tunnel, and expanding the original to accommodate double stacked shipping containers.

The massive cut and cover work presently nearing completion is a microcosm of the railroad works that cut across McMillan’s Washington at the turn of the 19th Century. Construction has pierced Southwest like an open wound, but its eventual completion promises to create new open spaces and increase freight capacity out of sight of neighborhood residents.


Go Deeper

"Business Atlas Map of Washington, D.C.," Rand, McNally & Company, 1898

"Business Atlas Map of Washington, D.C.," Rand, McNally & Company, 1910

"Report of the Senate Park Commission. The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia," United States Senate, 1902.

"Spending Millions on Union Railway Terminals," Washington Post, January 29, 1905

"Through to Daylight: Upper Drift of First Street Tunnel Finished," Washington Post, October 15, 1905

"Writer's Block," Washington City Paper, November 8, 2007

"Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II," by Joseph Persico, 2012

"Maryland Avenue Southwest Plan," District of Columbia Office of Planning, April 2012

"Hidden in Plain Sight: Wall of Fame," Brightest Young Things, May 7, 2014

"Virginia Avenue Tunnel Project Plan," CSX Corporation