Washington's Streetcar Tunnels
By Elliot Carter | June 21, 2018
Talk of streetcar tunnels first surfaced in Washington newspapers as the population increased and automobiles proliferated throughout the 1930's and 1940's. Frustration with daily traffic congestion and the public's fascination with all things underground combined in support of a comprehensive downtown system.
In 1931, the first tiny bit of streetcar tunnel track opened, a 215-foot-long tube next to the Senate parking garage, authorized by Congress to clear up views between the Capitol dome and Union Station. The Washington Post thought the occasion historic, and grandly labeled the little underpass "the city's first taste of underground transportation."
The District brought in Philadelphia subway engineer Col. C. E. Myers to study the practicality of expanding streetcar tunnels across central Washington. As you might expect from a subway man, the subsequent Myers Report offered a ringing endorsement of underground trolley infrastructure. Washington Star coverage of the transit report concurred that "subway construction for use of street cars is immediately necessary as a bypass for congested traffic conditions in downtown Washington."
Much debate and little action followed; the chief culprit: financial difficulties. A District traffic report estimated that "the cost of a modern, two-track subway, exclusive of equipment ... runs from $4,000,000 to $8,000,000 per mile." The Capital Transit Company couldn't afford an investment in shiny new tunnels when they were also bleeding ridership to rival automobiles.
Congressional appropriators didn't have a problem funding trolley and pedestrian tunnels for their own members, but preached frugality on tunnels for the general public. The Public Utilities Commission, a regulatory organization that could have issued marching orders to Capital Transit, presented yet another body of opposition to underground tunnel expenses. A Washington Star piece reported that "the members of the commission came to the conclusion that the need for immediate improvement in the service was imperative and that better results could be obtained by rearrangement of the present surface transportation facilities."
Washingtonians waited a decade for their next streetcar tunnel, an underground station beside the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that opened in 1943. The southern terminus of the 14th Street line had long disrupted traffic with an above-ground turnaround on tracks that came down the roadway median, and then crisscrossed automobile lanes in a little loop.
The new, underground BEP line descended down a median underpass, and completed its circular turnaround beneath the asphalt. The station connects below grade with the dry moat that runs along the BEP's eastern side, and also opens onto the 14th Street sidewalk in three pedestrian staircases. For some wealthy streetcar riders, the view into the Bureau's dry moat provided a rare up close glimpse of the sweaty blue collar workforce that populated industrial Washington.
In 1949, the most ambitious tunnel yet worked its way beneath leafy Dupont Circle. Despite the public clamor for underground streetcar infrastructure, few seem to have realized how disruptive cut and cover excavations would be beneath one of the city's main thoroughfares. The project generated bad press on a level rivaled only half a century later by WMATA's Safetrack program.
Unfortunately for Capital Transit, the influential Washington Times-Herald editor, Cissy Patterson, happened to live in a mansion directly facing onto Dupont Circle. A hint of her NIMBYism crept its way into the paper's stance on the subterranean traffic project. "Instead of a simple grade separation of automobile traffic, the Dupont Circle underpass is designed to be a regular rabbit warren of auto tunnels, streetcar tunnels, pedestrian tunnels, and underground as well as above-grade traffic experiments," the Times Herald wrote in just one of its reoccurring editorials on the subject. "We think that it is bunk and expensive bunk as well." Another Herald piece warned of the "sex perverts, hold-up men, pickpockets, and panhandlers" that inevitably make tunnels their home. The paper branded it the Dupont Circle "Blunderpass."
When Capital Transit went out of business 13 years later, newspapers buzzed again with creative streetcar tunnel ideas for Washington. Proposals flowed in with recreational, commercial, even monumental redevelopment concepts, most of which focused on the large Dupont Circle station.
Mayor Walter Washington's youth unit wanted to create a 75,000 square foot "electric playground." The National Capital Planning Commission proposed a "rathskellar, cabaret or other refreshment and entertainment suitable to park proximity." An Alexandria businessman imagined a "Columbarium of Niches to accommodate the remains of those who have passed on with the expressed wish in having their ashes placed in a national sanctuary similar to the Westminster Abbey of London, England."
The Department of Highways considered the grandest and most creative of these proposals, before deciding that BEP and Senate tunnels would best serve the city as parking lots for government employees.
Dupont Circle children were also disappointed to learn that they would not be getting an underground playground. The old streetcar station would make an ideal fallout shelter, District Civil Defense Director George R. Rodericks announced in December, 1961. Heaps of survival gear were brought into the Dupont tunnel (and promptly looted,) while Civil Defense officials promised everyone that the city was prepared to weather a nuclear attack.
By 1975 the credibility of civil defense security theater had faded, and the city abandoned its Dupont Circle fallout shelter. The tunnels sat unused for decades, except for the homeless that broke into service doors beneath the Connecticut Avenue underpass and took shelter in the pitch-black, unheated streetcar passages.
Finally in March, 1995, the public was welcomed back into the Dupont tunnels when a food court called Dupont Down Under opened out of the western half of the old Capital Transit station. The development featured a collection of upscale fast food establishments (“fast casual” by modern standards, though the phrase had yet to enter the popular lexicon,) all housed inside stalls designed to resemble streetcars. A Washington Post critic dubbed the food and drinks "trolley good," but the architectural redesign was "cheesy."
The subterranean food court was the brainchild of Geary S. Simon, a developer that the city would later learn had a rap sheet of convictions including larceny, mail and insurance fraud. Simon soon fell behind on rent, and the Washington Post reported that within a year, Dupont Down Under "failed amid a sea of litigation."
The Dupont Circle tunnels sat vacant for nearly two decades, fading from public memory and filling up with trash dumped down through their stairwell entrances. In 2003, award-winning architect Julian Hunt learned of the streetcar tunnels and formed a nonprofit to breathe new life down their dormant passageways. The newly rechristened "Dupont Underground" sought to open it back up to the public as an arts and events venue.
The nonprofit has faced significant obstacles. The old tunnels present a target-rich environment for building code inspectors and the fire marshal. Americans with Disabilities Act violations abound. When Hunt started on his project, the tunnels lacked fire alarms, sprinklers, bathrooms, and a host of other event venue staples. Due to fundraising difficulties, most of these deficiencies remain unresolved, 15 years later.
While redevelopment of the Dupont Circle streetcar tunnels has proceeded in fits and starts, that's more than can be said of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing or of Capitol Hill’s underground tracks. You can catch a sidewalk glimpse at the BEP by peering over the fence around the building's dry moat. The old down-ramp in the 14th Street median has been backfilled and repaved, but you can still see the three sidewalk entrances with designs that match similar stairwell entrances atop Dupont Circle’s streetcar station. There's no public access, but Bureau of Engraving and Printing employees who park in the underground tunnels still step over the steel Capital Transit tracks set into the floor on their way to work.
The C Street tunnel between the Senate and Union Station, Washington's "first taste of underground transportation," is also still being used a parking garage by the Architect of the Capitol. The tracks have long since been removed, but you can see evidence of the streetcar days in the ceiling mounting points that once carried overhead catenary wires.
"Capital Transit | Washington's Street Cars the Final Era: 1933-1962" By Peter C. Kohler
"Shift of Tracks to Begin Tuesday," Washington Star, May 21, 1931
"Cost Barrier to Subway, Says Expert," Washington Post, August 11, 1934
"Proposed Subways for Congested Areas," Washington Star, May 24, 1936
"Use of Subways as Last Resort is Favored by Utilities Board," Washington Star, May 25, 1936
"Dupont Circle Tunnel Sought as CD Shelter," Washington Post, December 6, 1961
"Streetcar Tunnel May Get New Use," Washington Post, February 2, 1962
"District to Fill Dupont Circle Tunnel Portals," Washington Post, April 3, 1964
"Capital Circle Goes From Elite to Beat," Associated Press, November 9, 1966
"Old Streetcar Tunnel Studied For Playground," Washington Post, October 26, 1968
"Developing the Trolley Tunnels | Health Spa to Catacombs: Ideas for Quick and Dead," Washington Post, June 4, 1982
"Down Under Resurfaces," Washington Post, August 3, 1996
Top photo: "DSC_4170," Tom R, March 21, 2012, (CC BY-ND 2.0)